The Art of the Exhibition

A student-curator program, now fourteen years old, continues to provide deep engagement with art—and to spark careers devoted to the world of art.

In January 1988, Cas Stachelberg ’89 returned to the Duke campus to begin a belated junior year after a seven-month absence spent working at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York’s SoHo district. He came back to school with a considerable amount of new work experience—and with an idea that has evolved into an undergraduate program unlike any other in the country.

Stachelberg’s sabbatical job had involved him in all aspects of operating a professional
art gallery, including working with the registrar, assisting the art handlers, and helping to install exhibitions of works by internationally renowned artists. The experience, he says,
had been enjoyable and rewarding for him, and highly useful in augmenting his art-history major.

“During that semester off, I said to myself, ‘I’m going back to school in January. How can I join these two worlds—the New York art world and the world of Duke University?’ I had these two ideas that were going on in my head, and I wanted to find a way to put them together. At the time there really wasn’t a venue for contemporary art in Durham, but I had this idea: ‘Why not bring some of this work from the gallery back to Duke?’ ”

After receiving a positive response to the idea from Cooper and other members of her staff, Stachelberg arrived at Duke in January and almost immediately contacted Michael Mezzatesta, director of the Duke University Museum of Art. When he sat down with Mezzatesta, Stachelberg proposed an exhibition that would bring works by some of the most widely known artists in Cooper’s stable to DUMA, and offered to serve as the show’s curator.

Recalling that meeting, Mezzatesta says that when he heard Stachelberg’s proposal and recognized that this was an opportunity to bring works by internationally known contemporary artists to the museum, “I jumped on it, because I thought it was a great idea to have a student do an exhibition like that. I’ve always really liked the idea of giving students firsthand experience instead of having them deal with something only in the abstract. So I called Paula Cooper, and it turned out that she was more than willing to work with us.”

“I hadn’t thought of it as a continuing program, but he very quickly did,” says Stachelberg. “As we talked about it conceptually, we realized it would be great to have a student curate a show annually.” Now in its fourteenth year, the program has generated a dozen exhibitions of works by well-known, almost exclusively contemporary artists, each exhibition accompanied by a handsome catalogue that includes photographs and scholarly essays by the student curators. 

Mezzatesta offered Stachelberg $2,000 in museum funds to help pay the costs of his exhibition. Before it was all over, Stachelberg would raise several thousand dollars more in order to cover expenses that included shipping, insurance, and publication of the exhibition catalogue—all of which, except for catalogue design and printing, were his responsibility rather than the museum’s. Realizing in advance that he was looking at a substantial time commitment, he arranged to receive a semester’s academic credit for his work as an independent-study project—a model that would be followed in subsequent student-curated shows and eventually expanded to a full year’s credit.

By the end of the spring semester, Stachelberg had formulated the overall plan for his exhibition. His aim was to put together a show that would reflect the sharp contrast between the two styles of art in which the Paula Cooper Gallery had long specialized—minimalism and neo-expressionism—and would include works by six internationally known artists. “Paula had been embracing these two very different types of art since the late 1960s,” he says, “and she was steeped in them, so the selection of artists came out of what I was exposed to at the gallery.” He decided to represent the cool, stripped-down minimalist aesthetic with works by Donald Judd, Robert Mangold, and Joel Shapiro, and to combine their pieces with comparatively “hot” neo-expressionist works by Jonathan Borofsky, Michael Hurson, and Elizabeth Murray. Then he began organizing his thoughts for the essays he would write for the show’s accompanying catalogue. His exhibition was scheduled to open in early November.

For the summer, Stachelberg returned to New York, where his gallery experience helped him find employment as an assistant to Barbara Haskell, the curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His main job was to help her organize an exhibition of Donald Judd’s minimalist sculpture—a fortuitous development that not only helped him become more familiar with the work of one of the artists to be represented in his DUMA show, but enabled him to spend two months in a museum setting where he could “pick up some pointers on how all this is done.” While there, he selected the works to be included and negotiated loan agreements with their owners, including the artists and a number of private collectors.

Blue Green Bridge, 2000, Do-Ho Suh, plastic figures, steel structure, polycarbonate sheets, 448 x 51 x 24 in., Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery

Blue Green Bridge, 2000, Do-Ho Suh, plastic figures, steel structure, polycarbonate sheets, 448 x 51 x 24 in., Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery; detail below.

Blue Green Bridge, 2000, Do-Ho Suh, plastic figures, steel structure, polycarbonate sheets, 448 x 51 x 24 in., Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery; detail

When Stachelberg returned to school in August, as he recalls, “I hit the ground running and started writing the essays. I wrote a kind of general statement about the show and six essays about the artists. I remember spending some very late nights working on the essays.” In keeping with his initial thought about bringing the New York art world and Duke together, he decided to title the exhibition “SoHo at Duke” (a name that was applied to subsequent exhibitions curated under the program, until SoHo lost its central place in the New York art market during the 1990s, and Duke’s student curators began broadening their search territory within and beyond New York). During its seven-week run into late December, Stachelberg says, his exhibition was “very well covered in the local news media and, in the end, very well received. This was a slightly different take on the traditional museum show, and it was a new group of artists for the whole community.”

Some thirteen years later, Stachelberg says, “It was a great work experience that involved a lot of different components—developing a concept; approaching artists, gallery directors, and the director of a museum; pitching the idea to everybody; convincing collectors that lending these works for the show was going to be a good thing; working with a museum staff; writing a catalogue and working with the catalogue designer; and dealing with shipping and insurance. At the time I was very much a student, but still, it felt like this is exactly what independent curators would be doing.”

Unlike a number of other participants in the program that his idea inspired, Stachelberg doesn’t work for an art gallery or an art museum, and he doesn’t teach in a university art-history program. But he has continued to do work that he sees as directly related to his experience as Duke’s first student curator.

After graduating, he went back to the Paula Cooper Gallery and worked there for three years. Then, as he says, “I walked away from contemporary art, because it was a bad time in the market, and I felt that it was time for a change. I started working with an urban archaeologist, doing field work on sites in lower Manhattan, and I got turned on to urban history and found that the historical side of archaeology was wonderful.” Since being awarded his master’s degree in preservation from Columbia University four years ago, he has worked with Higgins & Quasebarth, a historic-preservation and rehabilitation consulting firm based in SoHo. His work has involved him largely with buildings in New York, but it has also taken him on several occasions to Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia that was badly damaged during the Bosnian civil war and is most widely known for the loss of its seventeenth-century stone bridge. “I like to think of myself as still involved in the curatorial process,” he says. “Now I’m caring for buildings in the same way a curator cares for paintings and sculptures.”

Over the years since Stachelberg’s exhibition, twenty other Duke students, following in his curatorial footsteps, have worked individually or collaboratively on shows that have brought a wide variety of world-class contemporary art to DUMA and have explored a number of provocative, often controversial themes. Examples have included text-augmented photographic appropriations by the quintessentially postmodern Barbara Kruger, a show focusing on a Duke student’s own contemporary art collection, an exhibitition exploring the theme of self-identity in the work of a dozen artists in the age group pegged as “Generation X,” a landmark display of contemporary Nicaraguan paintings, a show about the influence of technology on artists in the San Francisco Bay area, and, most recently, works by contemporary Asian-born artists who have developed transnational identities and visual languages. One student, Sherri Sauter ’97, bucked the trend of curating only contemporary shows and organized an exhibition drawn from DUMA’s extensive collection of woodblock prints by nineteenth-century American artist Winslow Homer.

During preliminary discussions with interested students, Mezzatesta stresses the inherent difficulties in curating an art exhibition. “I try to frighten them,” he says. “I tell them at the beginning that this is going to be the best experience of their lives in many ways, and that in some ways it’s going to be the worst experience of their lives. I tell them they’re going to be working with difficult dealers and difficult artists and difficult collectors. I tell them that it’s going to be frustrating, and that they’re going to have to make compromises. It’s a real-life experience, and that’s why I think that, by far, it’s the best training any student can get in museum studies.”

Mezzatesta credits Kristine Stiles, an associate professor in Duke’s department of art and art history, as the faculty mainstay for the program, describing her as a dedicated teacher and mentor to many of the students who’ve worked on these projects. Stiles had just started teaching at Duke for the 1988 fall semester when Cas Stachelberg enrolled in her seminar on popular culture. Because they very quickly developed a good student-teacher relationship, she agreed to serve as the faculty adviser for the independent-study course he had designed for the purpose of curating his exhibition.

“In terms of the critical thinking that went into the catalogue essays, working with her was incredibly helpful,” he says. “She really helped me formulate my thoughts and get those essays to the point where we could publish them.”

Stiles describes the curatorial program as “a crash course in becoming a young professional,” and says, “These students learn to collaborate. They learn to deal with multiple levels of people involved in the industry of art. They learn to write, to communicate effectively, and they learn to formulate a budget. They learn to meet very, very sophisticated strangers and to entertain ideas that they never would have entertained. They gain self-confidence.” Not only does the program prepare them for professional curatorial work, she says, “I think it prepares them for anything.”

A specialist in global, post-war art, Stiles has overseen the intellectual aspect of the program—the thematic development of the exhibitions and the writing of the catalogue essays—for all but three of the shows it has generated. She commends the program as invaluable for the way it exposes students to “the most contemporary, avant-garde art in whatever city they go to.” 

“It’s always been my policy to encourage and enable the students to select the work for these shows on their own, to select the best art they can find, and to select a theme that holds the work together,” she says. “They have to organize their aesthetics into an intellectual project—to make their subject cohere, not only visually, but in a text. Then they have to do research on the individual artists and on the subject that they plan to write about. They have to learn to write a coherent essay that is not only on a high intellectual level, but is also readable to the public. Then they have to edit it and rewrite it, and that is very difficult.”

As for the value of the program to the university community and the larger surrounding community, Stiles says, “It’s a confrontation with contemporary art that otherwise doesn’t really occur in the museum on a regular basis. There’s nothing better than really contemporary, avant-garde art to raise the cultural level of a city, because the discourse about it engages one in the most important questions of our period. Confrontation with visual form that is of its time or beyond its time can be a very difficult project—a project of growth—which is why so much art gets censored. It’s really a confrontation with ourselves. The program exposes students and the community to new art, and the shows have sometimes been controversial for that very reason. These students have brought in work that was very advanced.”

Even some of her colleagues “didn’t get a lot of the work” in the last show that Stiles advised on, 1999’s “The Perfect Life: Artifice in L.A.,” she says. “There was this bedroom set in that show by Jorge Pardo, and no one seemed to know what to make of it.” Perhaps those who didn’t get it should have read the catalogue essay by Alexandra Winokur ’99, one of that show’s three co-curators, in which she devoted more than two pages to a meticulous critical and scholarly analysis of Pardo’s untitled bedroom installation. Winokur’s essay—which she recalls having rewritten five times—exemplifies the kind of intellectually rigorous, theoretically solid, yet reader-friendly writing that can result from the kind of exactingly critical writer-editor relationship that Stiles describes. After citing an art-historical precedent for the installation in Claes Oldenburg’s 1963 piece titled Bedroom, Winokur went on to write, “Jorge Pardo’s bedroom installations reveal the concurrence of art and life in Los Angeles.... The bedroom set displayed in the context of a museum removes its functional aspect, and the museum-goer is asked to inspect the bedroom as a sculpture, or an object of examination, not an actual space to be inhabited.” 

“We ran into numerous fire drills,” says Winokur, “probably more than the curators of any of the other student shows. We had artists threatening to pull works from the show at the last minute. I remember talking on the phone at about one or two in the morning to Paul Sietsema, the artist who made the sixteen-millimeter film Untitled (Beautiful Place) that was the thematic centerpiece of the whole show, and he was threatening not to let us show it, because he didn’t like the way it was going to be installed in the museum. We wanted to build a room inside the museum and show it there, so you could hear the sound of the projector reverberating throughout the gallery as you looked at the rest of the work, but he wanted us to show it in a classroom down the hall. 

“Finally, Kristine Stiles called him on the phone, and she ultimately was able to persuade him to let us use it. And then, on the day Victoria Vesna’s work was supposed to be shipped to us, she pulled one of her palm-tree video pieces that we had lined up for the show, because she said it wasn’t working properly or something. So we were missing one of the pieces we discussed in our essays.”

In retrospect, though, she says that negotiating the myriad difficulties involved in curating the show was probably the most valuable part of the experience. “The teamwork that it took to overcome obstacle after obstacle after obstacle, and to get the show done in spite of everything—that’s what has helped me more than anything else about the project since I graduated,” she says. “No matter how many crazy things kept happening and how many problems we had, we just knew we had to figure out a solution.” 

Participating in the program has changed the lives of many of the twenty-one students. “There have been students who were thinking of not going to graduate school, but after participating in this program they’ve changed their minds,” says Mezzatesta. “There have been others who were going to go into banking but instead decided to become art scholars. You see them grow over the course of the year. They start out being insecure and tentative, but by the time their shows open, they’ve struggled and triumphed and developed a strong point of view. We’ve never had a case where the students didn’t get the job done. There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears involved, but it’s an immensely rewarding experience.”

Noting that Stiles was her faculty adviser beyond their work together on “The Perfect Life,” Winokur says, “She used to always say that modern artists changed the way people looked at and saw the world. I like to say that Kristine Stiles changed the way I looked at and saw the world. She’s brilliant and amazing, and she really changed my life intellectually.”

Art attack: a sampling of catalogues from shows at DUMA

Studies in American Art: Three Flags, 2000, Yukinori Yanagi, plexiglass, colored sand, ants, glue, 32 x 48 x 6 in., Courtesy of James Coahn Gallery.

About three months after graduating with a major in art history and French, Winokur learned that she was among four recent college graduates selected to work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with year-long internships. She’s convinced that her experience in DUMA’s student curatorial program is the reason she was selected. Although she was initially disappointed to be assigned to the museum director’s office, rather than the curatorial department, she says she soon fell in love with the managerial aspects of the museum. When the internship was over, she got a job in banking—as an analyst for Goldman Sachs & Co.—in order to acquire more of the practical experience she’ll need in order to attain her long-term goal of directing an art museum or similar institution.

Winokur isn’t the first student curator from Duke to go to work almost immediately after graduation as an intern at MOMA. She was preceded a few years earlier by Jennifer Grausman ’96, who, with classmates Andrew Lohr and Lisa Pasquariello, co-curated the 1996 show “Fractured Fairy Tales: Art in the Age of Categorical Disintegration.” That show brought together works by nine artists and a two-artist team, all of which dealt with a close-to-home theme—the relationship between artists and the institutions that show their work. 

By the time Grausman entered Duke as a freshman in 1992, the student curatorial program had been in place long enough to establish a reputation among aspirants to careers in art or art history, and it was one of the reasons she applied to and chose to enroll at Duke. “It was the most intensive project and course work that I did in my time at Duke,” she says. “It was the cornerstone of what I learned in art history, and it was also the most professional aspect of art that I was exposed to. It was a good grounding in the practicalities of the art world.” While originally interested in curatorial work, Grausman soon shifted her interests to fund raising—an area she had first been exposed to as a student curator —and after her internship she went to work in MOMA’s development office. She currently serves as the museum’s manager of exhibition funding.

When Sofia Lacayo ’95 set out to curate an exhibition of contemporary paintings from her native Nicaragua, to open at DUMA in her senior year at Duke, she didn’t know what she was in for. “I didn’t know anything,” she says, looking back almost seven years. “I just thought it would be fun. I was so naïve. I didn’t know how much work would be involved. And I didn’t know that it would have the impact it has had in my life.” 

Lacayo moved to this country with her family when she was a young child, but she maintained an interest in her homeland, in the art there, and in the broader field of Latin American art in general. As an art-history major at Duke, she proposed an exhibition of Nicaraguan paintings as a means of pursuing those overlapping interests. Kristine Stiles was on sabbatical leave during the year when Lacayo was organizing the show, so Lacayo was advised on the essay component of the project by Dorie Reents-Budet, then an associate curator at DUMA. Lacayo says the most useful resource she discovered in researching her show was Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, a New York gallery that specializes in Latin American art. After reading the only two available books on Nicaraguan art and looking at several hundred paintings, Lacayo eventually narrowed down her selection to fifty-five works by nine artists. She titled it “Patria: Contemporary Nicaraguan Painting.”

Because there had never been a major museum exhibition of Nicaraguan paintings in the United States, it attracted widespread attention, particularly among native Nicaraguans living in this country, as well as others with a special interest in Latin American art. Many of those people came to see the show, and, Lacayo says, “They were very laudatory. They all said, ‘Thank you for doing this. This is a great thing.’ ” One of the collectors who had loaned works to the exhibit was so impressed that he later paid to have the entire show shipped to Nicaragua, where it was prominently exhibited in the mezzanine of the Teatro Ruben Dario in Managua. The exhibit’s appearance there provided the occasion for Lacayo to return to her native land in dramatically triumphant fashion. Nine hundred people attended the exhibition’s opening reception, and as proud as she was, Lacayo admits, “I was horrified to have to stand in front of that many people and give a talk.”

Instead of jumping immediately into a career in the art world after she graduated from Duke, Lacayo took a job as an account executive at J. Walter Thompson, the advertising firm, whose Latin American accounts she handled. She describes the year she spent in that position as “an intentional hiatus from art, because I needed one after working so hard on my show.” When she left advertising, it was to take on the role of director of Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, the gallery that she had found indispensable while researching her DUMA exhibit. She remains in that capacity today.

Valerie Hillings ’93, a co-curator of “SoHo at Duke IV: In Search of Self” in 1993, describes the experience of organizing that show as “the ultimate independent study,” and says, “It was the high point of my undergraduate experience. It was a great culminating point to an art history degree, because it required you to really stretch your intellect and your imagination.” Noting that art-history students usually encounter only photographs of artworks, rather than the actual objects themselves, Hillings points out that curating the exhibition also brought her and co-curator Lisa Constantino into direct contact with professional artists and their studios—an even rarer experience for students. “It was a profound experience going to artists’ studios and interacting with them, and recognizing that you could be treated as an intellectual equal by people with that level of experience,” she says.

Hillings and Constantino’s show focused on the theme of self-identity in the work of twelve artists in the twenty-to-thirty-something age group that was then being widely touted, discussed, and theorized as “Generation X”—their own age group—and the artists whose work they selected for the show were only five to ten years older than themselves. Hillings says, “I liked that the art we were dealing with had a direct connection with daily life and society and personal experience, and that we were able to introduce this art to a broader audience. We were able to show that art is not just about things in museums—that it sparks ideas and ways of thinking.”

Stiles says she had some difficulty understanding the work in Hillings and Constantino’s exhibition. “I definitely am not Generation X,” she says, adding, “I’m not sure that art’s going to hold up really well over time, but I have continued to think about it ever since they did the show. So I learned to think about something new myself.”
Hillings is finishing work on her dissertation for a Ph.D. in art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts—a school she chose in part, she says, because it’s where Mezzatesta earned his Ph.D. Her postgraduate experience has also included a year-long fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Lynn Kellmanson Matheny ’91, co-curator of “SoHo at Duke III: Five Artists from the Charles Cowles Gallery” in 1991, double-majored in art history and comparative-area studies. After graduating, she earned her Ph.D. degree in art history from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1999. She went to Washington on a year-long curatorial fellowship at the National Gallery of Art, where she worked as a research assistant on “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries.” This June, she began work at her new post as assistant curator of exhibition programs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Kimberly Smith ’90, who (with Christopher Fehlinger ’91) co-curated the 1990 show, “SoHo at Duke II: Barbara Kruger,” calls the experience “the final lesson I needed to assure myself that art history was going to be enriching and satisfying for a long time and in a way that I was pretty sure nothing else could be.” She says, “It really solidified my passion for art history and made my college experience dramatically more formative. And, more practically speaking, I think it helped me to get into graduate school.”

Smith didn’t enter graduate school immediately. Instead, she moved to New York and worked at the Drawing Center, a nonprofit gallery in SoHo, in order to acquire more of the real-life art-world experience that her curatorial project at Duke had allowed her. Then she went to Berlin to learn German, required as a second language by many graduate programs in art history. When she returned, she began her graduate studies at Yale University, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1998. After serving for a year as a visiting professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, she signed on in 1999 as an assistant professor in the art history department at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she continues to teach.

The latest in the series of student-curated exhibitions—“Made in Asia?”—was organized by Randi Reiner ’01 and Phil Tinari ’01. Stan Abe, an associate professor of art history at Duke whose academic specialty is early Chinese Buddhist art, served as faculty adviser. Made up of fourteen pieces by nine artists, the show was smaller than most of its predecessors in the series, but in some ways was more ambitious than any of them. The artists represented hail from Japan, Korea, or China; and the fact that all but one of them now live and work in this country or Europe is one of the central issues Reiner and Tinari chose to highlight. The title’s concluding question mark refers to the ambiguity of these artists’ national identities in the transnational context in which they operate professionally, and to the student curators’ questioning of the very category of Asian art.

With a major in art history and public policy, Reiner plans to move to New York and work as a financial consultant while considering her next career move. Tinari, who double-majored in literature and history, has been awarded a Fulbright fellowship that will take him to China this coming year. Their elaborately designed catalogue is illustrated with thirty-four color photographs of the works in the show and others by the same artists.

In his foreword to Reiner and Tinari’s catalogue, Mezzatesta discussed the import of their show and the analytical rigor the pair brought to finding, choosing, and presenting the works included. “Throughout the twentieth century, the history of the United States has been integrally linked with Asia,” he wrote. “Now, at the dawn of a century in which national economies are intertwined and ideological purity is fading, the United States may begin to focus on cultural issues confronting these nations and their relationship to the West.

“In an era when the West has exerted a seemingly ineluctable hold on other cultures, and when national differences wane as a global culture waxes pervasive, how do Asian artists see themselves in relation to their indigenous traditions both national and regional? In this exhibition, our student-curators pose this question and propose answers.… Through their eyes, we have been introduced to some of the critical issues surrounding the dialogue on ‘Asian-ness.’ ”

“One could ask why these works have been gathered at the Duke University Museum of Art,” says adviser Abe. “Certainly this project is worthwhile for the edification of the student-curators, as well as the university and wider community. Individuals of Asian descent may feel in some way recognized by the exhibition; other supporters of multiculturalism will no doubt feel enriched and validated.

“In the end, one can only look to the works themselves for guidance. What do they tell us, not about some abstraction called ‘Asia,’ but about the world we live in—its global predicament—and about the world of contemporary art?” 

Abe’s question, in one form or another, has been asked by each of the student-curators in the long DUMA series. And as it is asked, that world of contemporary art is brought to Duke, held up to the light of scholarship, and examined through exhibition. The answers have varied from year to year, but the process of asking remains invaluable, for the students and for the community as well.

Patterson is a freelance writer, visual-art critic, and art professorand independent curator who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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