Though the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery have had students curate exhibits since 2006, both are expanding the scope of student curatorial programs this year, as well as collaborating with collectors and institutions outside Yale, according to administrators at the museums’ education departments.
While student curators at the British Art Center worked with Charles Ryskamp GRD ’56, former director of The Frick Collection in New York and professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, on an exhibition that opened Thursday, the Yale University Art Gallery student curators are working with the University of Maryland on an upcoming exhibit on African American art, which will go up at both universities.
“Art in Focus: John Flaxman Modeling the Bust of William Hayley,” opened at the British Art Center on Wednesday evening. The exhibit was organized entirely by nine students from the center’s student guides program, under the guidance of Matthew Hargraves, assistant curator for collections research, and Ryskamp himself.
Though student exhibits usually take one year to prepare,“ John Flaxman” has been two years in the making because of its greater scope, said Linda Friedlaender, curator of education at the center. She explained that the students were involved for the first time with the design, installation and conservation processes of the exhibit, in addition to doing in-depth research. Ryskamp said he also took the students to visit museums in New York City, as well as giving them a tour of his personal collection over the past two years, to prepare for this show.
“We’re thinking beyond University walls,” Ryskamp said. “It’s better for me to introduce the students to New York.”
One student, Samo Gale ’10, worked on the conservation of “John Flaxman Modeling the Bust of William Hayley” — a near life-sized group portrait by English painter George Romney. After completing a superficial cleaning of the work under Mark Aronson, chief conservator of paintings at the center, Gale took X-rays to see whether areas of the piece had been painted over. She discovered that the figure in the work had originally been placed differently, a previously unknown component to the painting. Gale said she now wants to become a conservator.
“John Flaxman Modeling the Bust of William Hayley” — the centerpiece of the exhibition — depicts the sculptor Flaxman creating a bust of poet Hayley while Hayley’s son watches. The artist himself appears at the edge of painting as a figure peering in, his body nearly cut in half by the frame.
Ryskamp said it is the enigmatic features of the portrait — the strange appearance of the artist, the interactions between the figures, the layering of the paint and the largely unexamined technical aspects of the work — that prompted him to bring the work to the student guides.
“John Flaxman” is not the only student-curated exhibition that the center will feature this year. Another, “Art in Focus: Installation, Interpretation, Narration” will open March 24.
Across the street, the Yale University Art Gallery’s program for student-curated exhibitions is also reaching out beyond Yale for its upcoming exhibits. The next student exhibit, which will focus on Yale’s rapidly growing collection of African American Art, was born from a collaboration between Yale and the University of Maryland, with three students from each university working on the project.
The exhibit will open this coming fall at the University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center, which studies the visual arts and culture of African Americans and the African diaspora; it will come to Yale in the spring of 2011.
“The Driskell Center brings a very focused mission for the study and display of African American art to our growing collection of African American art, which has quadrupled in the last 10 years,” said Pamela Franks, deputy director for collections and education and the main adviser for the student guide program at the art gallery.
“Art in Focus: John Flaxman Modeling the Bust of William Hayley” will be on view until May 30.