EXHIBIT/Students learn the art—and business—of curating

When “s(how)” debuts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, you’ll be treated to more than just the works of some of today’s hottest living artists. You’ll also get a peek into the minds of tomorrow’s art movers and shakers.

The exhibit, which is spearheaded by 10 Penn undergraduates, marks the culmination of a yearlong seminar on contemporary art and curating sponsored by the University’s Art History Department and the ICA.

As one of the few undergraduate curatorial programs in the country and the only one presented in collaboration with a major contemporary art museum, the seminar gives these fledglings a rare chance to flap their creative wings in the real world.

“I really wanted to take the class because it’s just an amazing, crazy experience,” said Quincy Riley (C’04), an art history major.

The course, which is offered once every other year, guides students through every aspect of a contemporary art exhibit, from choosing a theme to designing the exhibit to securing the loans.

Much like professionals in the art museum world, the students wrestled with limitations like budget and space. They also had creative issues to work out.

“The idea of taking ten student voices and putting it into one show was complicated,” said Erica Fisher (C’03), a senior in art history. “We each came up with five to 10 ideas… It was like starting at the bottom of a triangle and working our way up. It was frustrating because we had more than one great idea to choose from.”

What the students eventually came up with is an exhibit that weaves two themes—visual ephemerality and bodily consumption—around a single group of artworks showing how multiple interpretations can be applied to the same body of work. Viewers come away understanding how curators impart meaning to works of art.

Pieces by artists like Stuart Netsky, Thomas Ruff, Vik Muniz, Jac Leirner and Nina Katchadourian will make up the display. Riley said that after choosing a theme and traveling to several galleries around the region—including the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia and the Guggenheim in New York—students composed a “fantasy checklist” of works they wanted to include.

Securing loans came easily, said Fisher, because of the respect the ICA commands in the field. “We are getting artworks that aren’t just limited to students. It’s from a whole variety of sources like private collections and museums.”

The preview reception, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for May 2. After working on the project for so long, Riley said she’s eager to share it with others. “I was really nervous when we didn’t know the art that we’d have and when we were talking about ideas. [But it has been a] weight off the shoulders to see it come together.”

Originally published on April 17, 2003