Rising Dallas Museum star defends long underrated decorative arts

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Sarah Schleuning and I made professional stops at some of the country’s most renowned art museums. We have both worked in institutions in Georgia and Florida. And, last spring, Schleuning joined the team at the Dallas Museum of Art as Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, Margot B. Perot. I also had a job at the DMA.

An expert in her field, Schleuning oversaw the decorative arts and design collection at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where she was known for her expertise in building relationships with contemporary designers and artists and for exploring how the art and design can extend far beyond the walls of a museum.

While at the High, Schleuning organized and hosted “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion”, which broke attendance records and became one of the museum’s 10 busiest shows. The exhibit then traveled to the DMA in the summer of 2017 and had a similar popular response.

Today, Schleuning is responsible for the DMA’s decorative arts and design collection, internationally recognized as one of the premier collections in the United States. Its more than 8,000 works of art span six centuries, from the 15th century to the present day. Strengths lie in the fields of European and American decorative arts, with particular emphasis on 18th century English silver; 19th and 20th century American silverware and ceramics; and 20th century design.

Schleuning’s role also involves the expansion of the museum’s contemporary collections, which have seen recent growth through donations such as the Rose-Asenbaum Collection of over 700 pieces of modern and contemporary studio jewelry, granted to DMA by Deedie Rose, who acquired the collection from Viennese gallery owner Inge Asenbaum in 2014.

The management, interpretation and legacy of this renowned collection are now in the thoughtful and capable hands of Schleuning.

The decorative arts dilemma

The decorative arts have long been entangled in the so-called high art versus low art debate. In recent years, many have realized that these classifications only served to give monetary value to art.

Hierarchical value systems are sometimes reflected in museum curatorial departments. Often times, these curators are at the whim of what’s popular with the public – and, for many years now, popularity has come in the form of contemporary art. Decorative arts, generally defined as utilitarian design, did not occupy the sacred space of cerebral intellectuals in search of cathartic revelations or higher meanings.

It is only recently that the decorative arts have found their place, through a first placement in the most frequented spaces of the DMA. Taste in the decorative arts is similar to taste in fashion: constantly evolving, but difficult to define critically until years after an object’s initial creation or runway debut.

So it’s refreshing to see comments on what’s currently happening at the DMA center via “Women + Design: New Works” – Schleuning’s first exhibition in her new home, which runs until February 17th. The exhibition is composed of works by seven contemporary women designers, including two newly created pieces by Iris van Herpen and Najla El Zein, presented for the first time. International in origin and diverse in media, form and purpose, this dynamic group of emerging and mid-career talent includes Katie Collins, Faye Toogood, and Katie Stout.

Schleuning has a nuanced approach to her curatorial style: thoughtful yet assertive, allowing viewers to make their own judgments about what she presents. This is seen in “Women + Design” and will make her shows accessible to a wider audience who may not yet have an affinity for the decorative arts.

More than ever, artistic institutions are interested in living women artists and re-examine their permanent collections in search of works by strong female artists from the past. Some have suggested that the DMA might overcompensate by having more women represented in the main galleries on the ground floor of the museum.

Currently, three exhibitions at DMA focus solely on women: “Women + Design”, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping the Shadows of Georgia” and “Women Artists in Europe from Monarchy to Modernism”. I applaud the museum in our city for recognizing the importance of participating in the current national conversation on gender parity.

With the times as it is, we need to examine the impact of the #metoo movement on the museum world. Much like the private sector, gender inequality has been the norm in a myriad of arts institutions in the United States. In a 2018 survey of museum professionals, 62% said they had experienced or witnessed gender discrimination at work.

The majority of managerial positions in the country’s major museums are still held by men. These dynamics can create precarious situations in terms of judgment calls regarding decisions on current program schedules and plans for the future. This begs the question: Will an influx of exhibitions focused on women lead the charge for cultural change within our artistic institutions?

Taking a tour of “Women + Design” with Schleuning was a breath of fresh air. she did not speak To her audience, but rather engaged in a dialogue with us, authentically seeking our answers and our questions on what she had concocted. She engages those around her and feels no need to talk about grandiose and noble art.

With this in mind, I know that she will bring a fresh look to the long-awaited exhibition “Dior: From Paris to the World” which will open next May.

Mid-career curators such as Schleuning are inevitably tasked with bringing museums into their next chapters, from bridging the gap between high art and decorative art to addressing broader gender issues. Schleuning will undoubtedly dig into the museum’s vast collections to create a new dialogue with our past that resonates with our present times.

“I’m always on the lookout for great creative works and the creators behind them, she says. “It’s a great time to consider the expansive nature of the designed object. I am less interested in definitions and limits and more engaged in great works that are both inspiration and aspirations for our community.

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