(First) First-Gen Night

by Kathia Rodriguez, Smart Museum education intern and UChicago class of 2019

last edited on Fri. January 26 2018

The Smart keeps impressing me every time it connects two (or more) things I care about—like the (first) First-Gen Night at the Smart thought up and brought to life by Keirsha Thompson, Jair Pinedo, and Kate Sherman.

“First Gen” refers to first generation college students like myself. The night was really an opportunity for students and faculty to connect their experiences in relation to one another and to the museum.

As everyone enjoyed their soup and cookie cake in the lobby, the conversation began to open up. Kate, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, took a quick moment to explain her research with First-Gen students and how that had brought her to the Smart and Erik Peterson introduced the Smart as a place with the goal of being open and welcoming to everyone. People began to share their own experiences with museums, when they first encountered them, how they feel they fit in, how they feel they don’t, and so on. This came together with our academic experience and what it was like entering these spaces.

It also included critiques of museums. Being too institutional. Seeming too exclusive. Poorly representing people, especially people of color, or not representing us at all. It was an opportunity for dialogue and ideas. It was also a moment for us to appreciate the privilege of having the Smart. A museum that actually listens and tries to connect to the community.

After our conversation, I had the privilege of leading a tour that day and I enjoyed being able to continue the conversation and shift it. The new exhibit, The History of Perception, had just opened and it includes one of my favorite pieces. Infinite Cube was at the Smart my first year and really was one big reason why I kept coming back. During the tour, I felt like I had come full circle. I shared my thoughts on my first times coming to the museum out of curiosity and how that connected with my current feelings at the Smart.

Being First-Gen comes with unique challenges. Many of the people present at the event were people of color which presents another set of challenges. This event is a way of feeling welcome and of challenging any ideas that we shouldn’t be in these spaces or that they aren’t for us. As this event proved, the Smart is a brilliant jumping point into museums, art, as much as self-exploration and community building.

So, we look forward to the second, third and however many First-Gen nights there are to come.