Madison Art Collection loans works to Ben Shahn exhibition in Spain

Art history professor and scholar serves as guest curator

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

JMU was a leading contributor to an acclaimed five-month exhibition in Madrid, Spain, on Ben Shahn, one of the pioneers of 20th-century social realist art in the United States.

Ben Shahn, On Nonconformity / De la no conformidad opened Oct. 3 at the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and part of the “Golden Triangle of Art,” along with the renowned Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. The exhibition featured important artworks by Shahn owned by the Madison Art Collection that were featured in a 2017 show at the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art. It marked the first time that the MAC has loaned artworks to a major museum overseas.

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The retrospective consisted 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 was the second-largest institutional lender to the show behind the Smithsonian Institution.

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

Popular in the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1960s, Shahn’s 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.

Laura Katzman, professor of art history and a Shahn scholar, was invited by the Reina Sofía’s director to serve as guest curator of the exhibition, which occupied the largest and most distinguished 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 his estate. After the death of Shahn’s widow in 2004, the estate looked 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.”

A group of JMU Dance and Music students led by Rubén Graciani, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, studied Shahn’s work to prepare for a live performance on Oct. 20 at the Reina Sofia. The choreographed dance unfolded in a magnificent interior courtyard of the museum punctuated by a monumental, kinetic sculpture by Alexander Calder. That same day, students in JMU’s Semester in Salamanca traveled to Madrid for a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Shahn exhibition led by Katzman.


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

The exhibition, which closed Feb. 26, drew a record number of visitors daily, and Katzman personally led scores of curatorial tours, scholarly workshops, student seminars and public events. Highlights from her private tours included showings for the director of the National Museum of Lithuanian Art — Shahn is a native of Lithuania — as well as for 13 female ambassadors to Spain from the European Union, Latin America, the United States, Canada and Australia on Jan. 15 to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. In February, Katzman designed tours for various Sephardic Jewish communities in Madrid as well as for the Israeli ambassador to Spain, culture minister and 30 members of the Israeli Embassy.

“The response was extraordinary, as most visitors recognized the timeliness of Shahn’s work, and consistently commented on its heightened relevance in our current and social and political climate,” Katzman said. “Shahn reminds us of our shared humanity and our responsibilities to each other as human beings.”

The exhibition received extensive coverage in the international press, including in some of the leading newspapers and art publications in Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Mexico. El País and El Cultural hailed it as one of the top 10 exhibitions of 2023 in Spain and beyond. In the U.S., Art News selected it as one of 25 “must-see” exhibitions outside the U.S., and Hyperallergic called it “an expansive and impressive exploration” that enabled viewers to understand Shahn’s’ art and ideology “to a depth rarely seen” in an exhibition.

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Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, March 28, 2024

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