David Ward is the deputy director of the Charles Willson Peale papers at the National Portrait Gallery. Last year’s Hide/Seek exhibition propelled Ward into the national spotlight and he continues to work on other ground-breaking projects. We talked to him about Hide/Seek, his upcoming poetry exhibition, Poetic Likeness, and his most recent activities.
Q: For both the critical acclaim it received and the controversies it generated, Hide/Seek was a mighty newsmaker in 2010 and 2011. Now, an iteration of this exhibition has gone to two other venues. Could you tell us about the reception this exhibition has received in those venues?
DW: Hide/Seek has had an unusual history—in more ways than one! We tried to find other venues for it when we were planning it but had no takers. But after it was a success—and a success de scandal—we got interest from the Brooklyn Museum and Tacoma Art Museum to reconstitute it at their museums. We were happy to cooperate with them.
The exhibition has been very well received—both critically and popularly—at Brooklyn and now in Tacoma; I heard word of mouth that the Brooklyn Museum had one of its biggest attendance days on the show’s final day. Tacoma, where it just opened March 17, also has had good crowds. And critically, the exhibition is being well received and the public comments (on newspaper sites and blogs) seems pretty thoughtful.
Q: Are you generally pleased with the shape of the ensuing discourse?
DW: I’m happy that we’re done with the overt political issues that surrounded Hide/Seek when it was at the Portrait Gallery and made it into such a flash point. I think it’s good that people are now just focusing on the art and the history that the exhibition tells. I think getting to the art work and the cultural story is all to the good so I am pleased with that.
Q: We understand that you received an award recently. Would you tell our audience about it?
DW: Yes, we’re delighted that we received an award for Hide/Seek as the “Best Thematic Exhibition”, given by the International Art Critics Association-USA. As I said before, I like that people are now focusing on the art exhibition rather than the cultural politics of Hide/Seek and this award is particularly gratifying because of all the hard work we did on the exhibition itself, both intellectually and programmatically. And, the list of other award winners is pretty stellar so we’re happy that the NPG is going to be in really good company. We’re going to New York on April 2 for the awards dinner and I am looking forward to a swanky time!
Q: Could you tell us about the article you wrote for the Huffington Post?
DW: Sure—it’s just a short piece on the history of Hide/Seek and how it ended up at Tacoma; the essay expands on the point I made above about the exhibit’s reconstitution by Brooklyn and then Tacoma. And I talk a little about how the exhibition came to be at the NPG, how we planned it, and so on. It is a kind of background piece on the origins of the exhibition.
Q: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
DW: Well, I’m not completely done with Hide/Seek! I go back out to Tacoma in June to give a lecture and effectively close the show. But I have turned my attention to two poetry projects: my exhibition on American poets from the NPG collection, called Poetic Likeness which opens October 12– it’s an interesting medium size show (mostly photographs) of the major American poets from Whitman to the late 1970s.
And I am working with Frank Goodyear, the Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of photographs, on a literary and photography project to help commemorate the Civil War. For this, we have asked 12 contemporary poets to write about the War and we’re pairing their works with poems from the time-period. Also we’re matching modern day battlescape photographs by the artist Sally Mann with those by Alexander Gardner from the war itself. We’ll publish it as a small book.
So far I have to say that the poems that have come in are extraordinarily good—some really thoughtful, well constructed poems considering the War in all of its aspects. I think people interested in American poetry will want to pay attention to our book when in comes out in 2013.