Sunday, May 3, 2015

Young Curators at the Coe

The Ralph T. Coe Foundation has just completed a new project. The President of the Foundation, Rachel Wixom, wanted to further one of her Uncle Ted Coe’s, goals,--education.  You could not be in a room with Ted for more than a few minutes that he was not enthusiastically teaching you about some area of art that he was currently involved with either as an advisor or a collector.

Rachel had the idea that the Coe Foundation should expose young students to how an exhibition is put together and through that teach them about something that they might not normally come in contact with.  Through one of our board members, Teri Greeves, Rachel got in touch with the art teacher, an artist, Andrea Cermanski, at The Academy for Technology and the Classics, a charter school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  There were many students who were interested in the program but kids today have huge commitments not just at school but with extra curricular activities, sports or dance or family obligations.

In the end six students joined the program but again for the above reasons two had to drop out so we ended up with four dedicated students, three from 8th grade and one sophomore.  Since the Coe is working towards a major museum exhibition of Native American Art at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian this summer, the students were invited to organize a small in-house show of indigenous works from other cultures.

Their first instruction was to wash their hands as soon as they came into the Foundation so that they could handle the objects in the original.  They were then asked to select one or more objects that would be theirs with the goal of an exhibition curated by all of them together.  They picked objects from Benin the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Borneo, Pantar and Fiji.

A couple of masks had been chosen so they put them in front of their faces feeling the media that the mask was made of and the weight when worn for a ritual. Two similar clubs were chosen and by lifting them the student learned that their weight and sizes varied.  They were seated with their computers in the Foundation library to research their objects.

We have an expert on our board of directors, Taylor (Tad) A. Dale, who has been a scholar, dealer and collector all his life; he brought in from his own library books pertinent to the objects chosen. He also sat down with each student, individually, to guide them over any rough spots.  They learned how serendipity plays into research when by chance they came across objects that were similar to the one they had chosen and could extrapolate from them.

Tad and his wife, Sandy, invited the kids to their home where all surfaces are covered with so many works of tribal art that it would take weeks and months to study each one.  The students were allowed to pick up hats that they could try on and pose with. Having met the scholar at the Foundation they met the enthusiastic collector at home.

The students also visited the Museum of International Folk Art where curator Laura Addison took them through a current exhibition, “Pottery of the U.S. South: A Living Tradition”.  They learned what a didactic wall label was, what an object label was, why the walls were painted different colors, the reason that some objects are put in cases and others not.  Then she took them to an empty gallery, which was being readied for installation.  Surprisingly, this sparked their imagination, how an exhibition starts out as an empty unpainted room.  After they visited a storeroom where many museums hold the majority of their collections they went to visit the conservation lab.  This was a revelation to all of them, exciting those interested in science the most.

Back at the Coe Foundation, Rachel carefully guided them in picking a new color for the main wall and pedestals, showed them a format and size for a wall label and what kind of content was needed to go with each individual object.  They also came up with a wonderful title for the show, “Hands On: Culture Shock”.

Then opening day arrived. The students came with their families and were joined by a number of fans of the Coe curious to see this pilot program. Two of the students, Oscar Loya and Alexis Willis gave a short presentation about their experience.  Ashley Barrows and Manpreet Sandhu also spoke about their objects and then the students answered questions from the audience.  They had said that in doing this project they had learned “backwards” working from the object to the books.  Those of us who are regularly involved with the actual art feel that going to the book first is backwards!  Already there was a lesson learned.  They also learned that there are different approaches to a work of art and many ways to interpret it.

I read recently that the Cleveland Art Museum has a program called Teen Co-op where high school students are mentored by staff over an entire year.  The opportunity to learn about museums from the inside out seems to me the best way to ensure the younger audience that administrators are always talking about.

Before the Coe program ended the students were asked what they liked about the program and what name they might like as a title or the program.  I had suggested Rachel’s Kids but they rejected that as belittling, there were already other programs with titles such as Young Curators but when Curatorial Mayhem was suggested they loved it and said that is what their fellow students would want to attend.  What do you think?

For two of our students further opportunities were offered.  One was asked if she would like to come back to the Coe as an intern this summer for a few hours a week.  Another was offered by Landis Smith, conservator at the Museums of New Mexico, the opportunity to gain some experience in the conservation lab, learning about the preservation of museum collections and how the application of science is applied in the conservation of art.

Bottom line:  Through this project eyes were opened on both sides of the equation and Rachel is looking forward to continuing and even expanding the program.

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