Curator as Educator: What Can Art Teach Us?

When you go into a museum or a gallery, what’s the first thing you notice? It’s probably the paintings and sculptures adorning the walls and filling each room, as one would expect from a space dedicated to art. But what would these pieces look like in a different context, say with different lighting, a different configuration, even a different font for the interpretation or description next to each work? While these components may seem like they have little or even no impact on the way we experience art in a gallery, they in fact play one of the biggest roles in how we interact with and perceive works of art. This aspect of art management is handled by the curator — the person in charge of selecting pieces for each exhibition, displaying them appropriately, and determining how the visitor experience will be molded to elicit a certain response or teach the audience something new. One of the most important aspects of this job is the creation of interpretation for each work, i.e. the small square of text that sits next to each piece and gives context for its creation. Through this small but vastly important inclusion, curators are able to craft the narrative that will follow these works as they are viewed, discussed, and further interpreted by the audience. In this way, a curator is not only the designer of an art space, but an educator as well.

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A visitor stops to read the wall text next to Delano Dunn’s piece, Jane Crow, 2018

In the current show for the Stamp Gallery, Pink Is a Color That Feels Like Love, all of the works deal with issues of representation, and the artists interpret this topic through a use of motifs and abstract color use. Due to the conceptual nature of the art, it is necessary to dive deeper into each artist’s art practice to discover the true meaning of and context for each of the pieces. Not all visitors to the gallery necessarily know how to access this information, which is why wall text becomes such an important aspect of this exhibition. Each painting or mixed media piece is accompanied by a short description outlining the greater concept behind each work, and without this short text, many visitors would leave the gallery without being aware of the larger social and political contexts in each piece.

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Damien Davis, Blockage (Blackamoors Collage, #143) (detail), 2018

In Damien Davis’ work for example, each of the three mixed media assemblages he has in the show explore sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that disproportionately affects the African American community. Through his investigation of this topic, he discusses issues of racism in healthcare and specifically highlights a lack of funding and research for this illness. At first glance, visitors are drawn to the bright colors and abstract shapes that make up the base of each of the assemblages. They call to mind simplistic wooden children’s toys, especially those you may find in a pediatrics unit. On top of these shapes are both abstract and recognizable motifs — the power button on some sort of electronic, the profile of a man’s head, afro picks, crescent moons, and teardrops, among many others. After reading the interpretation provided, the relationships and perceptions of these shapes drastically change and give new meaning to the abstract work. Crescent moons suddenly appear as the “sickled shape” that sick cells take on in the body of someone afflicted with sickle cell disease, and teardrops can represent blood, usually a life-giving source, that has instead become a sign of illness and struggle. In conversation with one another, these inclusions force the viewer to see the pain and struggle of a child going through this disease, and to question whether there would already be better management or even a cure if it widely affected white people. Context is vital for an accurate understanding of this work, and while the pure emotional reactions to these assemblages are of course valid, much more can be learned from an in-depth study of their true meaning.

In this way, the artists and curator work hand in hand to provide this information to the public. The artists create multi-layered, conceptual works of art, and the curator provides the context for a full understanding of these pieces for the public. Through this process, the gallery becomes a space for both emotional and educational exchange — emotional in that the first response to a piece is based on how it makes us feel, and educational in that the second response is based off of what we’ve learned from the information provided. These two responses, when combined, create a well-rounded visitor experience and allow the audience to walk away not only feeling fulfilled from a visual or emotional standpoint, but from an educational and intellectual standpoint as well.

Come visit Pink Is a Color That Feels Like Love, running from August 29th-October 15th in the Stamp Gallery.

Written by Erin Allen

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