Derived from the Latin word curatus, meaning “to take care of,” curate was a word originally used in galleries to refer to caretakers for prized works of art. Today, nearly all exhibitions begin with the curatorial process, which is a broad term to describe each step involved in the planning, organizing, and arranging of artwork for an exhibition. Its origin of careful attention still holds true as an important, though not widely discussed, part of the art industry. Fortunately, students working in the University Galleries get to see the curatorial process in action, and an exciting new option for MFA students allows them the chance to gain first-hand experience with an exhibition concept of their own.
In the University Galleries, Director of Exhibitions Jodi McCoy often oversees curatorial duties, with the exception of occasional guest curations, often by Art + Design faculty. Opening up the option for students to collaborate is relatively new for the galleries. The most recent example of student co-curation is the current exhibition at Carolla Arts Exhibition Center, Mapping Awareness: Social Objects and Detritus, which was a shared effort between Jodi and MFA student Shauna Le Ann Smith. “Shauna was involved in all of the original ideation, all of the writing for wall text and promo, the layout and artwork selection, and meeting the artists—it was a full collaborative process,” shares Jodi.
Though the collaboration between Shauna and Jodi was a first, it was not the first student-curated exhibition for the galleries. Shauna partnered with fellow MFA student Nadia Issa for the summer 2021 exhibition Socially Distanced, an open-call exhibition for Brick City Gallery. Socially Distanced began as a one-time request but paved the way for more regular student involvement in the curation of future exhibitions. “It really started with Shauna and Nadia expressing interest in using the gallery space to get some curatorial experience, and then it grew from there. We made it an application process to make it equitable,” explains Jodi. When an email was sent out to all MFA students with the application for this summer’s exhibition, Shauna eagerly responded with her ideas and intentions, and she and Jodi quickly got to work.
An idea for an exhibition typically comes from an interest in a specific topic and a curiosity for how artists are exploring that topic through their work. While Jodi sometimes discovers artists through fine arts organizations, periodicals, or conferences, it can also be a more informal instance of hearing about someone through word-of-mouth or social media. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of artists being on Instagram, not necessarily to sell work, but because we can all get into an algorithmic hole and discover people we never would have before,” Jodi adds.
In the case of Mapping Awareness, the original concept centered around a particular genre of art rather than a specific artist. “A core intention of mine was to use this opportunity to share information about socially engaged art, a contemporary art form that Jodi and I both research and celebrate, however, is not wildly known in the area yet,” Shauna shares. Shauna had created a list of artists creating socially-engaged work that she had dreamt of working with and shared that list with Jodi soon after they started working together. From the list, they found a clear connection between the work of Catherine Reinhart and Giovanni Valderas.
The curator’s next step is reaching out to artists about featuring their work. Knowing an artist personally is a rarity in most cases, so Jodi often begins by cold emailing an artist to express interest in featuring their work. “I can usually gage when someone just won’t respond because they are so big. . . but, nine times out of ten they will always respond and be game for figuring something out,” Jodi shares. Getting the communication started can be intimidating to a new curator, but Jodi’s prior experience was especially helpful for the parts of the process outside of Shauna’s comfort zone. “Jodi was extremely gracious with her knowledge and answered all my practical and theoretical questions . . . Getting to witness how Jodi communicated with the artists helped me, rather instantly, see that artists are often eager and grateful to be asked to exhibit their work,” Shauna adds.
“Once Catherine and Giovanni agreed to exhibit their work with us, Jodi and I began to dig into their practices. All along Jodi and I kept in touch about the connections we found between their practices and the broader ideas we felt their work grappled with,” explains Shauna. When working with multiple artists, additional care and attention goes into displaying individual works to share a cohesive message. An exhibition’s layout can be planned ahead through virtual rendering software or on paper, but most of the final placements do not come together until installation in the gallery space. Jodi is okay with cutting a piece during installation if it just does not work for the space, but she strives for what she describes as a magical moment when all of the planning and ideas come together even better than imagined.
Deciding which works to feature in the exhibition was part of the learning experience for Shauna. “One step that surprised me was the difference between asking artists to exhibit specific artworks versus giving them the opportunity to exhibit what they wish. Jodi taught me her philosophy of offering artists the space and financial support to exhibit what they would like, including new or unexhibited work. This practice is highly fruitful for the artist and the curator, and I believe asks the curator to be hyper-present and intentional in how they respond to the work,” Shauna shares.
It may seem as though curators simply find the artists, hang the artwork, and present the finished show, but Jodi and Shauna focused on taking a mindful approach to responding to the artwork to keep the integrity of the artists’ original intentions. With this in mind, curatorial text was not written until after the works were delivered. “I learned that curation can be more than a process of ‘plug and play’ artworks to fit a theme. Rather, curation can be a more organic and responsive process that puts the artwork and artist’s practice first and the development of the curatorial theme second. The latter process fosters rewarding abundance, intentionality, and the chance for new things to happen,” Shauna adds. The result is an exhibition that intermixes the work of two artists in a way that naturally builds around shared themes of their work.
“The entire process of co-curating this exhibit with Jodi will remain a highlight of my graduate school experience. One takeaway is that I desire to continue to practice curating. I truly enjoy how curatorial work is focused on attention and care of the work of artists in a way that promotes new understandings and public education for the local community via the exhibition format,” Shauna adds.
Taylor Ladd is a graduate assistant for the Department of Art + Design. She is working towards her master’s degree in writing at Missouri State University with professional interests in writing about art, culture, and food.