The Dayton Art Institute’s Experiencenter
By Shayna V. McConville
Nestled under the marble rotunda staircase of the Dayton Art Institute is the Experiencenter, the nation’s first interactive family gallery in an art museum, established in 1976. The gallery is dedicated to the “you learn better by doing” philosophy of learning about art through hands-on activities, with a mission to initiate and enhance a deeper understanding of art for each museum visitor.
For over a decade, Arlene Branick has organized the Experiencenter’s exhibitions and activities. Her latest effort is Inside the Box, an ambitious installation featuring rarely seen objects from the Dayton Art Institute’s collection, new artwork commissioned from professional artists from the Dayton region and the projects of fourth, fifth and sixth grade students from River’s Edge Montessori PreK-8.
Inspired by the idea of reinterpreting a simple form through thinking “outside the box,” Branick was impressed by objects from the museum’s inventory rarely on display in the permanent collection galleries. For Inside the Box, some of these objects will be on view, including an Edo-era lacquered wood Japanese picnic set, an exact replica of the museum’s 1928 time capsule (the original is still in the cornerstone of the museum), an early 20th-century woven box basket from the Kongo used for storing personal grooming items, and a Qing Dynasty cricket box used to keep crickets close for their song as well as competitive fighting.
Complementing the collection objects are newly commissioned artworks by area artists. Lining the walls of the space, twenty-four boxes created by twenty-six artists show the variety of materials, concepts and the various ways of working within a specific parameter. Each artist was given a simple wooden box and asked to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary.
Kettering artist Ron Hundt found the project a catalyst for continuing a collaboration with creative writer Janet Smith and calligrapher Ann Bain. Together they created the piece “The Abbey Door.” Over the past several years, the trio has worked on “Door Stories,” a series of vignettes created around the writings of Smith, documented in ink by Bain, and rendered in three-dimensional forms often featuring doors sculpted by Hundt. Creating a moment when a visitor can imagine “being in an Abbey’s Garden and smelling the flowers and sweet scents of that time and place” is a part of the success of the piece beyond its simple box form.
Susan Byrnes’ work, “The universe itself withdrawn into a corner with the daydreamer,” is an abstract play on material and color, created with pigmented cast rubber and mixed media. Through her process of automatic drawing paralleled with her sculptural practice, Byrnes took inspiration from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and his book The Poetics of Space. She writes: “I thought this was very fitting for the notion of the box and its corners within, and the cosmic nature of the cast rubber image.” The invitation to participate was also a chance for Byrnes to experiment with the pigment casting and share the results with an audience. Her hope for the work of art is that it will “draw people into a little corner of space and get them thinking about the productive possibilities of daydreaming.”
Each artist has an amazingly different approach to this project, and some of note include “Hermon’s Place” by Amy Kollar Anderson, “Up Stairs Down Stairs,” a ceramic architectural scape by Don Williams, “Stop-Motion” by Karen McGarry, “Creativity is a Life Skill” by Judy Campbell White, and “Blow Away” by Terry Welker. Also featured are exceptional works by Julie Beyer, Shelley Bird, Netta Bits, Willis Bing Davis, Mike Elsass, Pam Geisel, Lisa R. Goldberg, Jean Koeller, Tracey Longely-Cook, Patrick H. Mauk, Kathy Verner Moulton, Marsha Monroe Pippenger, Christina Pereyma, Loretta Puncer, Janelle Young, and yours truly, Shayna V. McConville.
In addition to the artist boxes and museum collection, boxes created by students of River’s Edge Montessori PreK-8 are also featured. Instructor Bev Carr’s students participated in a workshop at the Dayton Art Institute in the fall, and spent the past several months in her classroom making extraordinary objects. Thirty-four examples of their interpretations of the box will be on view.
The experience would not be complete without a number of activities for visitors of all ages. As she pointed out the various elements in each activity station, Branick said “the most important thing is always that families experience and talk about art together and that the Experiencenter enhances their experience in looking at art.” It’s those moments when Branick comes across a child and an adult having a conversation about an artwork that she knows her mission has been accomplished.
(Inside the Box” remains on view through March 2013. Artist Ron Hundt will present his work at Pecha Kucha Night at the Dayton Art Institute on May 3rd. Learn more about the Experiencenter and the Dayton Art Institute’s upcoming events at www.daytonartinstitute.org.)
Shayna V. McConville is the Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Kettering. Visit her at Rosewood Arts Centre at 2655 Olson Dr. or visit the website at rosewood.ketteringoh.org. She can be reached at ShaynaMcConville@DaytonCityPaper.com.
[Image: Susan Byrnes’ “The universe itself withdrawn into a corner with the daydreamer”]