Sundown is casting soft evening light over the smell of freshly cut grass. A younger-than-usual crowd is gathering in the gated garden of Carnegie Mansion, now home to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. They’ve come to see jazz musician Esperanza Spalding perform live with her sunny band of lyrical, like-minded peers (including Mezcalitos, Nadia Washington, and Rose and the Nightingale.)
Strings of cello, bass, and violin fill the air, as the legs of our orange plastic chairs sink a few inches deeper into the damp lawn. The audience sits straight-faced, working hard to intellectualize the free-spirited, experimental performance unfolding before them. It’s work they need not do—neither here, nor inside the gallery where the new exhibition “Esperanza Spalding Selects” is on view (through January 7, 2018).
“I’m a musician, not a curator,” says Spalding to the gawky gaggle of reporters perusing her selection of more than 40 design objects that includes drawings, prints, textiles, jewelry, and an upright piano—all placed in a contiguous loop around the room as if they were notes set to sheet music. (Spalding’s “Selects” show follows previous iterations by fashion designer Thom Browne, television host Ellen DeGeneres, and architect David Adjaye.) The most dominant object is the music itself—a compilation from the Smithsonian Design Library’s collection titled “Love Songs of the Nile” (1933), which Spalding has reinterpreted and recorded as an original song that plays in the background, her voice filling the gilded room.
There is a discordant element to the collection, in that these objects conjure images of colonialism, racism, and perspectives of beauty that originated in different hemispheres and whose manufacture spanned centuries. But Spalding casts a solid through-line in between them, based on the theme of evolution, which is the main subject of her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution.
“Studying the history of these objects, I’ve learned that design does not progress in a straight line. Design grows in response to the same essential forces of breaking down and building up that inform all innovation,” says Spalding. “All of these objects reflect a juncture in design where previously held values, forms, and relationships broke down as their new iterations emerged.”
This isn’t merely what an art gallery would look like if a jazz musician ran it. This is a singular expression derived directly from the passionate convictions held by Spalding. Still, this isn’t her turf. It’s a historic Smithsonian institution that lauds itself as “the nation’s design museum.” Traditionally, any curator coming within ten miles of this place has a Ph.D. in art history and a tweed jacket to prove it. But Cooper Hewitt’s director Caroline Baumann is changing this cliché by enabling and inspiring outsiders to enter the world of design. Since she took the helm in 2013, she’s been inviting public figures to interpret and present the museum’s vast collection with their own vision. Today, it’s Spalding’s turn.