♦ Asset or Accessory? Art Students & the University Art Museum

The Virginia Commonwealth University’s arts facilities are spread out and disconnected across the campus. The Fine Arts Building on Broad Street or the Pollack building on Harrison Street or Franklin Street Terrace cannot reside together in one contained area. It is just not physically possible because the city of Richmond is already set. The buildings cannot be moved due to limited space. However, what is possible is to bring art students from different departments together in one single space. There are many great aspects about university art museums but there is a lot of room for progression. It is extremely important to discuss what role the art student plays in the university art museum setting because students are the collective who potentially fill the university art museums with their own artwork and energy. A significant proposal needs to be passed through the university: an elected art student on the university art museum’s board who will voice the pros and cons from the student body to help bring the art community closer together.       

             The Anderson Gallery has a reputation for holding unique shows of contemporary art. These shows make Virginia Commonwealth University a center for possible artistic connections specifically through juried student exhibitions. These opportunities provide exposure to a wide range of direct experience for students upon applying for the show, receiving feedback upon acceptance in the show, as well connections made amongst the teachers, jurors, classmates and visitors at the opening. Juried art shows supply students with much more than the traditional gallery experience such as ammunition for gallery interactions upon graduating.

The Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA

             Another non-traditional experience for art students at the Anderson Gallery is an opportunity for the collaboration between the art student and the art professor. For example, the Sponge HQ is an established subgroup within the second floor of the gallery and is led by Hope Ginsburg. It constitutes a group working toward inter-disciplinary discoveries between biology and art. While being an experimental artwork, it has generated new approaches to learning through projects like felt making tutorials to increase knowledge about the art and sciences.

             Even though the Anderson Gallery reveals opportunities for art students through programs like Sponge HQ, the undergraduate juried show and contemporary exhibitions for students to experience it still does not bring the community together as a whole.

             University art museums are unique. A university is a place for growth and experimentation, and the university art museum should be equally experimental. An established network between art students and the art school would rapidly increase in a community by fostering a more inviting, accessible and encouraging physical space within or around the gallery itself.     

            The facilities at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at the Bard College residing by the Hudson River in New York, is a perfect model for what the future Anderson Gallery needs. This facility was designed by Nada Andric and was built in 1990 by Marieluise Hessel and Richard Black. It holds 38,000 square feet of space dedicated to exhibitions, research and studies. The Center also has an excellent library holding a plethora of exhibition catalogs, reference works and materials on the contemporary arts available to everyone.

Center for Cutorial Studies and Hessel Museum of Art at the Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson, NY

           A recent addition to the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at the Bard College the 17,000 square feet of space that the Hessel Museum of Art takes up. This museum was specifically created for the Marieluise Hessel collection and it actively houses the collection up to 10 to 15 percent at any one time.

Alternative spaces, such as street corners and cyberspace, assume risk as their primary objective and, while they provide impetus for transformation in the museum, their ephemeral and radicalized nature in many cases, eschews institutions altogether. I see the university museum as a ‘third space.’ Protected by intellectual freedom, the third space of the university museum can support student-produced, open-ended exhibitions that complicate and, sometimes even contradict institutionalized narratives. As university museums increasingly re-conceptualize themselves from storehouses to spaces of encounter that foster learning communities, it follows that visitors should experience a multiplicity of voices in university exhibitions, including those of undergraduate students. [2]

             The third space should be supported by the university art museum because it is the only space where one can risk opinion and learn from direct experiences. This relationship should be balanced between giving and receiving from multiple angles and allow one student to realize such a position on his or her own. As shown through the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at Bard College, it is completely possible to physically setup a space for growth in a student's education but it needs to be heard directly from what the university should cater to at all times (the student) to become a reality.

             The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York supports this notion of an active student role with not only a facility comparable to Bard but with undergraduate student curated exhibitions.

The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, NY

                 In 2005, The Tang museum had a prominent show called A Very Liquid Heaven, which included an installation by Kiki Smith, and Charles and Ray Eames. The title comes from Rene Descartes’ theory of how the earth is surrounded by liquid and was described in his 1644 Principles of Philosophy. [8] The show A Very Liquid Heaven reflects his theory by exploring the association between fixity and change. This exhibition inspired Dr. Susan Bender’s anthropology students to have a response show called Many Different Heavens which introduced native perspectives on astronomical concepts and allowed the students to be fully engaged with the show in a whole other realm. In their own reflections:

Tang exhibitions probe the boundaries of conventional curatorial practice, frequently crossing time-periods and disciplines and encompassing the display off all types of media and objects to explore intersections between the visual arts, performing arts, natural sciences, and humanities in new ways.’ Both institutions prioritize their pedagogical functions so strongly that they have permanently reserved spaces for undergraduate, student-curated exhibitions.[2]

                These student-curated exhibitions also define the possible role of an art student in a university museum. The university art museum is a precise tool to sharpen one’s skills and intellect both in the context of the museum and in academic environments. The Anderson Gallery holds shows on the same level as the Tang Gallery, such as the Nameless Hour: Places of Reverie, Paths of Reflection which held installations by Pippilotti Rist, Janine Antoni and Stephen Vitiello.  The Anderson Gallery has come a long way for such a star - studded exhibition but has yet to push it just a little bit farther like the show A Very Liquid Heaven did at the Tang Gallery.

As university museums and galleries reexamine their mission, redefine their audiences, and clarify their position on campus and off, many are seizing on opportunities to assert what sets them apart from other kinds of museums-their pedagogical identity.(Hammond et al. 2006)

             The three universities described are inherently different. The Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at Bard College focuses on graduate curatorial studies; Skidmore College is a highly selective and private liberal arts school and Virginia Commonwealth University is one of the nation’s top public research universities and ranks as the number one public art school in the nation and third best art school overall. With that in mind, the Anderson Gallery should at least have some aspects of the two leading institutions already because of the high rankings. Not enough field research opportunities have been available for art students and art history students at Virginia Commonwealth University, which is possible at the Anderson Gallery.

             Other proposals include twenty-four hour access to the university art gallery for art and art history students and art history students for late night inspiration. These proposals and more should be spoken through an elected art student who would represent all art departments. All students from that particular department would be invited to attend semester or monthly seminars to voice pros and cons about their own relationship with their department. Then the elected art student would relay such information to the board of directors at the particular university art museum with a concise presentation at each meeting.

             An art student’s role is defined by acting upon these inclinations of wanting more from their university and the art world. Their voices need to be heard through a level of bureaucracy amongst the university. They are the ones who decide how well they will do in a certain class to how they like their food cooked at the campus dining hall. The art student body should be able to have their own comment card or verbal word with the board of the university art museum. 

1 Bach, Claudia J. A Gateway to Diversified Museum Audiences: University Students and Campus Art Museums. 1995. Print.

2 Blanco, Jose F. "Fashion at the Museum: Successful Experiences with Student Curators." (2010): 199-217.Print.  

3 Cook, Beth, Rebecca Reynolds, and Catherine Speight. Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. Print.   

4 Cuno, James B. Defining the Mission of the Academic Art Museum. [Cambridge, Mass.]: Harvard University Art Museums, 1994. Print.

5 Macdonald, Sharon. A Companion to Museum Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. Print. 

6 Pitman, Bonnie, and Ellen Cochran. Hirzy. New Forums: Art Museums & Communities. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2004. Print.

7 Hammond, Anna et al. 2006. The role of the university art   museum and gallery. From round-table discussion convened by Art Journal editorial board at the College Art    Association’s 2006 annual conference. Art Journal 65: 3 (Fall): 28.

8. Descartes, René, and Roger Ariew. Philosophical Essays and Correspondence. Indianapolis: Hackett  Pub., 2000. Print.