Throughout my time at UChicago, I have often come across the sardonic phrase “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” plastered onto sweatshirts, poking fun at the University’s often frustrating commitment to the study of theory. Therefore, when I came across Leslie Wilson’s multi-quarter class, “Exhibition in Practice,” which offered practical experience in planning an exhibition to be shown at the Smart Museum, it seemed too good to be true. Defying my original misplaced skepticism, Leslie and the Smart staff were committed to creating a space for students to develop professional experience in museum work, while also, of course, building our knowledge of museum history in America, the exhibition of African and African American art, and theories on blackness by black artists.
Over the course of the first quarter, the curatorial cohort delved into the process of generating an exhibition from scratch. Each student was responsible for contributing both concepts and tangible exhibition materials, such as wall labels and presentations, which drew from ideas presented in our weekly readings as well as from independent research. At the beginning of the course, the class was split into separate groups, each of which was responsible for generating a unique exhibition proposal with topics ranging from issues of photographic privacy to Afrofuturism. The student cohort was then given the difficult task of synthesizing the ideas originally presented in group proposals into a cohesive exhibition concept, checklist, and proposal that was developed under the guidance of staff at the Smart and Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry. The class also afforded the incredible experience of collections visits, where we viewed and discussed the vast private collections of art collectors around Hyde Park and Kenwood.
“Exhibition in Practice” was an incredibly fruitful experience for me because it forced me to think critically about theoretical ideas, art historical trends, and past exhibition debacles, and to consider how to present an exhibition that is not only relevant but also accessible to the Smart’s immediate audience. Our final exhibition concept, titled Down Time: On the Art of Retreat, developed organically out of these concerns and considers possibilities for rest and how spaces of retreat may be conceptualized and created. “Exhibition in Practice” provided a hands-on learning experience unlike any other I have had at UChicago, and I am excited to see how the curatorial cohort in the fall.
A version of this post appeared in the fall 2019 edition of the At the Smart newsletter.