Artists and creatives throughout history have been drawing connections between fine art, cooking and food. Evidence of this culinary inspiration can be seen in still-life renditions of tables displaying elaborate or simple ingredients, paintings depicting family and/or friends sharing meals, and even contemporary works of art using food as a medium or performance art commenting on the eating habits and practices within different societies and cultures.
Here at the Cincinnati Art Museum our staff is also exploring the interconnections of art and food. This past summer, staff inaugurated the art museum’s first “bake-off” cooking competition. The idea for this bake-off, which has now become a monthly endeavor, started with a shared interest among several colleagues for the art of cooking. What began as a friendly competition between a few has grown to include staff from the art museum’s many divisions and departments. For many the bake-offs have become creative occasions to explore culinary interests. For others these competitions have developed opportunities to volunteer as ever-necessary taste testers.
The first bake-off began quite humbly. At the time we had no competition guidelines other than entries had to be edible and arrive at high noon at the designated spot on competition day. Other than that, there were no restrictions. Entries could be sweet or savory, baked or simmered, as well as meat-friendly, vegetarian, or vegan. However, since then, the bake-offs have evolved to challenge its competitors by incorporating the task of interpreting the art museum’s collection.
In September, we challenged one another to delve into their creativity through interpreting the Art Museum’s Rio Delle Torreselle Chandelier by Dale Chihuly through salad. On September 19th, salads were presented that both aesthetically and conceptually represented this blown glass chandelier. There was pasta salad cleverly executed with spiraled pasta to resemble the organic twirls of the glass tentacles and salads made with Jell-O or pearl couscous to capture the glistening effect the chandelier showers when viewed with spotlights. There were also salads made with purple potatoes to represent the brilliant blue hues that are incorporated in this impactful sculpture. Colleagues from across the museum came to taste the numerous entries and vote anonymously on their favorite.
Each bake-off announces a winner based on the majority vote. With the honor of winning the competition comes the responsibility of determining the next month’s theme and artwork for which the entries must interpret. Since we have begun to interpret the art museum’s works of art through bake-offs, winners have chosen to examine the special exhibition, Realm of the Immortals: Daoist Art in the Cincinnati Art Museum through tea-infused baked goods, the Degas, Renoir, and Poetic Pastels exhibition through French cheese, and in December competitors will interpret their favorite winter-themed work of art from the permanent collection.
We are not alone in our investigation of the link between fine art and food as this has been an emerging topic among several museums within the past few years. For example: The University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art’s Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary art exhibition brings attention to the creative process that artists are taking to share meals with others as well as explores identity, culture and community through food. The recent Somerset House exhibition, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food, July 5 – September 29, 2013, was the first museum retrospective of a chef and his innovative work. Furthermore, the current Art Institute of Chicago exhibition, Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine depicts the culture of eating in America from the eighteenth through twentieth century. And, while it must be quite evident that we have taken inspiration from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art by Caitlin Freeman, in our bake-offs we are looking to explore our collection through all genres of food.
In addition to challenging staff to interpret our collection through food, these bake-offs have provided an opportunity for interdepartmental collaboration. Once a month staff from all areas of the museum can bring food and share lunch together. In doing this we have come to better know and understand one another, and therefore have strengthened our creative community. How can you and your friends strengthen your own community through art and food? What work of art from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection would you interpret through cooking?
– Mary Claire Angle
Assistant Director of School-Based Learning
Main Image: Pear + Brie Tart from the Degas + French cheese challenge; Flourless Chocolate Earl Grey Tea Torte from the Daoist-inspired tea challenge (both by Mary Claire Angle).