Samantha Sharon
June 19, 2015

“The generative potential of collaboration”—Penn students on co-curating an ICA exhibition

Spiegel-Wilks Seminar in Contemporary Art students, artists, and professors (2015)

Students in Penn’s Spiegel-Wilks Seminar in Contemporary Art—a course taught collaboratively by the Department of the History of Art and ICA—spent two semesters behind the scenes at ICA and delving into our exhibitions archive at Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

With the guidance of Associate Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and ICA Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow Liz Park, the students researched and curated Do/Tell, an exhibition and programming series inspired by the ICA show Carrie Mae Weems (1994) that explores how acts of storytelling construct ideas of home, family, and identity.

As well as working closely with our curatorial team, the students worked in every ICA department to get a sense of how all staff members make valuable contributions to each exhibition. Here, some of the Spiegel-Wilks Seminar students reflect on their experiences.

*Do/Tell: Erin Bernard, Heather Hart, Rachelle Mozman, and Akosua Adoma Owusu* installation view (2015)

Martyna Majewska (’16, The University of St. Andrews, UK, exchange student, curatorial department)

We thought artist Heather Hart’s The Porch Project (2014–present), a constantly unfolding work that is both an installation and social space, had many new possibilities for its iteration at ICA. Hart wanted her porch to be a work of art in and of itself, but at the same time she sought to prevent it from stasis or isolation. Erin Bernard, founder of the local oral history project Philadelphia History Truck, joined our conversation, and within a few minutes the two artists had sparked an idea—their collaboration felt natural. Hart’s porch would house an archive of local stories that Bernard would help us collect in partnership with teachers and students from the Jubilee School in West Philadelphia.

Jubilee School students underneath artist Heather Hart

Virginia Seymour (C’16, programming department)

Early on a snowy February morning, Spiegel-Wilks Seminar students made their way to the Jubilee School on Chester Avenue in University City. In a small classroom on the third floor of a converted rowhouse, the fourth and fifth grade students introduced themselves and their school’s mission—social activism through scholarship—which gives them the confidence and skills to effect change in their own communities.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1899 sociological study of African Americans in the city, The Philadelphia Negro— which Jubilee School students were studying—inspired our collaborative project. Penn students teamed up with Jubilee School students to conduct interviews with local business owners along lively Baltimore Avenue to get a sense of this changing neighborhood’s voices.

Through this, Penn students explored a place in which they are transplants, and which many members of the Penn community never enter. Our fourth and fifth grade co-conspirators had an opportunity that children rarely get—to guide adults confidently, furthering their familiarity and pride in their own spaces. The stories collected and displayed in The Porch Project via iPads and ephemera illustrate a living neighborhood—a web of intersecting communities, relationships, and experiences.

*Do/Tell: Erin Bernard, Heather Hart, Rachelle Mozman, and Akosua Adoma Owusu* installation view (2015)

Eric Kessel (C’16, development department)

When fundraising for the exhibition, we met potential donors who wanted to hear a student perspective on the unique opportunity that the Spiegel-Wilks Seminar opens up to budding art historians. My class colleague spoke about our winter trip to New Orleans for Prospect Three, a citywide biennial that was instrumental in developing our vision for the show. In New Orleans, our class first saw Kwaku Ananse (2013), the film by Akosua Adoma Owusu which screens on The Porch Project twice a week throughout the run of Do/Tell. I chimed in to further elaborate the show’s curatorial direction—to explore how acts of storytelling shape community and identity. For me, working with development was a lesson in the under-acknowledged work that makes a museum show possible.

Akosua Adoma Owusu, *Kwaku Ananse* video still (2013)

Samantha Sharon (C’15, marketing department)

The ultimate goals of marketing and communications are to inform people about our exhibition and entice them to come see it. Without an audience,Do/Tell will be like a tree that falls in an empty forest. Just as the question arises of whether this fall even makes a sound, so too, if an exhibition receives no visitors, the question of whether it even existed and made an impact will arise. By creating communications materials that are interesting and engaging, my classmate Ciara Stein and I help to ensure that our show has an audience. Once the show has an audience, its reach will most likely extend beyond the museum walls by word-of-mouth and social media, creating dialogues about the important concepts and ideas of home, family and identity—fostering these conversations is essential to the success of Do/Tell, based as it is in the power of storytelling.

Writing Art and Life: Worn Stories with Emily Spivack program (2015)

Kimberly Schreiber (C’15, publications department)

In publishing, nothing happens in isolation, whether you’re writing short essays, editing content, or designing layouts. At its heart, the execution of our publication was similar to the motivations behind curating a group show—both draw strength from the generative potential of collaboration. An interactive experience, Do/Tell celebrates both the universality of storytelling and the lively multiplicity of individual histories.

Our publication—conceived by designer Luke Bulman of Thumb Productions—is an extension of this inclusive spirit. The booklet features the voices of student curators, our teacher Professor Gwendolyn Shaw, as well as artists and thinkers such as James Baldwin, Carrie Mae Weems, and bell hooks.

Although the publication reads as a cohesive whole, a distinct font preserves the distinct voice of each author, and each essay can be torn off individually along the perforated edge of the booklet. In this way, the reader also becomes complicit in changing and creating the publication, which relates to how a viewer can experience, and add to, Heather Hart’s installation in Do/Tell.

Not a codex designed to unlock the exhibition’s messages, the publication is a prompt to think about these many themes in the context of our own spaces and lives.

*Do/Tell: Erin Bernard, Heather Hart, Rachelle Mozman, and Akosua Adoma Owusu* installation view (2015)

Find out more about the Do/Tell exhibition and read about other student experiences at ICA.

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