College of Humanities and Social Sciences
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

A student-curated exhibition brings the art of the Americas to Mason

by Kristin Leonato

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Arts Management student, Pei "Nicole" Chun, helps unwrap a painting during "installation week."

It was a beautiful spring day at Mason and Michele Greet’s students couldn’t be happier stuck inside a windowless room in the Art and Design Building. The shipment had arrived!

Thirty pieces of artwork were loaded into the Fine Arts Gallery to be unwrapped slowly and methodically by a handful of students. These thirty pieces of artwork represented months of writing late into the night, conducting hours of difficult research, and innumerable deadlines. Now all that hard work is paying off in spades. The thirty pieces of artwork are now an exhibit, opened to the public on April 10, 2017, called “Evoking Place: Fifty Years of Landscapes from the Art Museum of the Americas.”

“Curating an Exhibition” is the simple title for a course that compresses every phase of the art exhibition process into just four, short months. Open to graduate and undergraduate students, most of those enrolled are majoring in art history or studying arts management. While the semester course has been flying by, it has been years in the making.

Photographing the condition of the artworks upon arrival was one of many steps in "Installation Week"

Several years ago, the director of the Art History Program and associate professor, Michele Greet, and alumna Adriana Ospina, MA Art History ’13, hatched an idea. Ospina had recently been named curator of the permanent collection and education programs at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) at the Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington, D.C. The professor and her former student hoped that one day they would be able to curate an exhibition together with current Mason students. After months of meetings on the innumerable details of space, time, insurance, logistics, costs, contracts, and agreements, the vague idea became a concrete reality. In spring 2017, Greet would lead a group of Mason students curating an exhibition on the Fairfax campus, using pieces from the AMA’s permanent collection.

In January the students gathered with Greet for the first class. A daunting syllabus and abundance of enthusiasm drove the team to dig into their project immediately. There wasn’t any time to lose!

The semester began with two class sessions in the Art Museum of the Americas with Ospina and other members of the curatorial staff, followed by many hours of combing through digital images of the museum’s extensive collection. The class settled on the theme of landscapes, selected the final list of works to be included, and launched the research and writing phase of the course. Each student was assigned a set of art works to research, focusing on the artist and the particular painting. From this research they crafted content for the exhibition program, wall texts, a press release, and gallery talks.

 Students perfectly align the wall text for one of the 30 landscapes in the exhibition

Art history major Morgan Bitler said the research was her favorite part of the course, but it also caused her quite a bit of frustration, especially when there was very limited information about a particular piece, or the artist had a small or even non-existent online presence. She described her experience in the course as “intense,” explaining, “I’ve never done anything like this. I love research, but the hands-on curatorial experience really brings it all together.”

Fellow classmate Alex Castro shared similar sentiments. He said the course was “daunting at first,” but he really enjoyed “the chance to research and write about artists that haven’t been extensively studied and where some of the pieces don’t even have descriptions yet… where you’re really finding something new and hope to do justice to the artist.”

This dogged research brought unexpected rewards. One of the students found Filemon Santiago Avendaño’s Facebook page and contacted him through the social media site. A working artist in Mexico, Avendaño was pleased to hear of the students’ project and agreed to Skype into one of their class sessions!

The course is providing meaningful scholarly and professional experience for these Mason students, and has also been beneficial to the Art Museum of the Americas. This unique project is built on a true partnership between Mason and the AMA. While the students are able to work in a real museum setting, the AMA benefits from their research, curatorial work, some additional framing provided, and the introduction of the collection to a new audience in northern Virginia. The AMA is even considering hosting “Evoking Place” in one of their own galleries in late summer or early fall.

A student leads a gallery talk of the "Evoking Place" exhibition

“I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I’m just as excited as the students are!” Greet beamed, while watching her students unwrap artwork for the first time. “This is just the thing we should be doing” chimed in university curator Don Russell, as he stepped aside to assist a student completing a “condition report” on a medium-size painting nearby. Greet and Russell officially oversaw “installation week,” the opening reception, gallery talks, and the many steps along the way, but it’s obvious the students are the ones actually in charge. It’s their show and they have truly made the most of it. 

Greet sums it up nicely, saying, “It’s been an absolute dream of a class. I’m so proud of them.”

Professor Michele Greet (far right) and several of her students from the spring 2017 "Curating an Exhibition Course" 

“Evoking Place: Fifty Years of Landscapes from the Art Museum of the Americas” is open to the public from April 10 to 29, 2017 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday and 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Saturday, in the Fine Arts Gallery in the Art & Design Building. Students will be leading gallery talks on Friday mornings from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and all are welcome and encouraged to attend.


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