Even after six months, Andrew Lee ’09, Meghan Weeks ’08 and Jenny Braun ’08 still couldn’t quite agree. They’d worked since October with six other guides to curate an 18-object exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, but as they toured the final installation of their show Tuesday, they kept defending their individual reasons for choosing a mezzotint after Joseph Wright’s painting “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” as the exhibit’s central object.
Lee thought the complex and dramatic print would help the guides create a tightly composed show, the first they have ever produced. But Weeks liked it because she thought it spoke to many other pieces in the Center, which holds a significant collection of Wright’s works. And Braun held to the opinion the piece was just nice to look at.
This debate was the first step of the journey that culminated in an exhibition opening today on the second floor of the Center. “Joseph Wright and the Spectacle of Science” is the inaugural exhibition of Art in Focus, a new annual program at the Yale Center for British Art in which students choose an object from the Center’s collections and organize an exhibition around it.
The students, all of whom have at least one year of experience as guides, chose a variety of objects to feature in the first of these student exhibitions. Students and museum administrators said they hope the exhibit will give organizers a chance to experience high-level curatorial work while also attracting more of their undergraduate peers to the gallery.
After deciding on the mezzotint, the students met weekly with Center administrators to decide on their project’s theme and how to incorporate other paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculptures and rare books into the show.
“It’s been completely different from putting together a tour,” Lee said. “Since we’ve all had so many different ideas for the show, we’ve been pushed to argue about them.”
The student curators said they enjoyed the process of working in-depth with the museum’s collections and having the chance to indulge their love of art.
“Working with the curators has been absolutely fabulous,” said Julia Hickey ’07, one of the student organizers. “They basically allowed us to see anything we wanted. To have that kind of access to curators and to the collection has been very empowering and a very satisfying way to contribute to the Center.”
The students were assisted by a team of administrators including Linda Friedlaender, the curator of education; Cassandra Albinson, the assistant curator of paintings and sculpture; Matthew Hargraves, a postdoctoral research associate; and Samantha Rose, the assistant museum educator.
Albinson, who led the students in choosing and researching objects, said relinquishing her control over the exhibition was initially challenging.
“I’m used to having intellectual ownership over my projects, but this was really the students’ project,” Albinson said. “We really wanted them to have their own voice.”
Friedlaender and Weeks said they hope projects such as this will encourage students to visit the Center for more than just classwork.
“Because it’s a student-directed exhibition, we’re trying to bring our friends to the center to see this, and hopefully it’ll be a really good opportunity to introduce a larger population at Yale to the collections,” Weeks said.
Museum Director Amy Meyers worked on an exhibition herself as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and she said she is glad to offer Yale students a similar experience.
“These projects should give young scholars — Yale students — the chance to learn how the crafting of an exhibition can serve as a process of intensive research and how the final product can convey the results of that research in particularly satisfying ways, through the objects themselves in conversation with one another on the walls,” Meyers said. “These are shows that should be able to compete with any exhibition at the Center. We expect our student guides to rise to that challenge, and of course they do.”
Along with Braun, Hickey, Lee and Weeks, Molly Dillon ’08, Adam Eaker ’07, Sharon Madanes ’08, Kyle McNally ’06 and Kate O’Brien ’07 co-curated the exhibition, which will be on view until June 11.