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Contemporary Art Installation Program

Charles Simonds'  "Head (from I, Thou)" (1993) in the Rose Garden in 2009. Photo courtesy C. Simonds
Charles Simonds' "Head (from I, Thou)" (1993) in the Rose Garden in 2009. Photo courtesy C. Simonds

In the spring of 2009, Dumbarton Oaks inaugurated an occasional series of contemporary art installations intended to provide unexpected experiences and fresh interpretations of its remarkable gardens and collections. As anyone who has worked in a garden knows, they are dynamic spaces, changing from day to day and season to season. Moreover, they are expressions of curatorial decisions—about plant material, design development, maintenance, and interpretation—made on an almost daily basis. These installations are meant, in part, to foreground such curatorial practices.

At the same time, the installations are intended to reinforce the research and educational missions of Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks was designed as private garden, but became part of educational institution when its patrons, Mildred Barnes and Robert Woods Bliss, donated the house, collections, and gardens to Harvard University in 1940. The gardens’ principal designer, Beatrix Farrand, realized this would have profound impacts, as detailed in a prescient report she wrote to the administrative board of the newly established Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 1941. “The transfer of ownership from an intimately personal control to a necessarily more impersonal but an enduring educational institution must alter the point of view from which the gardens are considered,” she wrote. Paramount in this shift from personal to institutional is the emergence of an educational mission: “It is not necessary to emphasize that the first duty of an educational institution is to use its resources for the benefit of its students.” As a research rather than a teaching facility, Dumbarton Oaks supports scholars rather than students, but the point is the same: the institution now serves an academic community, not individuals. Installations are a way of temporarily amplifying or augmenting features and spaces of the gardens, to reinforce their role as a place of creative exploration and intellectual inquiry.

Patrick Dougherty's "Easy Rider" in winter 2011. Photo courtesy A. Tchikine.
Patrick Dougherty's "Easy Rider" in winter 2011. Photo courtesy A. Tchikine.

The installations are meant to respond to the qualities and characteristics of the gardens, but to different degrees.  Dumbarton Oaks has multiple constituencies—institutional, local, and international; as such, our approach has been to address different audiences with disparate projects—some more site-specific than others, some more popular than others.

Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to enable us to look anew at that which we have become inured to seeing—or to reconsider things about which we think we know everything already. Installations bring new perspectives and ideas to the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, revealing them as a living and evolving place, where the past literally grows into the present and future.

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