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Brian Lee Whisenhunt’s Top 10 Rockwell Moments

In case you missed it, our fearless leader Brian Lee Whisenhunt has accepted a position at the Gilcrease Museum in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is in his final days here at The Rockwell Museum. He’ll feel right at home in the Museum’s collection, which features a comprehensive collection of art of North America, with a strong focus on Western and contemporary Native American art–sound familiar? In Tulsa, Brian will oversee the construction and opening of a brand-new museum facility.

Since he started in 2017, he’s led the Museum through many transitions and transformations, including the COVID-19 lockdown, and growing the art collection by 25% with a committed focus on diversifying the collection to be reflective of the American experience. His fingerprints can be found across the state, as he joined the Board of Directors of the Museum Association of New York board in 2018 and served as board president in 2021-2023. Today, hear from Brian about his top 10 favorite and most impactful moments at The Rockwell.

Reflecting on the past seven plus years working with The Rockwell team, there is so much work to be proud of and celebrate.

Building on the amazing foundation of an institution known for its education programming and community collaboration was an exciting honor. I appreciate the experimental and innovative approach we took to diversifying our programming and collection; deepening our relationship with the communities we serve; and creating original approaches for our visitors to connect their interests with the perspective of the artists in our collection and exhibitions. It’s incredibly challenging to narrow the list of initiatives, programs or exhibitions I’m most proud of, but here are my top ten. I think!

1. Establishing the Annual Antigravity Exhibition

Antigravity was one of the earliest initiatives in my tenure and the annual commission for The Rockwell’s rotunda has become a favorite happening of many of our members and visitors. Inspired by the Museum’s constrained gallery space, Antigravity brings contemporary art front and center, resetting the expectations and expanding the possibility of a visit to The Rockwell Museum.

2023 Antigravity: Space Invaders by Shasti O’Leary Soudant.
2. Opening the Art Lab

Opening the KIDS ROCKWELL Art Lab is a memory I’ll always treasure—having kids from our Rockwell family cut the ribbon on the new space was super fun. I love how the space has become the center of so much of what we do for children and families, educators and students.

Brian at the KIDS ROCKWELL Art Lab ribbon cutting.

 

3. New Acquisitions

Since right before I began and The Rockwell shifted its focus to art about the American experience, we’ve adding more than 400 works of art to the collection through both purchase (using funds from Miss Clara Peck!), donations and gifts. Of those, 47% were made by women and in total 67% of the acquisitions represent women, BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+ or another diverse perspective. It’s been exciting to diversify the collection and bring new voices into conversation with the founding gifts of Bob and Hertha Rockwell.

“The Living Legacy of Clara S. Peck: Rockwell Collection Hero” was on view from September 2023 – January 2024. This exhibition featured works of art purchased with funds donated by Clara S. Peck.

 

4. Collaborating with Michael Naranjo

Bringing Michael Naranjo’s sculpture to our community was such an amazing moment and not just because of the experience it provided to our visitors who got to touch his sculptures and understand his perspective as a blind and disabled Indigenous artist. This exhibition was a growth moment for the Rockwell team as we considered how to present this inspiring work, centering the experience of visitors with low or no vision and collaborating with Christopher Lomax, a blind person in our community. And although I missed Naranjo’s visit to Corning, people have continued to discuss how impactful that experience was for them.

Brian and a guest view a sculpture in “Please Touch!”, an exhibition featuring the work of Michael Naranjo.

 

5. Creating ArtRX

Reopening after the shutdown, museums in New York State operated under a number of restrictions, one of which was a defined path through the galleries. I wanted that experience to have intention beyond health and safety, so we asked the Rockwell team to write labels about works of art in the collection they were considering differently through the lens of the pandemic experiences—and ArtRX was born. This interpretative initiative was a hit with our visitors and provided them the opportunity to process and think about the issues we were all dealing with through works of art. It also became a touchstone for subsequent projects featuring the voices of the Rockwell team, Board of Trustees and community.

Look closely at some of these works and you will see two labels! One of them is an ArtRX label! These labels allowed staff members to share their thoughts about some of the works in our collection.

 

6. 2023 Alley Art Project: Emergence

In 2023, The Rockwell completed its 15th mural with the High School Learning Center as part of the Alley Art Project. It was inspired by Martine Gutierrez’s work from her Indigenous Woman project, a favorite of many people in our museum community. The mural celebrates Salem Estrada, a young hero in our community who was chosen by their peers to represent the next generation of heroes. The impact of this project is impossible to calculate as it has added art to our community, uplifted the perspective of our young people, connected to works of art in the Rockwell collection, inspired artists to share their vision and spawned so many other collaboration and connection. It illustrates the rhizomatic way the collection, exhibition and programs of The Rockwell Museum connect communities, perspectives and understanding.

2023 Alley Art Project Ribbon Cutting.

 

7. Jad Abumrad’s 2018 Lecture

People are still talking about Jad Abumrad’s lecture and the perspective and ideas he brought to our community. It was an amazing evening and inspiring to share his work and process with the communities of Upstate New York. While our approach to the Blockbuster Lecture is evolving (stay tuned!), I know the Rockwell team will continue to bring important conversations to this community in a variety of formats, large and small.

Rockwell Staff photo with Jad Abumrad. Taken in 2018.

 

 

8. Creating the Artists as Activists Audio Tour with support from the Art Bridges Foundation

The numerous loans from the Art Bridges Foundation collection have allowed The Rockwell to share works by artists beyond what we could acquire for the collection. Additionally, the support the Foundation has provided to the Museum was a true gift during the pandemic operations with subsequent grants funding our first-ever audio tour, Artists as Activists.

Guests interact with the Artists as Activists Tour.

 

9. Connecting with Robin Tichane

During our time in Corning, my husband Mitchell and I had the opportunity to share our beautiful home with the community through parties for the Rockwell Ambassadors, fundraising dinners for other nonprofits in our community and our own entertaining for friends and family. When we bought the house, I learned the artist Robin Tichane had grown up there and became a little obsessed with his story. I almost immediately began to ponder how I could share it with our community. So, it was gratifying to be able to share his exquisite series of prints, AIDS Dark Terrain in an exhibition in 2021, marking four decades of the AIDS pandemic. I also was able to write a post about him and his partner John Schmidt’s life with his sister Eileen for the AIDS Memorial on Instagram. The subsequent gift of those prints to the Rockwell collection was incredibly satisfying as it meant Tichane’s story would always be a part of the Corning community and Rockwell collection.

Robin Tichane, American Grain

 

10. Establishing The Rockwell’s Collaborative Approach

So much happens below the surface to bring the exhibitions, programs, events and initiatives of The Rockwell Museum to life—a lot of work that no one sees! One aspect of that process is the collaborative system the team built together in 2017 and has continued to evolve over the past seven years. I had the opportunity to present on our collaborative approach at the Smithsonian Affiliates Conference in 2019, the MANY conference in 2022 and in an essay for Change is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum. I hope our process continues to provide an innovation platform for The Rockwell team and inspire other museum professionals to strengthen the collaborative nature of their work and process.

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of the Rockwell story during my tenure as executive director! I’m so grateful to have worked with such an inspiring group of people and I don’t just mean The Rockwell staff—although they are an innovative and creative group. I also include members, volunteers, donors, visitors, students, foundations, educators, docents, guest lecturers, visiting artists, collaborators, sister museums and everyone who has been a part of this story. Thank you for contributing to our mission, vision and work!