WCMA director muses on art, Williams and marriage

Lisa Corrin began her job as the director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) in 2005. Since then she’s not only implemented a number of new initiatives for the museum, but also found love in Williamstown with visiting professor Peter Erickson, whom she married this August. When we spoke in her eclectically decorated, spacious office, we discussed trends in the museum world, her future plans for WCMA and, of course, the details of her Williamstown courtship.

What made you decide to come to WCMA?

I would think there is a trend that’s been taking place in the United States, in which many curators who previously worked for large museums have realized that the best place for doing exhibitions and being innovated with scholarship, raising important questions about visual culture – how we read the world – are at college museums.

The other thing that’s been important to me is teaching. I’ve had a very privileged career. I’ve lived in Baltimore, in London, Seattle [. . .] I’ve worked in a nomadic contemporary museum, I’ve worked in a kunsthaller [the German word for art museum] that did a dynamic exhibition program of contemporary art exhibitions in Europe, and then in a general museum in Seattle that starts out with Egypt and Africa and winds up in contemporary work. And very few who work in my area get to work in such distinctly different places. And I realized there was a point in my life when I wanted to share that.

What are your plans from here on out?

We’re going to be thinking a great deal about how we will be teaching with art across the disciplines at Williams College over the next 20 years. We want to put that question out into the world, to faculty, to students, to alumni, to the administration, to our peers in the field, because you can’t really decide where you’re going until you really know, on a college campus, where teaching is going.

We need as a staff to stay on top of how teaching is going on here, how it’s changing, so our building, collection and art exhibition, and also indeed in our public programs – who comes to lecture, the symposia we do – there’s a synergy with everything else going on on-campus.

We already do this, but I want to deepen it, and also give it the space and resources that it deserves [. . .] So many Williams students come to Williams because of the museum, because of the history of our art department, which is one of the finest in the country, even the world. We have a faculty which is second to none. Well, the museum has to live up to that legacy.

What are some of the specific things you’re working on in conjunction with the program of studies?

One of the things I’m very excited about is what’s happening this spring. It just so happens that it was one of the great dreams of the art department to get a full-time Africanist, and this year the College agreed to give the art department a permanent, full-time position for an Africanist.

We happen to have on campus this year one of the truly great rising stars in the field of African art, Chika Okeke Agulu [. . .] We have the distinguished South African artist William Kendrick, whom I personally put in my top five living artists. We’re having his print retrospective, 120 works and two major films. Julie Mehretu, an artist who was born in Ethiopia but who now lives, of all places, in Detroit, who has a worldwide reputation, who does these enormous paintings that combine everything from architectural drawing to cartography to Japanese ink painting, these dynamic abstractions that deal with the movements of people. We’re going to have 13 of her paintings, of which a handful are brand-new.

We have an exhibition from our collections of African art, which is one of the fastest-growing collections at the museum. We also have an exhibition our curator of collections is working on with Professor Leslie Wingard in Africana Studies and English. This is an exhibition called “Unchained Legacy,” which looks at two works from our collection by two contemporary artists who are African-American: one Willie Cole and one Hank Willis-Thomas. Both of these images take as their starting point the floor plan of a slave ship that was published for the first time in 1808, and it just so happens that the Chapin Library owns Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the book with the image in it. What we’re doing is an exhibition where the two brand-new works to our collection – we bought them last year – will be reunited with the original image from the 19th century that inspired them. It will be a way of showing how contemporary artists feed off the imagery of the past, this particular image that when the students see it will immediately recognize as iconic of slavery.

One of the most important public programs taking place at WCMA this year will happen on March 1. It has actually been organized by my husband, Dr. Peter Erickson, who is teaching two classes here this semester, one in theater and one art history, about representing race, and it will feature some of the most important artists in the world of color: Isaac Julien, who is British, collaborated with Derek Walcott, on an important film called Paradise Omeros, which deals with the crossing between Africa and the Caribbean; Willie Cole, one of the artists in the exhibition I’ve just described, as well as Hank Willis-Thomas, the other young artist, and finally, the artist Fred Wilson, about whom I wrote my first book. Fred has never spoken at Williams College, and this is quite a lineup [. . .] to get all of these artists in one room on the same day took a little doing.

I just want to say something about Fred Wilson. It was Fred Wilson who brought together my husband and I because I wrote a book in 1993 called Mining the Museum: an Installation by Fred Wilson, about Fred’s first major project in a museum, in which he took objects that relate to 18th and 19th century Maryland history and reinstalled them from the point of view of an African-American.

When I moved to Williamstown, Peter [Erickson] introduced himself to me. He is a Shakespeare scholar, and is one of the pioneering figures who brought race and gender studies into Shakespeare. One of his early books was on patriarchal structures in Shakespeare.

He’s a very well known Othello scholar, but he has also written extensively on contemporary art and contemporary literature, particularly as it relates to the African-American experience. His new book, which was on how contemporary artists and writers quote Shakespeare to revision history, the cover image is a Fred Wilson; there’s also a chapter on Fred Wilson.

So Peter introduced himself to me and said, “Gee, I’d love to talk to you, I’m writing a book on Fred Wilson; you’ve written a book on Fred Wilson, it’d be great to get together.”

So ultimately we did, and needless to say our conversation did not, let’s say, did not dwell on Fred Wilson for very long, and the rest was history. Fred made one of the toasts at our wedding. [. . .] And so, in a way, it seems like the appropriate year, in the first year of our marriage, to give a sort of gift to Williams by using our relationship with him to bring him to campus so the students and faculty could have a chance to meet him.

Congratulations again on your wedding.

Well, thank you.

It’s notoriously difficult to meet people at Williamstown.

Indeed, I was warned when I took the job, because of course I asked, you know, what are my prospects, and the provost was not very encouraging [. . .] so it was a complete fluke, but to meet someone who had such a level of commonality was most incredible. We courted in Hopkins Forest, so we had the wedding there.

There’s an incredible old apple tree as you come into Hopkins Forest with a big forked arch, almost like a little Gothic chapel, and the chaplain Rick Spalding married us, and we had a lot of poetry that dealt with the relationship between love and nature [. . .] and the caterer was nothing less than the Williams College dining services, who did a phenomenal job. They pulled out every stop; it was quite spectacular. It was almost as though Mario Batali had showed up at Williamstown for a couple days, left this incredible meal, and then went off. After the luncheon the whole group went on a hike in Hopkins Forest. We called it a ‘wedding walk.’

We made a whole weekend out of it: we had an ice cream social, we had the wedding walk, we had a pizza party at the home of Michael Ann Holly – head of research and academic programs at the Clark, a good friend of ours – and Keith Moxey, and the next day they all came to the museum to see the Murphy show. So it was a real Williamstown weekend and we had, I think, two or three MacArthur Fellows, and all the parts of our lives got knitted together under one tent, including some of our new friends, and it was really beautiful.