The World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF) contains a sprawling collection of chess memorabilia that was moved from Miami to a converted house in the Central West End in 2011. The building was most recently a doctor’s office–just last Christmas, WCHOF received a pie addressed to the medical practice. A giant wooden chess piece looms out front, a 14-foot tall king certified as the world’s largest chess piece by Guinness World Records in 2012. Shannon Bailey, WCHOF’s chief curator, assembles shows with the hope of highlighting how chess is thoroughly embedded in popular culture. WCHOF recently finished an exhibit, “The Queen Within,” that featured the work of legendary fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and she is planning an exhibit in the fall called “Living Like Kings,” which will explore the connections between chess and hip-hop. During a few early moments in her career, Bailey thought about pursuing something else: maybe teaching history, or studying law.
The closer she looks, the more she sees the language of chess hidden in unexpected places: the patter of a sports announcer calling a player a pawn, a vintage ad for life insurance which promises that “if you plan your financial affairs as skillfully as the expert does his chess game, you will fortify yourself and your family against misfortune and want.” She has set up Google Alerts like “chess and art” to manage the wide range of areas she monitors for the game’s influence. “Chess is used as a metaphor for power,” she says.
During the last presidential election, Bailey curated an exhibit called “Power in Check,” examining past presidents who had an affinity for chess. She painstakingly researched every single president, reading biographies and poring over old newspapers. “I’m just one of those people who wants to sit in a library all day, be in the stacks, and flip through old books,” she says. She also managed to obtain George Washington’s chess set, her favorite item she has secured on loan so far at WCHOF. It is made of ivory, with opposing sides of red and white.
“The pieces and how they’ve transformed– they’re tiny little sculptures, they’re tiny little art pieces.” On the top floor of WCHOF, she walks past glossy Plexiglass display cases into a side storeroom lined with shelves holding stacked grey boxes. After putting on white gloves, she opens a few, pulling out chess pieces: a tiny warrior atop a horse, both colored an even shade of fiery red, and the members of a Christmas-themed set that is one of her favorites because of its mod-inspired design. She sets a tiny snowman and reindeer head on the shelf. “I never would have thought when I was studying art history all those years ago that I’d end up at a chess museum. But it makes sense,” she says.
Downstairs, the first visitors of the day are beginning to walk through one of WCHOF’s current exhibits. In the first room, visitors walk around a monumental chessboard created by artist Glenn Kaino. The playing pieces are scale models of the artist’s own hands cast in bronze, the fingers frozen in gestures of peace on one side and fists of war on the other. Many of WCHOF’s exhibits invite visitors to interact with the objects. In the second room visitors can recreate a piece by composer John Cage, in which a wired chessboard creates an impromptu symphony of notes triggered by each move on the chessboard. As Bailey makes a move on the board, dissonant notes swell to fill the room. “I know I have changed a lot as a curator in the last two years. I have a two-year-old– she’s 26 months old now,” she says. Looking at the exhibit just before the show opened, the interactive elements made her think of her own daughter. “I see her want to touch everything.”
Bailey watches some adult visitors walk through museums with an appreciation for the suffering behind van Gogh’s tortured skyscapes, or the religious symbolism in the work of the Old Masters. But when Bailey watches her daughter react to paintings, she sees her delighted by a particular paint color or a character on the canvas. “She has a lot of tender moments with art,” Bailey says. “I see her just taking in everything … the things that she has pointed out to me in art have been wonderful.” Bailey recently returned from a work trip in New York, where she spent a few days visiting museums in Manhattan. “I was like, ‘Oh! She would have loved this painting. It would have been fun to point this out to her.’”
Growing up in a small town in rural Central Pennsylvania, Bailey was fascinated by the traces of the Civil War buried in the landscape. The meadows surrounding her, now overgrown with tall grass, could once have been battlefields. “I mean, you can’t drive anywhere without seeing some kind of historical marker. I just loved every aspect of it,” she says. Her father took her on regular trips to the monuments close to her hometown, and occasionally brought her to Washington, DC to experience some of the nation’s more famous museums. “We didn’t have any art museums available to us unless we went to the city, but there were historical societies, battlefields, and one-room schoolhouses everywhere,” she says. The stories of the people who once inhabited those places became real through the objects they left behind. “I don’t know if it was my father’s enthusiasm, or just loving to spend time with him at those museums, or that I was just drawn to history,” she says. “I just fell in love with museums, and I just wanted to learn about history as much as I could.”
She started out in college studying history, but during an art history class she initially took to fulfill a requirement, she saw historical narratives play out in rich colors and opulent pigments. She eventually graduated with a degree in art history and museum studies, and enrolled at Case Western to earn a master’s in museum studies. Many of her classes were at the Cleveland Museum of Art, giving her a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process of crafting the meticulous exhibits she had loved as a child. She could flip through curatorial files and study paintings in storage, inaccessible to the general public.
After graduating, she stayed in Cleveland, teaching and lecturing at local colleges. “Then I got married to an art historian.” Bailey and her husband met on the first day of grad school, when he was a seasoned PhD student and she was new to campus. After they married, they moved to Texas; he taught at Steven F. Austin State University, and she ran the university’s art galleries. After a second move to St. Louis, however, she took a job working at the Contemporary Art Museum in development. “I really missed working with objects,” she says. “I missed researching, and touching objects, and curating.”
Bailey and her husband have raised their own daughter on art museums–she lists off the museums they frequent, touching on most local institutions. “My husband took her to City Museum one time–and said she was way too young to be there.” Her daughter is allowed to touch the art that fills their home. “She gets a little confused at times that she can’t reach out and touch, you know, the Monet at the Art Museum,” Bailey says. “It’s not just for the sake of touching, but to hold onto things and to learn and to experience. And so now my curatorial style seems to have been inspired by this little rambunctious blonde girl running my life right now.”
Recent exhibitions at WCHOF have included a mid-1800’s chess set that pits British and Indian forces against each other, and a cartoonish set from 2008 in which Barack and Michelle Obama face off against John and Cindy McCain. “Everybody had a chess set. If you look back in Europe, especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they kept the inventories of the objects in your home, and there was always the chess set.” Sometimes, all the options can be almost overwhelming. “What show am I going to do now?” she often asks herself. “There are so many possibilities.”
For more information about Shannon Bailey or the World Chess Hall of Fame, visit here.