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Introducing Dr. Alison Reilly

Published April 17, 2023

Congratulations to Alison Reilly, who defended her dissertation “The Bistro Model: James Johnson Sweeney’s Curatorial Vision” under the direction of Dr. Adam Jolles in the spring of 2023.

Alison’s research examines James Johnson Sweeney, an American museum director and curator. Her dissertation explores the development and implementation of Sweeney’s system of display, the “bistro model,” a label derived from the director’s writings. Reilly analyzes specific exhibitions from the 1930s through the 1960s that were fundamental in shaping Sweeney’s curatorial practices and aided in canonizing modern art in America. These exhibitions took place at the Renaissance Society of Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In her dissertation, Alison considers how Sweeney adapted his curatorial practices to the contemporary socio-political landscape. He used the gallery setting to help museumgoers understand art as a communicative tool to convey the experiences and ideas of artists during specific temporal moments. 

Dr. Jolles writes;

The field of museum studies has been blossoming in Art History for several decades now, but remarkably few studies have examined the key figures who shaped how Americans experience modern art. Ali’s dissertation addresses this absence by attending to one of the most important and neglected of them, curator and director James Johnson Sweeney. We’ve known for some time about the various models proposed by some of his better-known peers and rivals—Albert Barnes in Philadelphia; Alfred Barr, Jr., in New York; Katharine Kuh in Chicago; and Hilla Rebay, his predecessor at the Guggenheim, come immediately to mind. Ali’s research illuminates how Sweeney adapted theoretical models from literary criticism (chiefly through his teacher and mentor I.A. Richards) to curating. She creatively explores how through his installations and exhibitions he engaged with contemporaries—in architecture, interior design, and even restauranteuring—to develop a curatorial model fully in line with a mid-century American modernist sensibility. She traces Sweeney’s exhibitions through three major American cities—Chicago, New York, and finally Houston—a career that in itself distinguishes Sweeney from his peers and shows the evolution of his distinct curatorial practice. Ali’s well-researched dissertation considerably amplifies and enriches our understanding of the history of curating modern art in the United States.

During her studies as a doctoral student at FSU, Alison received the Penelope Mason Travel Grant for Dissertation Research to conduct research at the Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives, the Menil Foundation Archives in Houston, TX, and the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Alison also visited the New-York Historical Library Archives, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives, the Barnes Foundation Archives, the University of Illinois-Urbana library, the Museum of Modern Art Archives, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Archives to research Sweeney’s exhibitions and career. She received the Congress of Graduate Students (COGS) funding to present parts of her research at the College Art Association conference and the Rothemere American Institute, Oxford University. Alison currently works as an instructor in the Department of Art History at Florida State University. She plans to continue focusing her career on teaching curatorial studies and art history.