In May 2011, Grinnell College students were involved in a wide range of exhibitions, both as the makers of the art on view and as the curators of the exhibitions. These experiences provide an excellent complement to the learning that goes on in the classroom: learning that focuses on the history, theory and challenges of museums, as well as the history, theory, techniques and conceptual underpinnings of the creation of works of art. For their exhibitions, students had to make decisions that affected how to present work to the public (not just to their professor), to write for a diverse audience, to make an idea visible (and not just verbal), to keep to a schedule and manage time effectively, and to work as a team with other students and with the Faulconer Gallery staff.
Throughout Spring semester, art majors presented a series of solo exhibitions in the Smith Gallery in the Joe Rosenfield Center. Each artist was responsible for every aspect of the exhibition: designing the exhibition, installing and lighting the works, planning the opening, and promoting the exhibition on and off campus. Selecting work for exhibition and casting a critical eye on one’s own work to present a coherent show are challenging tasks that can only be learned by doing.
Meanwhile, at the Faulconer Gallery, the students in the Art Department organized the Annual Student Art Salon. Students selected an art professional to serve as the juror—this year they contacted Gilbert Vicario, chief curator at the Des Moines Art Center. They put out publicity to the student body announcing the upcoming Salon, collected 143 works of art by 62 student artists, and managed all the paperwork. Mr. Vicario selected 30 works of art by 20 students for the exhibition, and awarded a number of prizes. While there is always disappointment among students whose work is not selected for the Salon, it’s a valuable learning experience about the jurying process. The final exhibition was an outstanding presentation of the best of student art at Grinnell.
Students in the Fall semester course on Museum Studies curated an exhibition built from the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College Art Collection. Ar[t]chive: American Art in Historical Context, 1930-1990 presented 40 works by American artists in chronological order, hung above a corresponding timeline of historical facts. The students hoped that the historical information would provide a context for the art on view, presenting the art against the times in which it was made. To create the exhibition the students had to study the art, determine a theme for the exhibition, work together to select the art for the exhibition, conduct research and write essays about selected pieces, find the historical facts, edit the essays and facts, frame the art, hang the art, create the labels, and install the timeline. They also created a corresponding website (http://www.grinnell.edu/faulconergallery/exhibitions/studcurexhs/artchive_site). I was especially struck by their ability to work collaboratively as a group of 17, producing a coherent and high quality exhibition and sustaining their involvement over two semesters. The exhibition drew warm praise from those who saw it (attendance exceeded 3500 visitors in about 8 weeks).
Finally, every semester we ask our student intern to curate an exhibition of his or her choice, drawn from the collection. This semester we had a team of two interns, and they jointly curated an exhibition on Women in Conflict. Working with the Curator of the Collection, they surveyed a number of prints and drawings, before settling on their checklist. They wrote the accompanying wall text and offered a gallery talk about their exhibition, which they installed in the lower level of the College’s Burling Library.
Academics are paramount at Grinnell College, but many subjects can only be understood through practice. Science students have this experience in the laboratory. Social science students develop ways to collect data in the real world. The Faulconer Gallery, through its exhibition program and collections, offers students a way to deepen their understanding of how the presentation and exhibition of art is fundamental to how we see and what we know.