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Arts / Museums

Rising Dallas Museum Star Champions the Long Underrated Decorative Arts

A Woman for a New Time Helps Set the Art Moment

BY // 01.30.19
photography Portrait by Misael Rodriguez

Sarah Schleuning and I have been making career pitstops at some of the more noted art museums around the country. We’ve both worked at institutions in Georgia and Florida. And, last spring, Schleuning joined the team at the Dallas Museum of Art as The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. I, too, had a tenure at the DMA.

An expert in her field Schleuning, oversaw the collection of decorative arts and design at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where she was known for her expertise in forming relationships with contemporary designers and artists, and exploring how art and design can extend far beyond a museum’s walls.

During her time at the High, Schleuning organized and curated “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” which broke attendance records and become one of the museum’s Top 10 most-attended shows. The exhibition then traveled to the DMA in the summer of 2017 and had a similar popular response.

Today, Schleuning is responsible for the DMA’s decorative arts and design collection, internationally recognized as one of the premier collections in the United States. Its more than 8,000 works of art span six centuries, from the 15th century to the present. Highlights are found in the areas of European and American decorative arts, with special emphasis on 18th-century English silver; 19th- and 20th-century American silver and ceramics; and 20th-century design.

Schleuning’s role also involves the expansion of the museum’s contemporary holdings, which have seen recent growth from gifts such as the Rose-Asenbaum Collection of more than 700 pieces of modern and contemporary studio jewelry, bestowed on the DMA by Deedie Rose, who acquired the collection of Viennese gallerist Inge Asenbaum in 2014.

The stewardship, interpretation, and legacy of this renowned collection are now in Schleuning’s thoughtful and capable hands.

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The Decorative Arts Dilemma

The decorative arts have long been entangled in the debate over so-called high art versus low art. In recent years, many have realized that those classifications merely served to put monetary values on art.

Hierarchical value systems are sometimes mirrored through curatorial departments at museums. Often, these curators are at the whim of what is popular with the public — and, for many years now, popularity has come in the form of contemporary art. Decorative arts, generally defined as utilitarian design, did not occupy the sacred space for cerebral intellectuals looking for cathartic revelations or higher meanings.

It was not until recently that the decorative arts found their spotlight, through primary placement in the most well-traversed spaces of the DMA. Taste in decorative arts is similar to taste in fashion: continually evolving, but difficult to critically define until years after an object’s initial creation or runway debut.

It is refreshing, therefore, to see commentary on what is happening now front and center at the DMA via “Women + Design: New Works” — Schleuning’s first exhibition at her new home, which runs through February 17. The exhibition is composed of recent works by seven contemporary female designers, including two newly created pieces by Iris van Herpen and Najla El Zein, on view for the first time. International in origin and diverse in media, form, and objective, this dynamic group of emerging and mid-career talents includes Katie Collins, Faye Toogood, and Katie Stout.

Schleuning has a nuanced approach to her curating style: thoughtful yet authoritative, allowing room for viewers to make their own judgments of what she presents. That is apparent in “Women + Design” and will make her shows accessible to wider audiences that may not already have an affinity for the decorative arts.

More now than ever, art institutions are paying attention to living women artists and re-examining their permanent collections for works by strong female artists of the past. Some have suggested that the DMA might be overcompensating by having more women represented in the main galleries on the ground floor of the museum.

Currently, three exhibitions at the DMA focus solely on women: the aforementioned “Women + Design,” “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow,” and “Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism.” I commend our city’s museum for recognizing the importance of taking part in the current national conversation on gender parity.

The zeitgeist as it is, we must examine the impact of the #metoo movement on the museum world. Much like the private sector, gender inequality has been the norm at myriad arts institutions in the US. In a 2018 survey of museum professionals, 62 percent reported that they had been the victim of — or witnessed — gender discrimination at work.

The majority of leadership roles at larger museums around the country are still held by men. Those dynamics can create precarious situations in terms of judgment calls regarding decisions on current program calendars and plans for the future. It begs the question: Will an influx of female-focused exhibitions lead the charge for a cultural shift within our art institutions?

Doing a walk-through of “Women + Design” with Schleuning was a breath of fresh air. She wasn’t speaking at her audience, but rather engaged in a dialogue with us, authentically seeking our responses and questions on what she had put together. She engages those around her and feels no need for bombast and high-minded art speak.

With that in mind, I know she will bring a fresh perspective to the eagerly anticipated “Dior: From Paris to the World” exhibition opening this May.

Mid-career curators such as Schleuning are inevitably tasked with bringing museums into their next chapters, from bridging the gap between high art and decorative art to addressing larger gender issues. Schleuning will undoubtedly dig deep into the museum’s vast collections to create a new dialogue with our past that resonates with our current times.

“I’m always on the lookout for great creative works and the makers behind them,” she says. “This is a great moment to consider the expansive nature of the designed object. I am less interested in definitions and boundaries and more engaged by great works that are both inspiration and aspirations for our community.”

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