Out of the classroom, into the art gallery

Curating class

When the new exhibit “Framing Exposure: Process and Politics” opens April 29 at ICA, 10 undergraduates will breathe a sigh of relief. For these Penn students the exhibit represents the culmination of a yearlong seminar on contemporary art and the art of curating. It also stands as living testament to their ability to negotiate loan agreements, handle insurance forms, deal with the headaches of moving art from A to B, and, in short, think like curators.

The aim of the course, headed up by Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Assistant Professor of Film Studies Karen Beckman, is to give students (majoring in Art History, Visual Studies and Cinema Studies) a grounding in both the intellectual and practical issues with which contemporary curators grapple.

To bring the subject matter—video, film and installation art—into focus, Beckman took her students on trips up and down the East Coast to see art in museums, galleries and private collections. She wanted her class to get maximum exposure to art, and she also felt they should learn about some of the “big anxieties in the contemporary art world,” such as the ongoing debate on how to exhibit artists’ films. “There’s a difference between film in an art museum and film as a form of mass entertainment,”  she says, the latter being a passive activity, the former a potentially exciting interactive experience.

So Beckman, with teaching assistant Beck Fibelman and the ICA’s Whitney Lauder curatorial fellow Sara Reisman, went out of their way to show their students a wide range of installations, from translucent video screens in the middle of a room—where the image is visible from both sides—to video monitors that capture the viewer s image.

We wanted them to think about the ephemeral quality of the projected image, as opposed to the weightiness of something you might see at the Barnes,  says Reisman.

A four-day trip to Texas, where they visited collections in Dallas-Fort Worth as well as sculptor Donald Judd’s ranch at Marfa, gave the group a shift of cultural context. “For a lot of people it was a revelation that the art scene was so developed outside of New York City,” says Beckman.

After seeing hundreds of pieces of work, the students decided exposure—in all its forms, mechanical, political and physical—would be a compelling theme for their exhibit. Beckman was impressed by how doggedly her students searched for the best works to explore the theme. “One of the things a curator has to do,”  adds Reisman, “is to follow their instinct about an artwork and back a claim about its contextual or aesthetic value. They learned to do that.” 

With 10 people making decisions, Reisman concedes there were lengthy rounds of voting and negotiation. “In reality curating is not a democracy, but this class is a democratic body where ideas have to be respected,” she says.

This semester the students have been working with ICA staff to finalize details for the multi-media exhibit. Some are working on a documentary video with the artists in the show. Others are putting together the exhibit brochure. Still others have been writing the wall labels.

The students have been surprised at how many details go into putting on an exhibit, says Reisman. Their instructors in turn have been surprised at the students’ ingenuity and creativity. For one site-specific piece, ParaSITE, a portable homeless shelter by artist Michael Rakowitz will be set up on the Sansom Street sidewalk outside the ICA, with a tube attached to the vent of the building. The warm air from the vent will both inflate and heat the plastic tent. Figuring out the logistics of that piece required support from a vast range of people across campus, says Beckman, and the students have taken it a step further by contacting groups that work with the homeless community and writing about the problem of homelessness in the exhibit brochure.

“The range of what they’ve done is incredible,” says Beckman. “My experience in the classroom up to now has been pretty much purely scholarly and to see how it gets put together in this other way has really challenged the students, and me, to think about the variety of ways of looking at art.”

“Exposure: Process and Politics” runs April 30-July 31 at ICA, 36th and Sansom streets. An exhibition walkthrough for ICA members will take place April 29, 5-6 pm, followed by an opening reception open to all from 6-8 p.m.

For more information, go to www.icaphila.org.

Originally published on April 28, 2005