Leah Modigliani: How Long Can We Tolerate This? An incomplete record from 1933-1999

As of Sept. 1, How Long Can We Tolerate This? An incomplete record from 1933-1999 lines the lobby walls of the Colby Museum of Art. The artist, Leah Modigliani, lives in Philadelphia and is the Assistant Professor of Visual Studies at Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Much thought and consideration goes into the where, what, and why of the art that the museum chooses to showcase. “We take very seriously the commitment to all of our audiences; the campus community, the Waterville community, the larger international art community. The lobby is the first part of the museum that you see so we think very carefully about how to fill it. We wanted a timely and political body of work that highlights some of the social issues that we all face,” said Katz Curator Diana Tuite on the museum’s attainment of Modigliani’s piece.

The exhibit consists of photographs and corresponding captions found in newspapers concerning evictions throughout the time period that the Glass-Steagall Act was in effect. The controversial legislation, enacted in March  1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt, was meant to separate and regulate commercial and investment banking in order to protect private interests. Modigliani uses the timeframe of the Glass-Steagall Act as a way of looking at eviction, an issue that affects communities and lacks sufficient government regulation, in tandem with a policy meant to regulate and protect the individual. “It’s a way of looking at a span of time, the failures of legislation, and the role of the media,” said Tuite.

Students have a chance to interact with and study alongside Leah Modigliani’s thought-provoking work pertaining to questions of loss and displacement.

Chosen with this year’s arts and humanities theme in mind, the study of “origins,” Modigliani’s piece humanizes the problem of eviction through its display of families thrown out of their homes and sleeping on the streets. The exhibit ties together communities and stories in an engaging and powerful manner. Below an image of a woman sleeping on the street surrounded by furniture and miscellaneous belongings reads the newspaper caption, “Mrs. Ethel Lawson, penniless invalid, slept in the street last night, only a stone’s throw from a beautiful home in which she lived 19 years.” Accompanying a photograph of an elderly woman with a sad look on her face, bundled in clothes to keep warm, reads another press clipping, “According to Miss Bond, the trouble started last February when she tossed her landlady out of her apartment. The rent jumped from $45 to $75 a month after the incident.” The photographs capture the faces of those turned away from their own homes, eliciting a level of sympathy and understanding in the viewer. There are photographs of communities coming together to protest eviction and skyrocketing rent prices. There are photographs of families and children, some smiling, some crying, and some eating lunch. Each photograph tugs at the heartstrings and tells a human story of loss and despair.

All together, the exhibit resembles a skyline. The horizon runs consistently throughout and the photos of the press clippings extend upwards vertically while the corresponding captions mirror the photos below the horizon. “The visual format of the piece makes you think about the way the accompanying text governs your interpretation of the images. It makes you question how things are portrayed in the media and how we read our newspapers,” said Tuite. With the press coverage dispersing off of the horizon line, Modigliani visually represents the problem of eviction as unseen and happening in the background, or off of the horizon.

Through her timeline of press coverage concerning the issue of eviction, Modigliani invites her audience to consider the role and power of the press. The press can either realize a political agenda or challenge policies in an effort to make a change. Eviction is an ever-expanding problem too often ignored. Faced with Modigliani’s presentation of the press coverage of evictions, one begins to realize the lack of coverage modern eviction receives. Without a humanized image of eviction, its actual cause, and the problems it creates, the public is too able to turn its head or to place blame on the tenants. More often than not, eviction is due to factors outside of the tenant’s control. The affordable housing crisis, gentrification, and the whitewashing of neighborhoods are problems that communities around the country face, but that lack the sufficient coverage needed to bring them to the public eye. The effect of the media is not only up to the source, but can also be a result of the public’s perception of the news they are confronted with. When viewing Modigliani’s piece, this effect is experienced firsthand and the interpretation of the news presented is left up to the audience. In this way, Modigliani beautifully combines art, politics, and journalism.