They needed to paint the walls with crushed vegetables. They had to build a miniature luxury home out of mud and manure. They needed chickens to live in the gallery. And it had to be ready in a week.

That was what graduate sculpture students Umico Niwa and Petra Szilagyi envisioned for their project as part of the Mature Fruitbody exhibition at the Anderson. Their schematic of an ideal house, with chicken droppings decomposing to spawn new life, would be based on the shape of a horse ridden by the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf.

The show’s curators needed to take those ambitions and make them real—an enormous responsibility for this group of art history students. But after a semester of careful preparation and research, they were ready to get their hands dirty.

At first, this project may seem like a far cry from the lecture hall. However, in the new art history class Curatorial Theory and Practice, the rigors of traditional scholarship and studio artmaking work in conjunction. Students study and debate how art is shown in a gallery space, before planning and executing an exhibition of their own. As a result, the class has reaffirmed their career ambitions in a way no other experience could.

“Seeing what curating is like first-hand really set in stone that what I love to do is create and collaborate,” says Lauryn Pulliam, an anthropology major and art history minor who took the class. “I love showcasing the artist and their message, and connecting the audience with the artist.”

Petra Szilagyi, MFA student, working with curatorial team members Kyle Maurer and Rebecca Mohr.

Allison Myers, visiting assistant professor of art history, was inspired to develop this cross-disciplinary course after she completed a fellowship with the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin. At the VAC, Myers served as the mentor for the Center Space Project—a student organization responsible for organizing and installing three exhibitions of student work a year. She worked closely with the Center Space students as they juried and selected shows, developed budgets, installed artwork and conducted marketing.

“After that experience, I thought, ‘It would be so fun to make this an actual class,’” says Myers. “These students were so invested in the process, and they got to work with other students in this capacity that you don’t typically get in a seminar room. It’s just really practical, hands-on experience for anyone interested in the art world.”

Myers expressed to Peggy Lindauer, chair of art history, her vision of a course where students could leap into the role of a curator, and where participating in the realization of an artist’s intentions through an exhibition would be a central lesson. With the full support of the department, including funding for materials and publishing, Myers made Curatorial Theory and Practice a reality.

Crafting this collision between scholars and artists took two semesters. In the fall semester, students studied exhibition histories and read texts on the role and practice of curators today. After passionately continuing their work through winter break, they curated and installed their exhibitions in spring.

Myers wanted students to have complete agency over the exhibitions—just as a professional curator would. “I’m interested in creating a horizontal learning environment,” says Myers, “where students get a say in what they’re learning about.”

John Huggins, BFA student, describes the installation of his work to Professor Allison Myers and curatorial students Elise Ryder and Elena Gavrilovic.

In the first semester, they learned how to write wall labels, press releases and grants. Meanwhile, Myers sent an open call to MFA and BFA students at VCUarts to gather a cohort of artists interested in exhibiting work.

Myers’ students were split into three groups according to their interests, and each conducted independent studio visits to determine whose work they wanted to show. Then they were tasked with creating an exhibition concept and writing a mock grant proposal—complete with a statement of purpose, a budget, a layout and artist bios.

Once spring came around, it was time to mount the shows.

“This semester we hit the ground running putting up the show,” says Rebecca Moore, an art history major, “which was kind of crazy because we had about a month after winter break.”

The three shows—Mature Fruitbody, fēkit and Thresholds—were each distinctive, involving conceptual art, illustration and time-based installations. But they were united in their liberated approach to the experience of viewing art.

“We wanted to have this interaction between the art and non-art worlds,” says Gabrielle Pena, an art history major and co-curator of fēkit. “We wanted to break down the white cube space that a lot of galleries have.”

The accompanying text of Thresholds reads, “Collectively we present the gallery as a particular threshold between intimacy and social reality, where we invite visitors to consider how their stories join with those of the artists.”

(L) The chicks get ready for their performance; (R) Promotional poster designed by students in Professor Lauren Thorson’s Posters Only graphic design class.

In the Mature Fruitbody gallery, baby chickens cooed in their miniature home. A sprawling seaside vista was rendered on the south wall, painted in crushed vegetables and coffee. Like its concurrent shows, Mature Fruitbody was alive and inviting.

With the remainder of the spring semester ahead of them, Myers wants to ensure they have a substantial documentation of their efforts to create these exhibitions. For their final project, students will create digital books that document and expand their exhibitions with research and essays.

“I like my classes to have a practical, useful component,” says Myers, “so that the students can take something away from it.”

Lead image: Sophie Haulman, BFA student, installing her work.


March 7, 2019