AU art museum finds its niche in D.C. area

"Things Being What They Are," an painting by Chester Arnold, is on display in the American University at the Katzen Art Center.

“Things Being What They Are,” an painting by Chester Arnold, is one of the pieces  on display in the American University at the Katzen Art Center.

A large canvas explodes with a multitude of objects. A trombone, television and picture frame are just a few of the many colorful artifacts depicted in the oil on linen painting.

“Things Being What They Are,” by San Francisco artist Chester Arnold, is one many works on display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

On another floor, a screen depicts a life-size woman sleeping while her dreams are projected onto nearby plexiglass circles. A third floor hosts an array of artwork ranging from the social realism-themed 1940’s to the postmodern 70’s and 80′s.

The variety of art illustrates the eclectic feel of the Katzen center. The museum, founded eight years ago, aims to set itself apart by featuring diverse exhibits, local artists and art that has a political message — which many other D.C.-area museums prefer to avoid.

“I try to create an experience,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the art center.

The 24,000-square-foot museum can hold up to six exhibits at once, and the museum typically accommodates four shows a year, Rasmussen said. Although it is associated with American University, the center primarily focuses on professional artists as opposed to college students.

Rasmussen, a curator for 40 years, said he loves the opportunity to present exhibitions that are out of the box. He said that a curator is in charge of  “what goes on the walls… (they) select and organize the artwork.”

His favorite exhibition to come through the museum was a series of paintings by Fernando Botaro, an Italian painter. These pieces depicted the horrors of an American-run Iraqi prison camp called Abu Ghraib. Rasmussen said that this controversial exhibition “portrayed reality.”

Rasmussen said that it is difficult to choose which pieces to display. His job is to make sure the artwork flows together. That way, the museum functions as a unit. He also wants to allow audiences the freedom to form their own opinions about the exhibits.

“History is a process, and people look back with different perspectives,” he said.

This realization is especially apparent in the third-floor exhibit of the gallery, where the history and progression of the D.C. art scene in the 1900’s is represented. Beginning with the transition from neutral colors to more colorful and expressionistic styles, the 40’s embody a huge revolution in artistic ideas. These changes continued to influence artists well into the 50‘s. In the 60‘s, popular artwork switched gears again, displaying more intellectual and precise pieces than the previous era. The exhibition portrays the many fluctuations of art throughout the century and condenses it for the general population to experience, a feat that is difficult and not one that many other museums would attempt.

Rasmussen said his museum mirrors American University in that both have a strong international and political focus.