Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci is always looking for ideas to incorporate into her Curatorial Practices seminar. So last year—like every year—she called the Phillips Museum of Art with a simple question:
“What do you have on the back burner?”
The museum’s staff informed Aleci about an opportunity to work with the art of early 20th century American modernists William and Marguerite Zorach. The professor accepted the invitation—one that opened endless possibilities for her students.
“I’ve never created an exhibition with students around major historical figures,” Aleci says. “I couldn’t pass up such a rich and challenging opportunity for the students.”
The students’ work over two semesters has resulted in “Paint and Spirit,” an exhibition in the Dana Gallery that highlights the diverse works of the Zorachs. The exhibition opened Oct. 20 and runs through Dec. 13, and has already garnered press coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Sunday News, among other outlets.
Aleci and her students had special access to major works by the Zorachs through Professor of German Cecile Zorach, whose husband, Jonathan, is the artists’ grandson. They also visited other collectors in the region; some students went to major museums such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum to assess potential loans to their exhibition.
The process of bringing the exhibition to life began in the spring semester of 2011, when Aleci led the first of two seminars built around the work of the Zorachs. The students performed a variety of research, from visiting collections and meeting collectors to developing a plan for the public display of the work.
“It was exciting to do a lot of firsthand, primary research,” says Bonnie Halloran ’11, a member of the spring seminar who is now the museum’s Mellon post-baccalaureate fellow. “We were set loose on primary sources, and allowed to draw our own conclusions.”
Members of the spring seminar “handed the baton” to those in the fall seminar; several graduates even returned to share insights with the current class, including Ferry Foster ’11, Lauren Siegel ’11 and Halloran. “One class has handed its vision to another,” Aleci says. “The students have a tremendous amount of trust in each other.”
Students in the fall seminar explored how best to use the space in the Phillips Museum. One challenge, Aleci says, was making the newly unveiled Nissley Gallery “talk” to the Dana Gallery through a transitional space. The class devised a way to explore the influence of early American “folk” and craft tradition on the 20th century Avant-garde, providing an appropriate transition from the permanent collection in the Nissley Gallery to “Paint and Spirit.”
The students received support from numerous members of the F&M community in preparing the exhibition, including Claire Giblin, curator of exhibitions; Maureen Lane, registrar and collections manager; Russ O’Connell, sculpture and print shop supervisor and exhibitions coordinator; and Eliza Reilly, director of the Phillips Museum.
“All of us want to be involved with museum work in some way, and this was our first experience with what we want to be doing with our lives,” says Ellen Kecskemethy ’13, a member of Aleci’s current seminar. “Everyone on the museum staff treated us as colleagues. They really made us feel like we made an intelligent contribution.”
Members of the spring session of Curatorial Practices were Courtney Brozyno ’12, Foster, Caitlyn Frank ’11, Halloran, Kaitlyn Kines ’13, Emily Livingstone ’11, Chelsea Troppauer ’11 and Siegel. The fall seminar includes Charlotte Donovan ’12, Madeline Fye ’13, Yuan Gao ’12, Deena Gittle ’12, Rachel Jones ’12, Kecskemethy and Morgan Young ’12.
“I can’t say enough good things about these students,” Aleci says. “They’ve accomplished a Herculean task. I still don’t know if they realize what a high-level job they’ve done.”