two people read the wall label for the Williams College Museum of Art exhibition, Emancipation

Art in Conversation

Art in Conversation

Maggie Adler ’99, MA’11, stood amid the hushed anticipation in the ’54 Gallery at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). It was the opening day of her latest exhibition, Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation, and an unexpectedly emotional homecoming. As she looked around the jam-packed room, Adler saw a gathering of faces she never imagined would meet in one space: former professors, family members, multigenerational artists, and students, all eager to glean insights from her curated collection. Still, she says, the moment was not about her.

Maggie Adler ’99, MA’11, talks to museum goers during the opening for the exhibition Emancipation.
Maggie Adler ’99, MA’11 during the opening weekend of Emancipation in February 2024.

“I think my role, curatorially, is to be a connector,” says Adler, the curator of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. “I knew this show needed to be done, but mine is not the voice that should be privileged in this conversation.”

Emancipation reflects on liberation at the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to exploring the concept of freedom, it addresses the importance of interrogating historical narratives, including which stories are told and which voices get to tell them. Adler began developing the concept for the exhibition in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and a level of civil unrest the U.S. hadn’t seen in decades.

She says she knew from the start that the focus should be on Black artists.

“I didn’t think having white artists, curators, or scholars be the interlocutors for what emancipation feels like in the 21st century was going to be effective,” she says.

Adler sought early- to mid-career artists whose creations hadn’t yet been displayed widely, aiming to challenge the dominance of a select few in the discourse on liberation for Black people in America. John Quincy Adams Ward’s bronze sculpture, The Freedman (1863), from the Carter’s collection, served as an inspiration for the artist’s new creations. The sculpture depicts a Black figure wearing broken shackles, still bound to the figure’s wrists.

Co-organized by WCMA and the Carter, the exhibition features commissioned and recent works by Sadie Barnette, Alfred Conteh, Maya Freelon, Hugh Hayden, Letitia Huckaby, Jeffrey Meris, and Sable Elyse Smith. These works, including sculpture, photography, and paper and textile fabrications, serve as the stable core of the traveling exhibition.

At each stop, however, the exhibit evolves, highlighting historical artworks and documents relevant to the history of each region it visits. Emancipation opened at the Carter in the spring of 2023 before moving to the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University this past fall and then WCMA in late winter. When the exhibit travels to its final destination, the Telfair Museums in Georgia on August 16, Adler says it will likely feature items relevant to the history of enslavement in the Deep South.

From left: Maggie Adler, Williams Class of 1999 and Masters in Art 2011; Maurita N. Poole, director of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University; Destinee Filmore MA'23, former WCMA Mellon Curatorial Fellow; and Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art, in the museum.
From left: Maggie Adler, Williams Class of 1999 and Masters in Art 2011; Maurita N. Poole, director of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University; Destinee Filmore MA’23, former WCMA Mellon Curatorial Fellow; and Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

For its stay at WCMA, on view through July 14, 2024, Adler partnered with Destinee Filmore MA’23, a former WCMA Mellon Curatorial Fellow who is now an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Kevin Murphy, WCMA’s Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator of American and European Art. Together, they selected historical objects from local organizations to be displayed alongside the core artworks. One piece from the college’s Chapin Library of Rare Books is a notebook belonging to Thomas Jefferson that contains a copy of the Brooks slave ship diagram, a drawing that demonstrates the brutal conditions enslaved Africans endured during the Middle Passage. By putting contemporary art in dialogue with historical art, WCMA Director Pamela Franks says Adler’s Emancipation embodies the strengths of the museum’s curatorial program, prompting inquiry across disciplinary bounds.

“WCMA strives to create transformative experiences with art that energize the liberal arts and human connection,” Franks says. “The artists in this exhibition generate new knowledge and insight on freedom and liberty in inspiring ways. Co-organizing this exhibition with the Carter, especially with Maggie at the helm, was a natural for us.”

Adler’s journey from student to curator wasn’t straightforward. Between earning a bachelor’s degree in classical languages and art history and a master’s in art history, both from Williams, Adler worked as a tour guide at WCMA and held several jobs in the college’s Office of Alumni Relations and Development. She then moved to Boston, where she worked in development at the Addison Gallery of American Art. For a time, she thought she might open a restaurant. She never imagined she’d be back at her alma mater presenting an exhibition in the same space she once worked and learned in. “The world kept drawing me back to Williams,” says Adler, who plans to return to campus again in June to celebrate her 25th class reunion.

As viewers engage with Emancipation, Adler hopes for moments of epiphany, where stereotypes are shattered and new perspectives emerge. It’s not just about appreciating art; it’s about developing new “art crushes,” she says, forging connections, and embracing the diversity of the human experience.

“The point is to show these artists’ breadth of contemporary creativity,” Adler says. “So, if someone comes away with a new love and appreciation for one of these artists, I think that’d be something special.”

Queen Muse is a writer and communications leader based in Philadelphia, Pa. She writes for many news publications and university magazines, and she crafts effective communication strategies for organizations across various sectors.