This quarter, the Smart Museum of Art opened its respite-themed exhibition, Down Time: On the Art of Retreat, to the public, an exhibition that was largely — and uniquely — pioneered by student curators.
“It is pretty rare for undergraduates to find opportunities in the curatorial field, as most curatorial research positions require graduate levels of academic background,” said second-year Jimin Kim, who served as an undergraduate research associate on the exhibition this summer. “It was a phenomenal opportunity to be engaged with a hands-on curatorial project, gaining a deeper insight into the behind-the-scenes work of a curatorial team.”
Down Time features artworks exploring the concept of “retreat” and the “public, private and imagined settings” that represent it, according to the exhibition description. The exhibition pays special attention to “how black artists have aspired to, imagined, performed and created spaces for sustaining themselves [amid] everyday life and extreme events.”
Leslie M. Wilson, curatorial fellow at the Smart, oversaw Down Time, which was the outcome of a course she taught through the art history department during the spring and autumn quarters. The student-curated exhibition was supported through an initiative by the museum’s Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry.
In “Exhibition in Practice” undergraduate and graduate students took on the project of making and installing an exhibition as a “curatorial cohort,” according to Wilson.
Wilson worked alongside Berit Ness, assistant curator of academic initiatives at the Smart, to build a list of artworks out of the Smart’s permanent collection. Wilson, Ness and the students in the course built this list by educating themselves about representations of and by black artists, and by considering what they wanted visitors to ultimately take away.
“That list connected to the prospect of visiting local art collectors who have collections strong in modern and contemporary art, and in some cases, particular emphasis on work by artists of African descent,” Wilson said. “That scope directly shaped the course’s syllabus as we read about, discussed and debated the history of exhibiting art by black artists in America and art by artists from all backgrounds that address black subjectivities.”
Wilson divided her class into four groups, each proposing an exhibition using the Smart’s permanent collection as a starting point, but free to take on any theme of the team’s choosing.
Proposals spanned a photography exhibition centering around the relationship between race and privacy and a project that aimed to engage community at the UChicago and beyond by examining “craft and materiality in relation to grief and mourning.” Ultimately, the class found a consensus on the theme of retreat.
“The students wanted to pose the universal question of how people make time and space for themselves away from the demands of everyday life and the extreme events in our lives, while also looking at how ‘making time’ may look very different for different people or may not be available at all for some,” Wilson said. “They asked the questions: Can we ever really get away? and ‘Who is we?’”
Kim, who studies economics and art history, explored these questions while researching the exhibition’s individual pieces, facilitating studio visits and interviews with Chicago-based artists who were willing to share insights into their work.
“My focus was to understand the biography of the artist and the historical context of the work, which helped me capture how each artist found retreat in their personal narratives and created a space and time for rest and recovery,” said Kim, who used her research to craft object labels for the works.
During autumn quarter, students built upon the work produced in the spring by collaborating to write exhibition texts, coordinate programming and participate in the exhibition’s installation process.
According to Wilson, students made “key decisions” for the exhibition, including how to show a video work by Ja’Tovia Gary. “They selected a soundproof black box where the video would be projected. They designed the flow of the exhibition—that we adjusted and refined along the way—but it is ultimately the shape of the exhibition that you see,” she said.
According to Ness, the involvement of Wilson’s students expanded the scope of what they were able to accomplish. Although the Smart regularly employs undergraduate curatorial interns and research associates, Ness said that the “full space and budget” of the class distinguishes Down Time from other student shows.
“The class put forward an exhibition that feels especially urgent,” Ness said. “At a time when the constant news cycle feels unavoidable and our phones are constantly buzzing with all sorts of notifications, we hope visitors to this exhibition consider what their ‘down time’ looks like. The exhibition crucially also asks whether it’s even possible to get away, even just for a moment.”
Wilson wanted students to take away skills from their Down Time work that they could use for later exhibitions.
“Berit and I really wanted students to have an opportunity to see how the full life-cycle of an exhibition is realized,” Wilson said. “So much of making an exhibition is about conversations with colleagues, artists, collectors, fabricators, designers, editors. I wanted students to be part of those discussions.”
Down Time will be open to the public until December 15.