With Art and Altruism, an Exhibition Explores the Strength and Beauty of Interconnection
The nonprofit collective MASS Design Group astutely understands how to promote equity and hope through the built environment. From its dignified design for the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, to its thoughtfully integrated hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa—some of which feature in MASS’s upcoming book, The Architecture of Health (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), as well as the upcoming Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum exhibition “Design and Healing” (December 10–August 14, 2022)—MASS understands how architecture can impede or advance our collective human rights. (The firm’s founding principal and executive director Michael Murphy elaborated on the links between design and public health on Ep. 13 of our At a Distance podcast.)
MASS, an acronym that stands for Model of Architecture Serving Society, is also a member of the Design for Freedom Working Group, a band of experts in the built environment working to eliminate modern slavery from the building materials supply chain. Design for Freedom is one of many initiatives from Grace Farms, an 80-acre cultural center in New Canaan, Connecticut, that addresses humanitarian issues through art, nature, faith, and community. A central part of the organization’s fall programming is “Common Good Through Crisis” (October 30–fall 2022), an exhibition Grace Farms commissioned MASS to design, along with graphic designer Eddie Opara and his team at Pentagram, that will inaugurate a new gallery space for the public in the facility’s East Barn.
The show spotlights people who have selflessly used their skills, and mobilized their networks, to serve others in big ways. The selection of stories, which mostly took place in the throes of the pandemic last year, demonstrate how one’s connections can be a powerful tool for fostering action and change. “As the pandemic unfolded, it reminded us of our invisible and tangible relationships, which have never been more important,” says Maggie Jacobstein Stern, a senior associate at MASS. Through the exhibition design, she continues, her team wanted to “communicate the urgency of connection, and of staying together.”
Upon entering the presentation, visitors encounter a series of photographs and corresponding narratives on large plaques that line the perimeter of the space. Among the individuals profiled is artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose 2020 public-awareness campaign “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” helped spread life-saving information to Black and brown communities—which have been disproportionately affected by the virus—through a series of billboards, wheat-paste posters, buttons, magnets, and other items that paired her photographs with straightforward healthcare guidelines. She created the project while an artist-in-residence at New York’s Syracuse University, and distributed the work at local churches, testing sites, food banks, and other service-oriented locations. Soon, various museums connected to Weems formed a coalition to help the project reach a national audience. (Grace Farms worked with Weems to identify Native American communities in need of PPE, and sent them the supplies.) Dr. Theresa Bowling, an anesthesiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who volunteered to help patients with severe Covid-19 before much was known about the illness, is also recognized, as are the individuals who helped Grace Farms provide food relief for more than 125,000 people last year.
MASS arranged the narratives around a big, geometric central sculpture, made from crisscrossing strands of different-colored threads. It extends from a far corner of the room, across the ceiling, and down to the floor. “It’s a literal and symbolic representation of interconnection,” Stern says, “and shows how the strength of such interactions are dependent upon others.” The piece has a participatory element, too: Fabric is on hand for visitors to weave onto the sculpture after viewing the exhibition, providing a moment for reflection.
Stern hopes that by observing how one person’s actions can ripple across a community, visitors will recognize the impact and potential of their own decisions, and apply that perspective to their everyday lives. “Altruism is something that can be carried with you,” she says. “We wanted to emphasize the beauty in that.”