Madison Art Collection loans works to Ben Shahn exhibition in Spain

Art history professor and scholar serving as guest curator

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SUMMARY: An exhibition at the famed Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid on the life and works of Ben Shahn features pieces from the Madison Art Collection and is curated by JMU art history professor and Shahn scholar Laura Katzman. JMU is the second-largest institutional lender of works to the show behind the Smithsonian.

JMU is a major contributor to an exhibition on the life and works of Ben Shahn at the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and part of the “Golden Triangle of Art,” along with the renowned Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums.

“Ben Shahn, On Nonconformity / De la no conformidad” opened Oct. 3 and has received rave reviews. The exhibition runs through Feb. 26, 2024, and features important works by Ben Shahn owned by the Madison Art Collection that were shown in a 2017 exhibition at the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art.

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This is the first time that the MAC has loaned works to a major museum overseas. The exhibition consists of more than 200 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, hand-scripted books and commercial designs from 50 museums, archives and private collections in the U.S. and Spain, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. JMU is the second-largest institutional lender of works to the show behind the Smithsonian.

“It’s an honor to be part of this groundbreaking exhibition,” said Virginia Soenksen, director of the MAC. “It’s been an invaluable learning experience, one that offers the Madison Art Collection the chance to extend awareness of its holdings worldwide. Hopefully, this will be the first of many international exhibitions featuring works from the collection.”

Shahn represents one of the leading 20th-century social realist artists. Popular in the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1960s, he received international acclaim after 1954, when his work was selected for the venerated Venice Biennale. His art is best known for its support of the underdog, the marginalized and the disenfranchised, and for its protest of injustice and denouncement of prejudice and discrimination. The exhibition aims to demonstrate the timeliness and continued relevance of Shahn’s work in the present day, both in the U.S. and globally.

Laura Katzman, professor of art history and a Shahn scholar, was invited by the Reina Sofia’s director to serve as the guest curator of this ambitious exhibition, which occupies the largest and most prominent space in the museum’s historic Sabatini Building.

Laura Katzman, professor of art history and a Shahn scholar, was invited by the Reina Sofia’s director to serve as guest curator of the exhibition.

“When I received the invitation, I was thrilled by the opportunity to bring 30 years of research to a project that would allow me to present Ben Shahn’s far-reaching artistic and social vision to vast numbers of international audiences on such a grand and prominent scale,” Katzman said. “I was especially excited to be able to showcase the Shahn collection that we have been building at the Madison Art Collection.”

Katzman has developed strong relationships with Shahn collectors, family members and the Ben Shahn Estate. After the death of Shahn’s widow in 2004, the estate was looking to donate works from its collection to public, educational institutions. 

“Simultaneously, I was cultivating a donor relationship with Michael Berg, a private collector from Northern Virginia, who grew up in Roosevelt, New Jersey, where the Shahns had lived,” Katzman said. “Berg is a huge admirer of Shahn’s social justice art. After he moved to Virginia, he became interested in donating pieces from his impressive collection to a Virginia institution. He loved the idea of his collection being part of a teaching institution like the Madison Art Collection. I advised him to donate to the MAC, which he started to do around 2012, and he has been donating Shahn works nearly every year since.”

Katzman leads a tour of the exhibition at the famed Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Soenksen said the exhibition “gave us the opportunity to work closely with the expert staff of the Museo National Centro de Arte as well as Dr. Katzman, who is a tremendous art historian. She helped broaden our knowledge of the works of art in our collection and also engaged students in the process.”

This week, a group of JMU Dance and Music students led by Rubén Graciani, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, are in Spain for a study-abroad trip designed around the Shahn exhibition. The students have been studying Shahn’s work as preparation for choreographing a dance that they will perform in the Reina Sofia, accompanied by live music. On Oct. 20, the dance will unfold in a magnificent interior courtyard of the museum punctuated by a monumental, kinetic sculpture by Alexander Calder. Also on Oct. 20, students in JMU’s Semester in Salamanca program will travel to Madrid for a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Ben Shahn exhibition led by Katzman.

JMU dance students rehearse ahead of a scheduled performance at the museum on Oct. 20.

Graciani attended the grand opening earlier this month along with JMU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Heather Coltman; Jesús Jiménez, director of the Semester in Salamanca program; and Beth Hinderliter, director of the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art.

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Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Last Updated: Friday, November 3, 2023

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