While learning about the works of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange in Margaret Denton’s Picturing Poverty in America special topics class, Hayley Harrington, ’12, didn’t know she’d soon be curating a gallery exhibition of photographs depicting Depression-era Virginia life.
Harrington has long been attracted to art that portrays life in the American West. Her thesis focused on the work of Frederic Remington, a painter, illustrator, and sculptor who concentrated on the American West in the late-19th century. When a professor mentioned that UR Downtown was planning an exhibition featuring 1930s photographs from the Library of Virginia’s collection and the staff was looking for a student intern, the art history major couldn’t wait to get involved.
“The opportunity just popped up for me,” she says. “I always say that at Richmond, if you have a relationship with your professor, they are so willing and ready to help you and sometimes, unexpected things like this come out of it.”
“The Spirit of Virginia” features selected photographs from the collection displayed in the Virginia Room at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and will be a complement to an upcoming University Museums’ Dorothea Lange exhibition. The World’s Fair exhibition will be housed in UR Downtown’s Wilton Companies Gallery and will open on Sept. 7 in conjunction with the city’s First Fridays Art Walk.
Curating the exhibition wasn’t an easy task. Harrington had to select a cohesive compilation that represented the Virginia Room’s goal of showcasing a prosperous and industrious state at a time when much of American photography was focused on the impact of the Great Depression. But Denton’s class offered just the foundation she needed.
“I was very familiar with the photography of the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s,” she says. “When I looked through the photographs, it was easier for me to recognize the differences in the photographs from the Virginia Room as opposed to Farm Security Administration photography, but also some of the similarities. That class really prepared me for this project.”
The chance to curate a gallery show was a dream for Harrington, who is now the objects administrator for Christie's Interiors, an auction house in New York City where she interned last summer. Her experience discussing the gallery set up with Alexandra Byrum, events and projects coordinator at UR Downtown, is one she think will be particularly beneficial.
“Alexandra has been walking me through the process of how you frame each piece, and what to consider when you have a certain amount of space,” she says. “It’s all of the practical things. An auction isn’t quite the same as putting together a gallery show, because they don’t necessarily get to choose what they’re selling. But they still need to have show rooms that are meticulously put together and make each piece look as interesting as possible.
“In college, most of my experience with art has been very academic. It’s not every day that you get to work with the actual art itself.”
The exhibition also is a good outlet for Harrington’s second major in American Studies. In addition to learning the ins and outs of preparing a gallery, she was tasked with preparing the panels that describe the works and an overall explanation of the Virginia Room’s place at the World’s Fair and will present a gallery talk at the opening event. Much of her research involved reading newspaper articles from 1938 to 1940, where Harrington uncovered several controversies about the design of the Virginia Room.
“They had an anonymous competition to see who would be the designer of the Virginia Room and William H. Moses, Jr., a professor at Hampton Institute, won,” she says. “But when the committee found out that he was black, they decided not to go with his design. There were a lot of angry articles about the injustice of that. The Virginia Room was supposed to show this progressive view of Virginia, and right at its conception there was racism and unfairness.”
While the Virginia Room may have had its controversies, Harrington hopes today’s exhibition will showcase the historic albums that were on display and the many Virginians featured in the photographs.
“Even though there were these issues that Virginia was dealing with, we want people to learn about the history,” she says. “We want them to appreciate the workers that were in Virginia in the 1930s, and the different industries that were developed then, and to appreciate Virginia pride. There are some great pictures and clearly the exhibition was made with love.”