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There’s a new art museum containing works from around the world that date back as far as 40,000 years – but you won’t have to stand on your feet all day or keep your distance from crowds to explore it.
An illustrated book, “The Ultimate Art Museum,” unfolds across 18 galleries, organized like the layout of an encyclopedic institution. It’s meant to introduce middle readers – ages 8 to 14 – to the stoic statues of early civilization, the delicate ink brushwork on silk of East Asia, the intricate architecture of Islamic regions, the drama of European Baroque paintings, and the dreamy color fields of Postmodernism. But this isn’t your typical art history lesson.
“I tried to choose artworks that really embodied the themes of the gallery – many of them are very famous, but there are also some unexpected choices that will hopefully introduce readers to something new,” said the author, art historian Ferren Gipson, in an email. “It was also important to me to represent diverse artists, ideas and styles from around the world, so I was very conscious of including works by women artists and people of color throughout the entirety of the museum.”
Many introductions to and surveys of art history are weighted toward the Western world – advancements in Europe, in particular – but Gipson balances the scales, with equal space given to the arts of East and South Asia, Africa, Islamic regions and Indigenous communities. In 20th-century art, she spotlights women and Black artists for whom recognition arrived belatedly, including Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner and folk art-influenced painter William H. Johnson.
“Feminist Art,” “Chicanx Art” and “Aboriginal Australian Art” are among the pages in the book’s contemporary galleries, and artists Gipson chooses to represent the current moment include Amy Sherald, Alice Neel, Kerry James Marshall and Yoshitomo Nara. (There is no Jeff Koons in sight.)
Gipson also points out cultural connections between works of different eras or countries, as well as links to contemporary pop culture (like Beyonce taking inspo from the 1997 video installation by Pipilotti Rist, “Ever is Over All”).
“I enjoyed placing works side-by-side that might not usually be shown together in a real museum,” she said. “There are galleries that show how European artists were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints in the 19th century or how Picasso drew ideas from African masks.”
Gipson believes she is in good company at a time when art history is being reevaluated in how it is taught. “There are a lot of people doing exciting work right now to surface different art histories that have long been underrepresented on a more mainstream scale, and I think this is exciting and necessary,” she said.
“The Ultimate Art Museum,” published by Phaidon, is available now.
Add to Queue: Accessible art
Listen: “Art Matters” (2018-2020)
Gipson used to host this biweekly podcast that explored how art history enriches everything around us in pop culture and visual culture. Episodes included the art and design of modern Olympic games and how movie costume designers mine art history for inspiration.
Read: “The Art Book” (2020)
Phaidon’s tome of artists-to-know has been updated and expanded multiple times, with the latest version released last year. It alphabetically lists 600 artists from medieval times to today, showcasing one key work for each. The most recent addition adds contemporary figures, including Jenny Saville, Mark Bradford and Wolfgang Tillmans, along with previously overlooked talent like Hilma af Klint.
Read: “Why is Art Full of Naked People?” by Susie Hodge (2016)
This primer for readers 10 years old and up asks the tough questions about art history, such as “What is with all the fruit?” and “Why is art so weird nowadays?” The 22 questions featured in the book are intended to make young readers curious about art.
Watch: “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” (2021)
This HBO documentary was directed by Sam Pollard and took inspiration from the 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the late David Driskell. It features interviews with artists, including Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald and Carrie Mae Weems.
Read: “Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives Who Inspired the World” by Rachel Ignotofsky (2019)
For readers 10 and up, “Women in Art” features 50 figures, both famous and underrepresented, from diverse backgrounds. Together, they represent a groundbreaking group of artists who have not always been given full credit for their achievements.