Art at Watson celebrates 10 years of art, education and community

For a decade, a committee of faculty, students and staff has brought more than 40 diverse exhibitions to Brown’s Watson Institute, amplifying the institute’s mission of promoting a just and peaceful world.

Ten years ago, then-director Richard M. Locke gazed down the corridors of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and knew they needed a touch more color and culture.

"[He] saw three long hallways with bare walls and came to me and said, 'Could you please get some art on the walls?'" said Sarah Baldwin, who served as Watson Institute communications director at the time.

That began a decade-long effort to integrate art into the fabric of the Watson Institute. Baldwin convened a committee of faculty, students and staff to find and exhibit artwork that would not only amplify the institute's mission to promote a just and peaceful world, but also draw in people from the Brown and Providence communities who might not otherwise come to its buildings on Thayer and Brook streets.

Thanks to the committee's work, over the past 10 years, visitors to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs' buildings have enjoyed a rotating gallery of thought-provoking art exhibitions from local and international artists. On April 20, Art at Watson celebrates its tenth anniversary with "Art at Watson, Art in the World," a discussion with previously exhibited artists and curators followed by a reception. 

Between 2013 and 2023, Art at Watson has presented over 40 art installations and events. Exhibitions have encompassed a wide array of artistic media, including paintings, photographs, digital art, comics and documentary films. 

The Beginning

The Art at Watson committee first convened in 2012 with the goal of exhibiting works by students, faculty, staff and artists from the broader community related to the institute's mission. Composed of a rotating group of Watson staff, faculty and students, the committee seeks to use art to amplify the institute's mission and draw in members of the Brown and Providence communities who might not otherwise interact with Watson. 

The first exhibition organized by the committee in 2013, "Abbott Gleason Pictures: 1961−2013," featured paintings and drawings by former Watson associate director and historian Abbott "Tom" Gleason. Gleason had recently begun creating artwork—an avocation of his youth—again after the onset of Parkinson's disease robbed him of his ability to do his academic work. Baldwin said, "Tom had a lifelong love of art and had produced a body of work that was coherent. We thought it was appropriate to offer him the walls of Watson for an exhibition."

The following year, Art at Watson presented three exhibitions that set the tone for those that would follow in terms of international scope and variety of media: "Rio Pictoresco," a collection of 30 black-and-white photographs of Rio de Janeiro by Brazilian photographer Cesar Barreto; "Bollywood Satirized" digital works by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew that offered a critical commentary on the societal expectations the artist experienced as a woman growing up in India; and "BAD GIRLS," featuring paintings by Iranian-born artist Bahar Sabzevari that depict the paradoxes and conflicts built into the roles defined for Iranian women.

When asked to describe what Art at Watson tries to accomplish beyond filling blank spaces on walls, Baldwin responded, "There are different ways of understanding the world. Data is one. Science is one. And art is another." "If you think about the mission of Watson, which is to promote a just and peaceful world," she said, "the ability of creative expression to create connections, generate empathy, spark conversation, and provoke thought means that art can have a meaningful role to play in that project."

Subsequent exhibitions have featured artists from around the world and embraced a wide variety of artistic media, including three documentary films: "Escaping Africa," a senior project directed by Danielle Perelman, a 2017 Brown graduate, explores the effects of a plane crash in Tanzania on one family over the course of 4 months; "Albatross," a film by Chris Jordan, documents the horrific effect of plastic waste on birds in the Pacific Northwest; and "Beneath the Polar Sun," a collaboration between local filmmakers and a Brown climate scientist.

Art from the community

Works from community artists—painters, photographers, dancers, musicians and filmmakers—have been a part of Art at Watson exhibitions throughout the years. Art at Watson has also displayed works by Brown undergraduate students as well projects by post-doctoral researchers. Numerous times Watson's faculty brought exhibition ideas to Art at Watson to coincide with specific events and studies taking place within the buildings.

Art from around the world

Beyond Providence and the U.S., works exhibited by Art at Watson have included art from or about Amazonia, the Arab world, the Arctic, Argentina, Brazil, the Caribbean, Chile, China, Cuba, India, Kurdistan, Mexico, Mesopotamia, Myanmar, Spain, Syria and Wales. Climate justice, economic inequalities, warfare, crossing borders and displacements have been frequent subjects for Art at Watson.

Currently on display

Three Art at Watson exhibitions are currently on display in and on Watson buildings.

"Seeing Silicon Valley" features photographs by local photographer Mary Beth Meehan. The exhibition includes eight large vinyl banners depicting images of Silicon Valley workers and residents on the exterior walls of the Watson Institute's main building at 111 Thayer Street. Four-foot-high prints inside Stephen Robert '62 Hall at 280 Brook Street comprise the remainder of the exhibition and will be on display through June of 2023. 

Also currently on display, "Congahead: A Journey through Six Decades of Latin Percussion," consists of photographs of Latin, jazz, and pop musicians taken over 60 years by Martin Cohen. "Back to School: EPI Students Reflect on Unexpected Lessons" features mounted essays by currently and formerly incarcerated Emerson College students. Both exhibitions can be viewed on the second floor of 111 Thayer Street.

Baldwin said she has been pleased with how Art at Watson has been received over the past 10 years. "I am so grateful for the support we've gotten from both former Watson director Rick Locke and current director Ed Steinfeld," she said. "The attendance and the conversation around some of the exhibitions have been really gratifying as well," she added.