Student-led acquisition project diversifies St. Olaf’s art collection
On the campus of St. Olaf College, it is virtually impossible not to be wrapped in works of art. From sculptures dotting the greenery of the campus, to the work of students lining the walls of university buildings, to members of the community sipping their coffee from mugs made by ceramic artists, art is everywhere. On a campus so saturated with creative work, it can be easy not to pay attention to the larger meanings of a piece or the artist who created it.
The students of this spring Art Now: Critical issues of contemporary art course led by assistant professor of art and art history Hannah Ryan embarked on a student-led acquisitions project which ultimately led to the purchase of four new works of art to join the collection of the Flaten Art Museum and be exhibited on campus, intentionally working to diversify the college’s collection.
Before determining what art they hoped to bring to campus, students familiarized themselves with the themes, trends, and materiality of contemporary art, and then applied that knowledge to the visual culture of their campus. They searched for what they thought was missing, deliberately contemplating which work was present on campus and which was not.
For the project, the students worked in groups according to their interests; in these groups they developed a presentation describing the specific works of art they hoped to acquire, the reasoning for each piece and where they envisioned the work hosted on campus. The group whose proposal was ultimately accepted focused on showcasing black artists.
The result of their work, the Flaten collection includes four new pieces: Toni speaks and Baldwin “Le temps” by Charly Palmer, Lakeside Music Festival: Fusion by Georgette Baker, and Untitled 11 by Florine Demosthenes.
Palmer’s works feature novelist Toni Morrison and author James Baldwin, respectively, celebrating the life and work of two revolutionary black writers. Palmer’s work was acquired through the ZuCot Gallery, a black-owned gallery in Atlanta with which the class has been in contact throughout the process. Baker’s chosen artwork incorporates archival photos of black Americans into a collage celebrating live music. Demosthenes’ piece – like much of his work – focuses on showcasing a duality within black female bodies in a multimedia composition from another world.
All the acquired works were created by black artists and represent blacks; according to course participants, these pieces were chosen for the purpose of “uplifting and supporting contemporary black artists; work to dismantle white supremacy on campus; disrupt spaces dominated by whiteness; and to spark conversations around the important art produced today.
One of the main goals of the project was to advance the collection priority of the Flaten Art Museum in order to increase the representation of historically under-represented artists in its collection. The Flaten Art Museum has never had a budget dedicated to the acquisition of new works. As a result, the director of the Flaten Art Museum, Jane Becker Nelson ’04, claims that the collection has grown mainly thanks to the luck of the donors, in large part thanks to the alumni of the College “whose identities correspond to the Norwegian identity. -American and Lutheran historically dominant college, leading to a collection that reflects the same.
The impact of the work of who is – and is not – present in a collection has an impact on the physical space it holds, which in turn permeates the culture of a given place.
“There is nothing neutral about art. And depending on our identities, we read these works of art and we read these spaces differently, ”says Becker Nelson. “So I would say that art plays a very important role in setting the tone in physical space and playing a role in establishing or diminishing an environment respectful of many different identities. “
I would say that art plays a very important role in setting the tone in physical space and playing a role in establishing or diminishing an environment respectful of many different identities.Director of the Flaten Art Museum Jane Becker Nelson ’04
This model of student-led acquisition is something Ryan had been hoping to implement into a course since arriving at college two years ago. The project was inspired by initiatives her mentor Cheryl Finley led at Cornell, where Ryan was his doctoral student, and now at the AUC Art Collective, where Finley is now director of the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective. Finley’s Lunchtime Conversations on Instagram Live allowed Ryan to hear Onaje Henderson at the ZuCot Gallery, and these conversations encouraged Ryan to launch an acquisitions project, in partnership with ZuCot. ZuCot has become an integral part of the project; Henderson explained to the class how to get started with the project in the most thoughtful and anti-racist way possible.
Throughout the process, the students also made connections with other gallery owners and artists. The class joined forces with the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago, owned by Black, to acquire the piece by Florine Demosthene, and also benefited from the virtual tour of these gallery owners.
The artists who created the four pieces – Palmer, Baker and Demosthene – also virtually toured the classroom and interacted with the students.
“This project activates the students as real participants in the visual culture of their campus. Instead of just being surrounded by art, which is a wonderful part of St. Olaf, the project is also about being really intentional and reflective about the types of art around us and what it actually does for us ”, Ryan said. “Especially for people who are already marginalized and who may not feel totally welcome, what is the power to very intentionally seek out artists and works of art to fill these spaces? “
This project activates the students as real participants in the visual culture of their campus. Instead of just being surrounded by art, which is a wonderful part of St. Olaf, the project is also about being really intentional and thoughtful about the types of art around us and what it actually does for us.Hannah Ryan Assistant Professor of Art and Art History
Just as St. Olaf strives to diversify its collection, so does much of the art world. Through this project, students were able to imagine changes that can and should be made both on the Hill and beyond.
“It made me feel like it was possible to put this in the real world,” says Aimi Dickel ’22, a member of the course. “I know we were really lucky to have all the support we received; many art museums still have issues with performance activism or the removal of people behind the scenes. But it kind of gave us an idea of what the success of this model is like. “
The project was able to come to fruition this year largely as a by-product of programming changes due to COVID-19. Glen Gronlund ’55 and Shirley Beito Gronlund ’56 regularly fund an exhibition that will take place at the Flaten Art Museum. In the 2020-2021 school year, the programming was smaller and Becker Nelson struggled to administer the funds in their intended area. So she approached the Gronlunds, who enthusiastically allowed the funds to be reallocated to fund the Art Now acquisitions project this year.
Once the class made their final decisions on which parts to acquire, the group presented their selections to the Gronlunds, and the whole class had time to reflect and share what they had learned from the experience.
“They were just awesome,” Beito Gronlund said. “In fact, it was very empowering for us to hear these great young minds talk about the work of art and how they selected it. Gronlund adds, “Our loyalty goes to St. Olaf, but it was personalized when we spoke specifically to the students, because they make the university a reality for us. And it was special.
While Art Now is a periodically taught course, the curriculum is very malleable from semester to semester. Management of the acquisition project.
Dickel attributes much of the success of the project to Ryan’s pedagogy and dedication to the students. “Hannah is a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “She’s a wonderful person and clearly has people’s best interests at heart; she cares about learning more herself and not sitting in the back and just watching the students. And also to ensure that her students can move forward in the world with the tools she gives them.
Overall, those involved see the acquisition of these works as a concrete first step, creating a tangible change in the visual culture of the school – while noting that there is a lot of work to be done.
“It’s like a drop in the bucket. I do not see this as a symbolic project, one and done. I think the imperative for us to continue to evaluate our collection, and the change in our collection is going to be continuous and probably never ending, ”said Becker Nelson. “So I see this as a start and I’m really excited to be able to make these additions this year. This launch is exciting, but you’re still talking about four works of art in a 4,000-strong collection. So it’s going to take a long time to move the needle, but we pushed it a bit. We just have to keep working on it, endlessly.
Ryan and Becker Nelson are delighted to announce that a second acquisition project will take place in Ryan’s Art now classes this spring semester, thanks to a $ 15,000 grant from the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation. Students will have the opportunity to acquire works of art to meet the ever-evolving collection goals of the Flaten Art Museum, with priority given to contemporary Indigenous art, works from immigrant and recent refugee communities strongly represented in Minnesota, works by LGBTQIA + artists and works by Asian Americans. Artists from the Pacific Islands.