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RICHMOND, Virginia — I’ve never gone to sleep in a hotel room and woke up screaming, but that is precisely what happened to me at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I spent the night in the museum in a “room” gussied up to look like the hotel chamber in one of Edward Hopper’s most well-known paintings, “Western Motel” (1957). The trouble was that I was stuck back-of-house with no bathroom nearby, and with a light shining through a fake door missing its middle panel. In essence I was alone in a room that wasn’t secure and no private facilities. It was less like a hotel experience and more like being a character in a horror film.
On first receiving the emailed solicitation from the communications team at the museum, the extended, immersive engagement with this painting seemed like a good idea. This is how is was explained to me:
As part of this exhibition, VMFA will recreate Western Motel, one of Hopper’s best-known paintings, as a three-dimensional simulated motel space, giving visitors the chance to “step inside” his work. Through the “Hopper Hotel Experience,” guests will have the opportunity to stay at the museum overnight in a room inspired by Western Motel. There will be a variety of packages available at different price points. Some of the “Hopper Hotel Experience” packages consist of dinner at VMFA’s fine dining restaurant Amuse, a guided tour by the curator and an exhibition catalogue, among other options.
The exhibition Edward Hopper and the American Hotel thus sounded like an inventive way to re-approach the significance of this very white, very male, painter who has long been ensconced in the canon of United States painters who have sensitively depicted some crucial aspect of this American experience.
The thing Hopper did best — and perhaps this was all he wanted to do — was reveal how what I would call a foundational “noble lie” of the nation’s popular culture ethos was slowly and quietly becoming undone. It is that city-on-the-hill, white settler, ethno-nationalist idealism which imagined that rural, largely autonomous, ethnically and religiously homogenous lifestyles would always characterize the “real” or “true” Americans. (Part of the reason of the GOP’s continued political success, despite its record of boom-and-bust economies it that it leans very heavily on this implicit but often insinuated mythology.) One of the ironies of Hopper is that he contributed to ratifying this mythos while also perhaps intuitively depicting it’s logical terminus: Those who subscribed to it would end up always being suspicious of difference, unable to recognize difference as legitimate, and thus arrive in a dead end of isolation and bitterness.
Hopper lived through both world wars, and thus through the periods when the components of this ideology and the contravening social movements that would challenge it began to reach crisis points that would irrevocably shift the cultural, political, and social ground. It is in this inter-war and post-war period as Hopper was doing his most poignant work that the US became a world power with an ideology of prosperity that actually seemed to function for the working class: People working in blue-collar occupations could enjoy ever increasing standards of living fulfilled by way of a Fordist economy and ever-expanding markets. But there was a catch (or several catches). Women entering the workforce and becoming financially independent of men challenged entrenched patriarchal policies, and African Americans entering the marketplace, availing themselves of public institutions, and slowly beginning to become financially self-governing clashed with the nation’s deeply embedded racism. More, new waves of (non-European) immigration also eroded that nationalist ideology that sought to define a very particular group as legitimately American. Hopper didn’t paint loneliness; he depicted disillusionment with an idealism that was falling apart right at the moment it seemed most promising. On his figures’ faces this looked like a kind of personal devastation.
The irony of inviting me to come to Richmond to experience one of Hopper’s paintings is that I am someone he likely would have never imagined inhabiting one of his vistas. I am Jamaican by birth and have become socialized to be more US American than not over time, but I do not look the part of one of his characters (i.e. I am a Black man). Here, again, Hopper’s own vision runs into the exigencies of the current art museum field, which has sought to expand the ethnic and socio-economic class profile of museum audiences. Following a trend that is making its way steadily through the museum field (which I have written about recently), the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has sought to expand its audiences by enhancing visitor engagement, and one way to do so is to offer off-the-menu escapades such as this night in the museum.
It’s only days before I was scheduled to fly there that I get the itinerary from the communications assistant Lillian Dunn and find I am only able to “check in” after nine o’clock in the evening. I make the best of it and visit other museums in the area and then walk Monument Avenue where the shrines to Confederate heroes are displayed right alongside the multitudinous churches that line this street. It feels like the culture is telling me that both forms of veneration go hand in hand: worship for the Judeo-Christian god and the leaders of the Confederate insurrection.
Then when I do arrive to stow my bag in my quarters and take a look at Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, that’s when Dunn tells me that there are no showers for me and that I will have to use the public restroom across the hall from where I am staying. I am just made speechless by this.
As part of the experience package I am invited to dinner with Dr. Sarah Powers, the curatorial research specialist for the exhibition and Jan Hatchette, the deputy communications director. There, they ask me about my impressions of the exhibition so far, but I dodge the question, mostly because the museum was also hosting a free jazz concert (as they do each Thursday) so it was difficult for me to see the work and think about it with the music blaring nearby. Typically I need time and space free from distraction to see a show properly. The jazz concert was very up tempo, loud, and full of vocals that kept pulling me out of the paintings and back into reality that had almost nothing to do with the works in the exhibition. Seeing a show under these circumstances is one of the worst ways to see art for me.
After dinner, an armed guard escorts me downstairs and takes her post outside my door. I do not understand the necessity for a guard with a revolver on her hip, but very little about this “stay” makes sense. I enter a large space that is the back of house storage area. Peeking under the hung tarps I see that there is a sea of empty vitrines and a bunch of other exhibition props and tools. But the door to the back of house section is essentially open. Anyone (such as the guard) could come in. There is also a small table and a few chairs and a small canister with a cluster of bubble gum balls. I write some emails and prepare to bed down, and then notice that the “door” to my small room is essentially just a small frame, so anyone could step through the portal regardless of whether I lock it or not.
I lay in the dark a longtime before the long day of travel and walking wear me into submission. There is an annoying light on in the main space that is very much visible from the bed. Then, around three in the morning I am forced awake when (I think) I feel someone touch me with what feels like a rounded stick. I wake up and cry out. It’s loud. I hear no response from the other side. I want to run out and see if the guard is actually awake and present, but then I think that a black man running out of a room in an agitated state with no one with me to bear witness when I encounter personnel who carry firearms and instead I wait. I spend the next hour looking under the bed and around the back-of-house space and neither see nor hear anyone.
Finally, I do my best to find a way to feel safe. I stuff the bed-length headboard pillow into the door frame, thinking that if I drift off to sleep, at least someone shoving their way through the frame may wake me up. And to make everything worse there is no shower available to wash off the night of terror in the morning.
I spend a good part of the next day thinking about who thought this was a good idea. I have to admit that the freshness of the exhibition is constituted in its pairing the soft desolation of Hopper’s portraits with work by other artists who were not painters. The best inclusions for me are William Eggleston’s “Hunstville, Alabama” (1970) and George Segal’s “Blue Girl on Black Bed” (1976), and Susan Worsham’s “Marine, Hotel Near Airport, Richmond, Virginia” (2009). Each of these works shows an individual sitting on a bed, but making a more nuanced pitch for the viewer’s attention, offering more than loneliness or grief, an interior life that bobs to the surface of the face. However, none of the rest of the exhibition framework makes sense.
Dunn tells me that this person primarily responsible is the exhibition curator Dr. Leo Mazow. I find out later, after more closely reading the press release that the show was organized in partnership with the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, which is where the exhibition is slated to travel to. This does make a kind of perverse sense given that Newfields is the museum that has become a kind of icon for the museum-as-entertainment-venue fad, which is one of the worst aspects of the overall shift towards museums becoming more centered on visitors and more personalized. Newfields shift toward remaking itself as a sort of Instagram playground was famously called out as “greatest travesty in the art world” two years ago.
Ultimately the “hotel experience” is one of the worst things a visitor can do with regard to the Edward Hopper and the American Hotel exhibition. I do think that local audiences will find the novelty appealing, even if they don’t spend the night inside a painting. For me, it was appallingly awful. But the exhibition is still worth seeing for its moments of bruising candor.
Edward Hopper and the American Hotel will continue on view through February 23 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia). It was curated by Dr. Leo Mazow with research assistance from Dr. Sarah Powers.