Getting to the museum isn’t always easy. Limited opening hours, rising ticket prices, scanty parking, and other hurdles can keep audiences from engaging with even the best cultural institutions. Nonetheless, museums want to share their collections with as many visitors as they can. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, but Holly Borham and her team at UT Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art’s Center for Prints and Drawings are making huge strides.
Nearly 85% of the Blanton’s collection — around 16,000 pieces — is comprised of works on paper. The collection is extensive, encyclopedic, and one of the most important in the Southwest. But prints and drawings are often more fragile than paintings, sculptures, and works in other media, so exhibiting them can be a challenge.
“There’s a little bit of a paradox in that the majority of our collection is works on paper, but it’s not on view,” Borham told me in a recent conversation. “And so I was thinking about how you make it more accessible.” Her solution: bring the works out of the vault.
At the end of 2017, Borham initiated the Print Pop-Up Exhibition series, a monthly, public open house at the Blanton’s Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings that coincides with the museum’s Third Thursday events. At the pop-ups, Borham’s staff selects a themed group of paper-based works from the museum’s archive and exhibits them in the center’s HEB Study Room. The displays are often linked to the museum’s other exhibitions or programming: for instance, the Let’s Dance pop-up in March coincided with an artist talk by Natalie Frank and Stephen Mills about Ballet Austin’s Grimm Tales, and Fantastic Beasts in December was inspired by the exhibition Medieval Monsters.
It’s thrilling to see artworks up close and unframed, and viewers seem to slow down in the pop-ups’ intimate, informal atmosphere. What’s more, Borham and her staff demonstrate printmaking materials and techniques on the spot, giving visitors hands-on insight into how the works were made.
But discovery goes both ways. Curators don’t often get to hear viewers’ impressions firsthand, but that changes at the pop-ups. “When we’re in the room to talk about it with them, it’s also really informative for us to see what are people drawn to, (and) what questions they have,” Borham says, explaining that visitors’ reactions filter into how she crafts her next exhibitions.
True to the University of Texas’s educational mission, the modular, monthly events have also given student interns and curatorial assistants opportunities to mount museum shows, which can otherwise take months or even years to organize and execute.
“As someone just entering the curatorial field, the pop-ups have been incredibly illuminating,” says Genevra Higginson, a new member of Borham’s staff. “They’re a chance to throw together objects thematically, works that might not otherwise come together in any other exhibition format. Some fascinating visual connections arise, and it’s even more edifying to listen to what the visitors connect with and observe. There’s a casual sort of serendipity to the whole program that is fun — and presents an opportunity to share my love of works on paper with others.”
Another bonus: bringing rarely-seen prints and drawings out of the archive has improved the museum’s knowledge of its own collection. Years can pass before some works circulate publicly, so the pop-ups encourage staff to take a deeper look into the collection. This can bring on updates and refinements to the museum’s database that benefit future scholarship and use.
Thanks to their evening hours, family-friendly motifs, and free entry, Borham’s pop-ups have nearly doubled visitorship to the Blanton’s Print Study Room. Approximately 3,000 of its more than 4,500 visitors in 2019 came through the pop-ups program. But numbers aren’t what matter most to Borham. Helping visitors connect with art, and helping the museum connect with visitors, has been her main goal. “We’ve learned as much as our visitors have,” she says.
The Blanton’s H-E-B Study Room is free and open to the public via appointments on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. The museum advises that guests book at least a week in advance. The Blanton’s Prints and Drawings catalog is searchable anytime online.
Special thanks to Penny Snyder for her assistance with this article.