A Disappearance in the Hood

Director Michael Taylor is leaving the Hood under unclear circumstances.

Director Michael Taylor is leaving the Hood under unclear circumstances.

A pillar of Dartmouth’s artistic community is missing: Michael R. Taylor has left the Hood Museum under mysterious circumstances. Taylor was the Director and Chief Curator of the Hood Museum of Art until his departure in March of this year. A terse email from Provost Carolyn Dever, sent on March 16, explains simply “I write to tell you that Michael Taylor is no longer in the role of director of the Hood Museum of Art.” The remainder of the email introduces Taylor’s successor, Juliette Bianco ’94, who has severed as Deputy Director since 2013 and has been with the Museum since 1998.

The circumstances of Taylor’s departure are still unclear. Requests for comment from the Office of Provost have been met with vague responses, for instance stating “Michael Taylor has stepped down to pursue other career opportunities.” Both Provost Carolyn Dever and Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Denise Anthony declined to comment for this article.

One possible source of tension may be the upcoming renovations and expansion to the Hood Museum. The Museum is currently in the middle of an unprecedented $50 million fundraising operation to double its display area, add three classrooms, and expand the Hood’s educational programs. The Hood expansion is intended to tie into President Hanlon’s drive to add experiential learning opportunities and integrate the College’s institutions into a larger educational sphere. In short, the administration is seeking to increase the academic dimension of the Hood Museum. The expansion is scheduled to begin in 2016, with $28 million of the $50 million goal already raised – mostly driven by the $10 million anonymous donation the Hood received last June, the largest gift in the history of the museum. This educational expansion follows an across-the-board trend, with the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, Living Learning Communities, and Thayer School of Engineering enacting major expansions in the coming years. The Hood’s development plan is just beginning to enter its significant phases, with the College’s Board of Trustees having only approved $8.5 million in spending so far, to complete the planning stages. As the critical stages begin, previous missteps on the part of Dr. Taylor may have caused the administration to reconsider his position on the Hood staff. The College is especially concerned with financial management following the gross misallocation of funds during the renovation of the Hanover Inn, which resulted in excessive cost overruns. However, any theories as to why Dr. Taylor has left the museum remain complete speculation.

Regardless of the reason for his departure, the Hood Museum of Art prospered under Director Taylor’s administration. He brought with him over a decade of curation experience, having worked with the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1997. Since 2004, he had served as the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art. He was well known for making smart acquisitions and displaying uniquely brilliant exhibitions. For instance, Taylor was lauded for his curation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2009 exhibition on the work of Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. As an expert on modern art, he focused on surrealism and the “Dada” movement, a midcentury leftist anti-war movement that rebelled against traditional aesthetic norms. Dr. Taylor has also written a book on the surrealist painter Marel Duchamp, which is titled Marcel Duchamp: Etant donnés. This impressive background allowed Michael Taylor to curate an impressive vaiety of exhibits during his tenure as director of the Hood.

One of his best-known exhibitions was the 2012 “Men of Fire,” which focused on important developmental pieces by Jackson Pollock. The pieces in question were inspired by haunting murals of José Clemente Orozco, some of which hang in our very own Orozco Mural Room. After seeing Orzoco’s work in Pomona, CA in 1930, Pollock conveyed the same dark melancholy through a series of easel paintings in the years 1938 to 1941. The most famous of Pollock’s pieces that were shown was the untitled work known as “Bald Woman and Skeleton,” which draws heavily from Orozco’s “Gods of the Modern World.” Pollock’s work depicts a bald woman giving birth to a skeleton of a child, while an obscured crowd of ghostly individuals look on. Upon further examination of the dark swirls and bright flashes of Pollock’s painting, it becomes obvious that the crowd is in fact composed of ominous caricatures of professors and academics, with warped robes and professor’s caps. It appears that Pollock is attempting to criticize the limited scope of education of his time: the woman gives birth to a dead, skeletal baby, representing the “dead” preordained knowledge that is taught by the hordes of academics, as opposed to new independent thought. In addition, Pollock builds on Orozco’s political themes by tying them to dark psychological triggers, such as the skeleton and morbid theme of the painting. Most important to this painting are the obscured figures of the academics, which demonstrate Pollock’s development of abstract structures. Analysis of Pollock’s famous “drip paintings” reveals that under the chaos, the paintings are anchored by hidden figures that are similar to the obscured figures Pollock used in his early easel paintings. Thus Dr. Taylor provided a unique insight into the developmental works of Pollock, while drawing from Dartmouth’s own artistic heritage.

Another one of Michael Taylor’s well-received exhibits was the 2014 “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the 1960’s.” After finishing a debut at the Brooklyn Museum, the collection made the trip to Hanover. Unlike many civil rights exhibitions, the exhibition provided a comprehensive look at civil rights era voices, including works by artists of different races, genders, nationalities, and socio-economic backgrounds. The exhibit was divided into eight sections, each from a different viewpoint. For instance, the “Sisterhood” section covered the view of black women during the civil rights movement, and also encapsulated feminist themes within its works. One particularly impressive work was Joe Overstreet’s “The New Aunt Jemima,” a satirical interpretation of the classic Aunt Jemima pancake box that attacks racial stereotypes. The work depicts Aunt Jemima, a middle-aged African American woman, firing an assault rifle with the earth in the background, thus turning a stereotypical image into a statement for black militancy. The exhibition had a signature Michael Taylor feel because of its active exposure to the student body. In addition to a wide advertising campaign, Taylor conducted an extremely active student engagement program for this exhibition. Many classes, including freshman writing seminars, were encouraged to come and visit the exhibit with dedicated tour guides. This unique exposure gave students a personal look at the Hood, and helped to integrate the museum with Dartmouth’s academics.

Dr. Taylor was also well known for his pubic art displays. A recent piece that he arranged for was the massive “Crouching Spider” sculpture that graced the entrance to the Black Family Visual Arts Center until last spring. Although much-maligned by some students for its arachnid inspiration, the work was greatly appreciated by Dartmouth’s artistic community, and stayed beyond it’s original year-long loan. A 2003 product of the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, Dr. Taylor described “Crouching Spider” as using “metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture, and protection that are commonly associated with arachnids to allude to the strength, skill, intelligence, and kindness of [the artist’s] beloved mother,” according to Dartmouth Now. The work further illustrates Dr. Taylor’s ability to find artwork that compliments Dartmouth’s own artistic culture. The contrast between the dark and sharp detail of Louise’s work and Ellsworth Kelly’s bright “Dartmouth Panels” that adorn the entrance to the Black Family Visual Arts center, which Taylor acquired for the College, creates what Taylor calls a “wonderful synergy and dialogue between [the pieces].” Taylor’s commitment to public art brought Dartmouth’s artwork out of the hallowed halls of the museum. Drawing from the source of his study, Marcel Duchamp, who also challenged traditional museum displays of art, Taylor attempted to bring out into the public eye. By having works displayed throughout campus, he ensured that the collections of Dartmouth were always accessible to our community.

Michael Taylor’s four years at Dartmouth have brightened our artistic landscape. His choice of exhibits have touched on a broad variety of issues. His notable acquisition of works by Benny Andrews, Marcel Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, Kiki Smith, Pat Steir, and Henry Ossawa Tanner have all been lauded by the campus’ artistic community. Most important have been his initiatives to expand the Hood’s presence on campus. Dr. Taylor has pursued a three-pronged approach in trying to better integrate the Hood into Dartmouth’s everyday life: strong outreach to students and classrooms, a commitment to public art, and his enormous expansion project for the Hood itself. While it remains unclear how effective the expansion project has been, or why Dr. Taylor has left Dartmouth, his impact at the Hood was most certainly positive. Juliette Bianco ’94, will serve as interim director as the Office of the Provost searches for a replacement. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Juliette went on to the University of Chicago where she received a master’s degree in Art History. She returned to Dartmouth in 1998 as the exhibitions manager for the Hood Museum. She was promoted to assistant director in 2005 and became Deputy Director in 2013. She has been very successful as part of the Hood’s administrative staff, and should be an effective interim director. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for the College to find someone to fill Michael Taylor’s shoes. The Hood Museum is facing a major turning point in its history and role on campus, and it will be interesting to see who the College hires to guide the Museum and Dartmouth through this expansion.