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Socially engaged MSU Broad Museum director embraces “complexity and creativity" of the building

Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University

Mónica Ramírez Montagut is the new director of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum on campus at East Lansing. Monica joined the Broad in July of 2020. Before coming to East Lansing, she directed the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University in New Orleans for six years, creating socially engaged exhibitions.

At the MSU Broad, her first initiative was a community-powered installation entitled Acts of Care, where local individuals submit nominations for honoring those who have taken care of our communities during this pandemic.

“The museum is a tremendous asset to be linked and nested in such a prominent and respected university as Michigan State University,” Ramirez Montagut tells Spartans Athletic Director Bill Beekman. “What our university museum has that few other independent museums have is that we can actually go and chat with experts in any single field out there and have them contribute with their expertise to the art exhibitions. We can leverage that faculty expertise in many occasions to help us give context to some of the art that we have on view.

Monica Ramirez Montagut

“Art museums are a lot of fun, which is why I work in one. They help us connect with each other. Art inspires us. Art gives us a lot of energy. It also stimulates our senses and our intellect. A lot of faculty members also enjoy this collaboration with the museum. And seeing their work framed inside an art venue instead of a classroom must be fun for them as well. It's really the perfect universal stage where we can bring a lot of partners, not only on the campus, but off campus, to help us tell the stories of each other and ourselves, ultimately. We learn a lot about ourselves through a museum and we learn a lot about the communities that we live in.

“Sometimes with contemporary art it may seem that we really don't understand what we're looking at unless we are art historians or art experts. So I certainly understand that. And that certainly happens to me sometimes when I walk into gallery spaces that have no signage, no labels, and no explanations. A lot is expected of the visitor in that case. It's like going to a theater piece or a concert where the audience is expected to clap and to participate. A little bit of that happens in contemporary art museums.

“Ultimately I do think that U.S. museums of contemporary art need to do a better job at explaining the art on view because I do think it's not easy. And it is not easy because contemporary artists are always trying to create something that has never existed before. So how do you do that? How do you invent something that nobody has ever seen or even imagined? And you create a visual culture object out of that. And of course, if there's no precedent for that kind of visual, it's hard for us to then recognize something that is just not familiar to us at all.

“It defeats the purpose if someone walks into our museum and they leave feeling like they didn't understand. So it's the job of the museum to start providing those points of access and explaining, ‘Well, this is an experimentation with a new material,’ or, ‘This is an image that came from abstracting a molecule.’ It's exciting, but we need to do a really good job at the museum of explaining why what you're looking at is important. What are you looking at? And if not, what are the intentions behind the artist? And then just share that with you so that you have a good standing ground to start. Then you can
explore your own creativity and your own association of ideas.”

Ramirez Montagut believes the building itself is a work of art.

“The complexity of the building and the added layer of creativity of the build environment where art is being displayed really adds to the experience, not only for the visitor, but the whole environment. Many museums are designed as white boxes. White cubes, we call them. What is nice about the MSU Broad building and the Zaha design is that you're constantly being attracted to the next space and the next space. And once you are done with the museum, then the frame of the landscape around you, the visual frames are also very appealing. So then you want to go outside and enjoy the sculpture garden. That's something that you need to understand when you work with the building.

“We have so many beautiful windows that frame the terrific outdoors of our campus that I would say that the building actually is enticing people to go outside while they're looking at terrific arts. It's a spectacle of attention between the indoors and the outdoors. And it's just really terrific as an experience to go see art and feel like you're indoors and outdoors at the same time. It's quite unique. And I do believe that that's precisely why it is a masterpiece.”

Ramirez Montagut explains her passion for creating socially engaged exhibits. And she says she’s already planning for the museum’s tenth anniversary coming up in two years.

“MSU is just absolutely the perfect setting to do that because we have a strength in engaged scholarship. We have a strength in working with our communities, learning from our communities and their lived experience and their expertise and then helping all of us access that knowledge to then discuss in an academic scholarly setting.

“We hope people take the opportunity to visit the museum. It's really a very refreshing experience given our working-from-home situation. It's highly recommended. I went to the museum today and I just had a blast. So I can certainly recommend the experience for folks who want to be able to have an informal learning experience and an inspiring one, but within a very safe environment. So hopefully we'll see many of you at the museum soon.”

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