This spring, I’m teaching ART 4813/5813: Museum Exhibition; our special topic is the history of photography. Student curating is always an adventure, because it brings together group work, subject learning, and real-world outcomes—all on an ambitious timeline! In fact, in just two weeks, our exhibition, “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” will open at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art.
Thirteen students have been working since January to curate the exhibition. We jumped right in at the start of the semester, visiting the museum to see a selection of photographs that demonstrated some of the strengths of the collection. Registrar Cindy Clark and I had done some behind-the-scenes prep work: she sent me illustrated lists of every photograph in the collection—there are over 500 of them—and I selected 150 for students to work with. For our first visit, I sorted them into three rough thematic categories: landscape, abstraction, and photojournalism. As we looked at them together, the students realized that these loose categories were fluid: some landscape photographs are abstract, and some photojournalist images of people make their point by situating their subjects in meaningful landscapes. What was attracting us to certain images regardless of category, and how might we turn that into a conceptual question that would guide our curatorial process?
Back in the classroom, with reproductions of the artworks spread across the seminar table, we discussed themes that emerged in our museum visit. We thought about the photographs as physical objects: how did technical experimentation inform the images that artists produced? We also considered subject matter: how do photographers use framing, pose, and other formal elements to create a visual narrative that tells a story—or invites the viewer to do so? At this stage in the process, the students confronted the eternal curatorial challenge: they had to narrow down the list of photographs that they found intriguing—that they had become invested in, intellectually and emotionally—to a number of objects that would fit comfortably in the gallery. To help make these difficult decisions, they developed their conceptual question: “How do artists use the formal techniques of photography to tell stories that conceal/reveal their subjects?”
Using that conceptual question as a guide, students did independent research on photographs they felt should be included in the show. Creating “inclusion statements” that were loosely based on the type of acquisition statement prepared by museum curators when proposing additions to the permanent collection, each student made a case to their peers for specific artworks. Once we’d narrowed the selection down from 50 to about 35, we started thinking about the photographs as a group, rather than as individual works of art. What common threads connected them, and how might we tell a curatorial story? The process began with brainstorming: looking at the photographs on our short list, what compels us about them? What do they share? As the students talked, three key themes emerged from their conversation: concealing, sensuality, and memory.
Those keywords helped the students focus the exhibition, and we eventually narrowed our object list to the 24 that will be included. As the students continued their research on the individual artworks, our next deadline was a title. How could we transform our concept question and keywords into a title that enticed museum visitors and conveyed some of the content we are eager to share? We began to play “magnetic poetry” with words and phrases that had come up over the course of our many conversations: writing words on individual sheets of scrap paper, rearranging them as a brainstorming tool, and writing completed ideas on the white board. For the students, there were several takeaways from this process: first, the importance (and difficulty!) of avoiding clichés; second, the seductive appeal of alliteration; and third, the power of choosing precisely the right words. “Intentional Exposure” won everyone’s vote because in just two words it captured a surprising variety of meanings—without giving anything away.
With the opening date getting close, we started to think about the visual element of curatorial storytelling: the exhibition layout. Art history students are used to telling visual stories: in papers and presentations, they compare objects and images, using them to drive explorations of all sorts of history. But in the gallery, the material reality of objects is suddenly a factor to be considered. Unlike images in a powerpoint slide, artworks in a gallery can’t be resized or cropped in order to conform to the needs of the presenter! Two students, Tanna Newberg and Sheridan Dunn, were in charge of leading a discussion about layout. Once again, we met at the museum, where Tanna and Sheridan offered their classmates a proposed layout. From that starting point, we discussed sightlines, visual rhythm, and graphic design, along with educational elements and other considerations.
Working around the current exhibition, “Washed Up,” students enthusiastically debated solutions to all of these concerns—and discovered once again that they were emotionally, as well as intellectually, invested in the outcomes. Passionate about objects that they’d been researching, and bringing their experience as museum visitors to bear on the process, they made thoughtful cases to one another for particular decisions. By the end of the class period, they had agreed on two things: they had a layout with which they were satisfied, and they will almost certainly want to make changes when they see the actual artworks in the gallery next week.
“Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection” opens at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, 720 S. Husband St, Stillwater, OK 74074 on April 2, 2019. An opening reception, including a guest lecture from museum donor Robert Flynn Johnson, will be held on Wednesday, April 3, from 5-7pm (talk at 6).