At the Anderson, a team of students curated a showcase of Philadelphia artists

Students have become curators for the next big show at the Anderson. The space, which typically features artwork created by students, will instead be exhibiting work by Philadelphia-based artists that have been personally selected and installed by a class of six art majors. The show, titled “When the Whirlwind Begins,” will be on view from November 8 through December 11.

Preparation for this exhibition has taken months. Since August, students have driven back and forth to Philadelphia to meet artists, learn more about the city’s history and culture, and decide on work to include. Back in Richmond, they’ve met weekly to hash out the show’s theme, devise the floor plan, and do any necessary paperwork. Now, as the opening reception on Friday night creeps closer, they’re busy transforming the Anderson as they see fit—deciding which walls to paint, how to screen videos, and even how to represent the Ulises bookshop included in their roster of artists.

The students each represent a variety of VCUarts’ studio programs—Craft/Materials Studies, Photo + Film, Painting + Printmaking, Sculpture, Kinetic Imaging and Graphic Design—which gives them a unique perspective on the curation process. In their new roles as gallerists, working opposite from artists has provided insight on how their own professional persona is perceived.

“I’m learning a lot,” says KI major Madie Thompson. “I’m learning how to present my work online to make myself more accessible to people that might be scouting. I’m learning the language you need to use to communicate with people who are curating or scouting artists.”

“One thing you have to overcome as an artist [curating] is that gut feeling of, ‘Oh, I like this,’” says photo student Rebecca Renton. “But why do I like this? Why does this work?”

In addition to Ulises—which will have a reading room plus a selection of books—students worked with a wide range of locals, including video artist Marie Alarcón; Art 21-featured artist Alex Da Corte; and multimedia artist, professor and Haitian Voudon priest Erlin Geffrard.

Students enjoying Ethiopian food in Philadelphia.

Kayla Romberger, a founder of Ulises, helped to connect students with the artists in town. Through conversations with them at their Philadelphia galleries, they determined which artworks would suit the show and complement the other pieces.

“The bottom line goal is to represent Philly honestly,” says Thompson.

This is the second time that the Anderson has hosted this course and mounted a related exhibition (at no additional cost to students). Chase Westfall, curator of student exhibitions and programming at the Anderson, leads the class and offers his own professional advice to guide them through the semester-long process, with Abbey Umphlet, curatorial research intern, working alongside students as well. But Westfall and Umphlet don’t tell them what to do—they push the class to think critically and learn as they go.

Students working together during install.

A week before install, they took the class to the Institute for Contemporary Art to chat with the design team. Michael Lease, the director of facilities, talked about the planning of the ICA’s past year of exhibitions, from the material costs and design tools to how the look of the final show changed over the course of months. His experiences working with contemporary artists particularly resonated with the class. How to navigate artists’ ideas and requests while maintaining a healthy rapport—especially at a distance—were central tenets of his advice.

“You help people fall in love with a work of art,” said Lease.

Staff at the Anderson have placed a lot of trust into these student curators because they were each nominated by their respective departments. Renton was selected by photo professor Jon-Phillip Sheridan, who notified her last spring that she was the faculty’s choice.

“It’s such a high compliment for a professor to say, ‘You should represent our department for a show,’” says Renton. She adds that the opportunity to work with students across disciplines—including craft, painting, sculpture, and more—as well as artists from a different city, has been worthwhile. “I don’t think I would abandon fine art for curating, but I think it’s an interesting co-practice. Being able to be outside of your practice and look at other peoples’ art is really satisfying.”

Students align a painting at the Anderson.

For Elisa Slaton, a graphic design senior, participating in the production of “When the Whirlwind Begins” has sharpened her focus on the future. Slaton wants to work closely with artists, helping them realize their vision in a gallery or collaborating with them creatively as a designer.

“It’s changed the trajectory of where I want to go. It’s very exciting,” she says. “Before, I wanted to work in probably a graphic design studio or freelance. But now, I really am pushing to work alongside an exhibition team. That’s where I see myself.”

Visit the Anderson for the opening reception of “When the Whirlwind Begins” on Nov. 8 from 6–9 pm.

Lead image: students touring with the Recycled Artists in Residency program in Philadelphia. Images from trip courtesy of the Anderson.