Curatorial collaborations: Student-organized shows at Yale’s art museums

It seems the students are running the show at the Yale art museums this month — or at least organizing them. Two exhibitions curated by undergraduates opened on April 4 at Yale's art museums.
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The students who collaborate with museum staff to create exhibitions hail from many fields — from biology to political science to history.

It seems the students are running the show at the Yale art museums this month — or at least organizing them.

Two exhibitions curated by Yale undergraduates opened on April 4: “Art in Focus: Wales” at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and “Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton,” at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).

“The student curators come from all different fields of study,” said Pam Franks, deputy director for exhibitions and education at YUAG. “They bring different perspectives, which is what makes these exhibitions such a success.”

At both museums, the students are responsible for every aspect of organizing the exhibition, from choosing and researching objects to selecting themes, writing labels, and designing a layout. Throughout the process they work closely with museum staff, including curators, educators, registrars, editors, conservators, and designers. In some cases, students work on apps and multi-media projects to accompany a show.

“Students have the benefit of conversations and collaborations with specialists across the museum,” said Franks. “They form a new intellectual community around works of art.”


“Wales” at the YCBA

Linda Friedlaender, curator of education at the YCBA started the Art in Focus program in 2006 in order to give students just this kind of opportunity. An annual initiative, Art in Focus offers undergraduates in the center’s student guide program a chance to gain curatorial experience and an introduction to all aspects of exhibition practice.

“We want to make it as student-driven as possible,” said Friedlaender. “It’s important that this be a fun, enriching experience for students, where they get to explore the collection, work with museum staff, and learn how to put a show together.”

Friedlaender also noted that students who participate have a chance to sharpen their research, presentation, writing, and leadership skills. “It can be a transformative experience for them,” she added.

Many undergraduates in the guide and curator programs are not traditional history of art majors. For example, students in the YCBA’s guide program come from a variety of fields, including biology, history, and political science. They meet at the center once a week for guide training; students curating an exhibition meet an additional day every week.

“It becomes a really tight group,” said Friedlaender. “In addition to their training they spend a lot of time together and hang out socially.”

Samuel Palmer’s “Tintern Abbey” (1865).
While the YCBA guide program includes 25 students, just eight of them worked on this year’s Art in Focus exhibition. The student curators are Emily Feldstein ’16, Kathryn Kaelin ’15, Olga Karnas ’16, Rebecca Levinsky ’15, Anna Meixler ’16, Daniel Roza, ’15, Katharine Spooner ’16, and Lynnli Wang ’15.

“This is a place we all love, and curating an exhibition has been an amazing opportunity,” said Levinsky, noting that it was exciting to organize a show in a compressed timeline.

It is not unusual for museum exhibitions to take several years to organize. Planning for “Art in Focus: Wales,” however, geared up last fall and took only seven months to complete.

“It’s amazing to see your work visualized,” Levinsky said.

“Art in Focus: Wales” explores the history of interest in Welsh landscapes, ruins, and the “bardic” tradition through oil paintings, finished watercolors, and plein-air sketches in the YCBA’s collections. Works included in the show are by artists such as Richard Wilson, Thomas Rowlandson, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, William Blake, and Samuel Palmer.

The students were able to draw from each of the museum’s curatorial departments, and all the guides were invited into the paintings storage area and study room to choose objects for the show.

“We all fell in love with Palmer,” said Levinsky, noting that the artist’s sketch of Tintern Abbey (1835) was a group favorite. In addition, the curators were excited to be able to include works by major artists such as Turner and Blake.

“This show has all the heavy hitters!” she added.

The display is augmented by 19th-century publications that encouraged an appreciation of Welsh landscape; the works are from the center’s department of rare books and manuscripts. An interactive display, both in the exhibition and available online, allows visitors to explore the geography and chronology of the works in the show.

Student curator Spooner echoed Levinsky’s sentiment that it’s exciting to celebrate the finale of several months work.

“I hope people will come away from the exhibition with a new appreciation of this period as a whole,” she said.

The Art in Focus exhibition is related to another show at the YCBA, “Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting,” the first major exhibition devoted to the Welsh-born artist in 30 years.


“Jazz lives” at YUAG

The Yale University Art Gallery also has a tradition of providing curatorial opportunities for undergraduates. “Jazz Lives” is the seventh show organized by students to open at the museum. The YUAG also runs a gallery guide program and offers internship opportunities across curatorial and education departments.

“Student-curated exhibitions are a mainstay of the art gallery,” said Franks, noting that there are two other student shows in the works, one that will open in May and another this fall.

“Students are an integral part of our exhibition program, as well as being one of our key audiences. This makes our program more interesting and the engagement all the more vital,” she said.

“Jazz Lives,” has been curated by Nina Wexelblatt ’14, Alexander Dubovoy ’16, and William Gearty ’14. Both Dubovoy and Gearty are musicians in the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective (YUJC) and were excited for the opportunity to build awareness about jazz music at Yale.

“From the perspective of a jazz musician, it has been such a valuable experience to look at the history of this music through these photographs,” said Dubovoy, a jazz pianist and singer. “I had never been involved with the art gallery before and enjoyed creating a space where visitors can learn about the music in an open forum.”

Milt Hinton’s “Louis Armstrong, Hotel Room, Seattle” (1954).
“Jazz Lives” brings together photographs by Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton that capture the people, spirit, and history of jazz. Friedlander’s photographs of New Orleans musicians were made during a series of visits to the city from the late 1950s to the 1990s. The photos by Hinton, a renowned bassist, were shot over the course of his musical career, which spanned much of the 20th century, and offer an insider’s view of the jazz scene.

“I didn’t know who Milt Hinton was before I worked on this project,” said Gearty, president of the YUJC, who plays the saxophone. “I learned through our research that he has been credited on more jazz albums than any other artist in history.”

The exhibition grew out of the YUAG’s decision to publish an expanded version of “Playing for the Benefit of the Band: New Orleans Music Culture,” featuring Friedlander’s photographs of New Orleans. In addition, the art gallery had a relationship with Hinton’s family and estate. The jazz artist was one of the first Ellington fellows in the Yale School of Music, and worked with Willie Ruff, a professor of musicology and theory, and founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program at Yale.

The challenge for the student curators was how to integrate the two photographic collections together.

“There is always more than one way to tell a story,” said Molleen Theodore, assistant curator of programs, who worked with the student curators.

Nina Wexelblatt, who plays the violin, took Theodore’s class on the art of the 1960s and 1970s last fall, worked on a Sol LeWitt project at YUAG, and has volunteered at other arts organizations. She appreciated learning how the jazz scene in New Orleans developed over time.

“The two bodies of work are amazing. I was grateful for the access we were given,” she said. “It was a lot of work and a lot of responsibility to weave the two narratives together.”

According to Wexelblatt, the artists’ perspectives were so distinct that in the end the curators chose to split the collections into two different spaces that flow into one another.

“The Friedlander space is more like a photography gallery, whereas the Hinton side has a piano in it; it’s a little darker, and has a jazz club feel,” she said. “The photos are laid out in the manner of a filmstrip. It is also where the performances will take place.”

Programming is an integral part of the exhibition, and the organizers have drawn from all different areas of the jazz community at Yale and in New Haven. Performances will be given by a number of Yale undergraduate groups; a group of graduate students from Yale School of Music; professional groups; middle- and high-school groups, including the Foote School; and the Neighborhood Music School. Among the performers will be Friedlander’s son, Erik, an acclaimed jazz cellist and composer, who will play on Monday, June 2 at 5:30 p.m. (He will also perform at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on Saturday, June 14.)

“It’s been an incredible process to see how this all comes together,” said Dubovoy.  “It’s great to see the art gallery — an established institution at Yale — expressing interest in this music, coming to students, and saying, ‘We are interested in something that you’re passionate about and we want you to be involved.’”

For those at Yale’s art museums who work with students, the experience is equally rewarding.

“I love working with students and I’ve learned so much from them,” said the YCBA’s Friedlaender. “It’s a real collaboration in the true sense of the word.”

She hopes the experience of curating an exhibition will encourage students to visit and support museums into the future.

“Our program helps student become comfortable in museum settings and learn how to look at works of art. I hope they make museums a part of their lives forever.”


More information about the exhibitions

“Art in Focus: Wales” is on view through Aug. 10. There will be an exhibition opening tour by student curators, followed by a reception, on Friday, April 4 at 4 p.m. Student guides will also give tours of the exhibition on weekends at the YCBA. In addition, the center is hosting a graduate student symposium on the visual arts in Wales, “Wales/Iâl/Yale,” on Saturday, April 5 from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The program includes a keynote lecture by Peter Lord from Swansea University, Wales. The symposium is free and open to the public.

“Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton” is on view through Sept. 7. The gallery has scheduled a number of talks and performances by student, faculty, and community jazz groups throughout the run of the exhibition. The first performance will be Sunday, April 6, at 3 p.m. in the “Jazz Lives” exhibition gallery. The group, Newspeak, is Alex Dubovoy’s jazz ensemble, featuring fellow undergraduates Hans Bilger ’16, Harvey Xia ’16, and Eliz Brown ’17, with Emma Akrawi ’14 as a guest vocalist.

Admission to both museums, including the exhibitions and programs, is free and open to the public.


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