Students organize a 'Space for Dialogue' in Hood

by Alex Rich | 11/16/01 6:00am

A painting does not just magically appear on the walls of a museum gallery. Likewise, an exhibition cannot be thrown together in a matter of days -- or even weeks.

In fact, the art you see displayed in a museum betrays only the end-result of extensive behind-the-scenes preparation.

Indeed, the job of a museum curator involves much more than selecting a work of art and placing it in the galleries. Starting with the initial brainstorming process to writing wall text to adjusting the lighting over each individual piece of artwork, a curator must work alongside the rest of the museum staff, taking innumerable factors into account in each of his or her selections. It is this inherent interactivity and meticulous preparatory process which sets the stage for the Hood Museum of Art's new student curatorial program, entitled "A Space for Dialogue: Fresh Perspectives on the Permanent Collection from Dartmouth's Students."

In an ongoing effort to increase student involvement in the museum, the Hood began the didactic program this term, offering student interns the opportunity to work closely with museum staff and to curate their own small exhibition in the front hall. "A Space for Dialogue" aims to give students a firsthand look at the curatorial process and its integral role within the museum as a whole.

Though these students have the freedom to design their own exhibitions from the museum's permanent collection, they inevitably learn that picking artwork is not as uncomplicated as it may ostensibly seem. While functioning within the constraints of budgets, deadlines and even the often-limited availability of desired objects, the student curators learn that their initial visions for their exhibitions may take on new shapes as the research and selection process unfolds.

The first student-planned "perspective," on display now near the museum's front entrance, was curated by Hood Curatorial and Student Programming Assistant Amelia Kahl '01. Though she is a museum staff member and not a student intern, the recently graduated Kahl is the self-proclaimed "guinea pig" for the "Space for Dialogue" program in its first outing.

Before anything else, Kahl explained, she had to choose which objects she thought would best fill the space. Further, she wanted to select objects with some kind of unifying aspect or theme.

"I wanted to find something suitable for the space. I was thinking of something either colorful or large to be seen from the entrance," Kahl said.

Under the guiding hands of Kathy Hart, the Curator of Academic Programming and Bonnie MacAdam, the Curator of American Art, Kahl was able to focus in on a narrower spectrum of works from the 60 thousand objects theoretically available to her from the museum's collection. Since only a small fraction of the works in the permanent collection are on display in the museum at a given time, the "Space for Dialogue" program allows for the Hood's rarely seen objects to make their way into the main galleries.

Kahl eventually settled on a 1997 sculpture entitled "Geraniums" to set the initial groundwork for her mini-exhibition. Created by former Dartmouth artist-in-residence Fumio Yoshimura, "Geraniums" has never before been exhibited at the Hood.

Kahl was particularly interested in the two-fold nature of the wooden sculpture, which naturalistically mimics a potted geranium plant in form but its unpainted state reveals that it is intrinsically a work of art.

"It is realistic but at the same time it is not realistic," Kahl said.

With "Geraniums," Kahl found both an object to fit one of the two allotted spaces for her exhibition and an overarching theme for the additional works she still needed to select. Working under the general motif of realism and plant-life, Kahl found two turn-of-the-century botanical illustrations, drawn by Elihu Vedder in 1898 and 1900.

These two illustrations from "The Book of Mushrooms," which was actually never published, are fastidiously detailed depictions of two types of mushrooms, annotated with the artists' written observations concerning smell, shape, and texture of the fungi. Kahl was particularly interested in the way the plants' qualities are described visually and textually on paper in the illustrations as opposed to the sculpture's three-dimensional approach.

In addition to selecting Vedder's drawings for their appropriately realistic focus, Kahl necessarily accounted for space restrictions and the ways in which her chosen objects interacted with each other. Also, as part of a curator's job is to prepare informative text on the works of art in the collection, Kahl found herself "choosing works also based on the amount you can write."

As the pilot curator for "A Space for Dialogue," Kahl believes that her experiences met the proposed informative and educational goals of the program. Even in selecting only three objects, Kahl discovered that the process extends far beyond the initial research.

Certainly, the curatorial process, as revealed in the program, is anything but a solitary endeavor. A real curator -- and thus each student intern -- must work with many staff members, getting approval for each selection, meeting deadlines for exhibition schedules, and even working with editors on the corresponding text.

As "A Space for Dialogue" strives to illustrate and Kahl has learned, "You have to ask: do we have space? Do we have a case for it? You need to choose frames. You have to prepare wall labels. You have to design lighting. It is not just 'Ooh, that looks pretty!'"