Clare Twomey: Forever



of an Exhibit

by Tara O'connor

Published on December 30, 2010

  • Description:

    Walking into the still-new Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is an entirely different experience than using the former main entrance to begin your journey to the Nelson. Though I’ve always loved those enormous bronze doors and the stonework of the Beaux-Arts design, it is not the most inviting building. The Bloch, however, is. The building feels smooth and inviting, and is one of those spaces that upon entering, any visitor would feel invited. From the entrance, you naturally head straight to the information desk and are asked to choose whether to continue into the Bloch space or continue to the original building.

    I knew that Forever was deeper into the Bloch so my choice was made. Walking down a long and empty hallway to the exhibit spaces, I began wondering what the exhibit would look like. I knew that there would be lots of ceramic cups, and that visitors were invited to apply to own these cups, but I couldn’t visualize how that would translate into an exhibition. Then I came to the exhibit. From the hallway, you take a sharp left into the exhibit space and first see orienting text on the wall as well as two cups centered on a table. When I walked in, the table was flanked by docents and lined with visitors filling out papers on clipboards. I wanted to know what they were doing but first turned further left (almost a U turn from the hallway) and in this rather small space, I saw rows and rows of cups. They filled the space beautifully.

    Now, having a sense of the space, I went back to the text printed on the wall and learned that the exhibit was inspired by a gift to the Nelson in 1941. This gift was of 1,345 British pre-industrial ceramic objects, and had an extensive list of stipulations attached to the Deed of Gift. These stipulations restricted the Nelson from ever selling, de-accessioning, or splitting the collection, and included others such as one stating that the pieces must always accessible to the visitor. Reading this, I wondered to myself whether many museums would agree to such terms today. Further in the text I learned that Clare Twomey visited the Nelson and was moved by the permanence of this gift. Inspired by the requirement that the gift be held “in trust forever” as the original deed states, Twomey took one piece from the collection and replicated it 1,345 times to create Forever.

    Each cup on display features a label that provides typical origin information, as well as space for the name of its selected owner. Visitors are asked to choose a cup and fill out a deed which is similar to that of the original gift, asking the potential owner to agree to keep the cup forever, keep it on display and care for it as you would a work of art. The Nelson then selects applications at random, and gifts each cup to the first applicant to list its number. The cups will then remain on “loan” until the end of the installation, at which point their new owners are asked to come pick them up.

    As I was visiting toward the end of the installation, most cups had been assigned owners and those labels were filled in with a hand-written person’s name. I searched out a group of cups that hadn’t been claimed and quickly scanned their assigned numbers to see if any felt more special than the others. Settling on cup #1297, I rushed to the table with the clipboards to apply for my cup. While filling out a deed, applicants are invited to touch the two cups on the table and consider the implications of owning one of these pieces.

    It was amazing to see how quickly the experience engaged me and the other visitors. I wanted a cup and felt I could provide a good home for it. I imagined where I would display it and wondered if it would still have meaning without all the other 1,344 by its side. The immensity of the Nelson’s promise to the owners of the original collection now resonated; I wondered if I could make that same promise for this one cup. It then occurred to me that I needed to go find the original gift.

    I immediately left the exhibit and traveled into the original building to start my search. When I found the exhibit, I realized I had seen it probably 100 times before but never appreciated all of the implications of which I am now aware. I found the original cup, was impressed by its similarity to Twomey’s cups and surprised by its size (it is much larger than the cups in Forever) and began looking at the rest of the collection. For those minutes spent in this exhibit space, I looked with a little more intention and really considered the permanence of this exhibit and of the Nelson’s agreement. I left the Nelson excited to have learned something so interesting about an exhibit that I’d never really thought much about and anxiously await notice of whether I’d be selected to care for a cup forever.

Latest Comments (2)

good review, Tara

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

I usually want more than one image to be able to get a sense of the exhibition, but your one photo is great—captures the essence. How long will this exhibition be up? I really like your inclusion of seeking out the original collection. Good job.


by Tara O'connor - January 04, 2011

Kathleen, The exhibit closed on January 2nd. As bummed as I am that I won’t be able to go back, there’s also something wonderful about its impermanence.

Log in to post a response.