While many may decide to stay home after the holidays, the college provides numerous programs to fill up the January month with productive experiences or low-stakes classes. One such program was “Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the Mead” through the Mead Art Museum, where a group of seven students were given the opportunity to select a new piece to be exhibited in the Mead.
Over the course of five days, students visited art studios and galleries to learn about the art market and experienced everything from hands-on printmaking to the behind-the-scenes interaction between artist and buyer.The course began with students touring the Mead’s current collection in order to gain a better understanding of what kinds of artwork are valuable to a museum and how their purchased piece should fit in with the larger exhibition space. Students then headed to New York to see the five pre-chosen artists’ work in person. “The trip gave us a closer look at how artists and galleries collaborate and how they choose where their artwork goes,” said Skye Wu ’23. “This year, we were given five different prints to choose from, all by underrepresented artists … each one of us gravitated towards different pieces,” she said.
Both Wu and Anna Hogarth ’23, gravitated towards “Exit,” by Andrea Carlson, which the Mead ultimately selected to add to its collection. “I was first drawn to the piece because it was trippy and confusing. This print is full of colors, some metallic, others as bright as a highlighter … I could not help but stare at it for a long time,” said Hogarth. When the students returned from New York, they began to research each of the artists in order to understand the context behind these paintings. For Wu, the most exciting part about the process was the chance to actually talk to artists themselves. “We were given the opportunity to ask them questions about their personal lives or what influenced them in creating their work,” Wu said. “That was really rewarding.”
All of this research and planning were building up to the final day of the course, in which the students were tasked with pitching the works to the Mead. “The students were never given the final decision, so we basically had to advocate to the public for this piece and why it was better [for the collection] than the other four,” said Wu. The public then had to take a vote for which piece they wanted most in the collection; they chose “Exit.”
As an indigenous woman, Carlson’s background clearly informs her work. In regards to “Exit,” Hogarth described, “Her piece focused on the story of an Indigenous Man Mound landmark in Wisconsin which has been cut through by a highway and the associated fear of losing cultural landmarks.” She continued, “I loved how this piece brought attention to the often forgotten significance of a natural space: its cultural history.”
In the artist’s notes on the piece, Carlson detailed the destruction of such a history. She writes, “The west as a colonial project produced descriptions of the ‘Americas’ as new land, a new world, while actively destroying and uprooting evidence of the Indigenous ancient world.” For Wu, this context is one main reasons why she advocated for the piece. “There are so many elements to this piece, and in order to understand all of them, you have to learn about them,” she said. “I believe that when you look at an art piece, it should somehow change your way of viewing the world. If you just look at something and understand it right away, you’re not really learning anything, and you might just think ‘oh, that’s pretty’ and move on, but art should go beyond that.”
Hogarth echoed Wu’s sentiment. “When I presented on the piece, someone in the audience asked me how I felt about the fact that most of the meaning of the piece generally cannot be interpreted without external explanation. I said that I loved that. By creating a print that did not have any standout Native American symbols or markers that one might expect, I have to look closer at the piece, ask myself questions about its symbols and understand that there is so much I do not know about Native American culture,” she said.
Both students had strong, positive takeaways from the course. Hogarth explained that after taking it, she “had a new idea of the power an art piece can have in a museum.” She continued, “Now, I will look more closely at why certain art pieces are in museums, if it is still important to display them and which people are not represented in a museum’s collection.” Wu described the course as an experience that gave her a greater appreciation for not just art overall, but specifically the Mead itself. She said, “I’m pretty into art, but prior to this course I don’t think that I’d ever been to the Mead before. How ridiculous is that?” She continued, “Now, after being a part of this program, I’m going to try and get a job there.”
Wu’s experience could be reflective of the larger student body’s lack of engagement with the museum. It’s easy to take the space for granted, given that it’s so accessible, but going into it with this heightened level of interaction could make the museum quite an insightful experience. Hogarth said, “Take a walk through the gallery and challenge the curator’s choices! If there is something missing at the Mead, you have the voice to say something about it.”