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The Work of Art

What goes on behind the scenes of a major museum show? Eight students found out, when the Cantor Center exhibition of Stanford collectors’ treasures became their learning lab.

Glenn Matsumura

THIS SIDE UP: Assistant curator Anneke Voorhees, left, and Brown handle Robert Arneson’s sculptural self-portrait with care.

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By Summer Moore

It was spring quarter, and three students hunkered down in the bowels of Cantor Arts Center to work on their masterpiece. There were still thematic issues to puzzle through, sculpture pedestals to make earthquake-proof, wall colors to choose that would complement each work of art. The LED piece needed an electrical outlet. “I mean, the practical considerations, like hanging the Calder,” says Susan Cameron, ’03, referring to a 5-foot-tall metal and brass mobile. “We had it in this one place, and we realized the ceiling’s too low, we can’t hang it from there.”

Turns out it’s not easy playing curator for a major museum exhibition.

A few months later, Meredith Brown, ’03, wheels in a model of the gallery, complete with Post-it-Note-sized copies of each work of art to help with visual planning. Even now, as the artwork trickles in, each placement is scrutinized, each piece handled with reverence—like Flip and Flop, who have just arrived, precisely nestled in crates of turquoise foam. A set of 28-inch-high ceramic self-portraits by Robert Arneson (as the title implies, Flip sits upside down), the pair rests near their comrades—paintings laid flat on padded tables—awaiting white-gloved installation in the gallery upstairs.

Flip and Flop came from the Redwood City home of Ross and Paula Turk, sent like beloved sons down El Camino Real to participate in the center’s Picasso to Thiebaud: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Collections of Stanford University Alumni and Friends, which runs from February 18 to June 20. Cantor staff had several aims for the exhibition beyond showing great works of art. They wanted to get alumni and “friends of Stanford” more involved with the center and show the community how much the art museum has changed over the years. They also hoped to give Stanford students a hands-on educational opportunity. Indeed, the unique aspect of this show is its level of student participation.

Three years ago, when Cantor’s plans for Picasso to Thiebaud began to solidify, art history professor Wanda Corn suggested teaching a course around the show. “We have tried different formats of involving students with exhibitions, but this is the largest endeavor,” says Patience Young, curator for education. “Stanford doesn’t offer a museum-studies program, and yet there are a lot of students on campus who are interested in developing museum skills.” In fact, says Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art, few universities offer undergraduates this kind of experience.

Faberman and Young team-taught Anatomy of an Exhibition in fall 2002 and winter 2003. Since Faberman had already selected the art, the eight enrolled students focused on developing and writing the catalog and coming up with the exhibition’s thematic arrangement. Together they envisioned a show that would evoke different academic disciplines, a “mini-university” that would appeal to the entire Stanford community.

Grouping works as they relate to music, literature or feminist studies will make unlikely neighbors of some great artists. The science and technology section, for example, includes Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke. The 1965 work uses benday dots (from an image-reproduction technique) to question the nature of authenticity. Nearby, Jenny Holzer’s The Survival Series, created almost two decades after the Lichtenstein, employs computerized LED signage to examine how society absorbs information.

For some subjects, the different artworks aren’t displayed side by side, but spread throughout the gallery and tied together by wall texts encouraging visitors to seek out the individual pieces. These supplementary panels make it possible for guests who “aren’t necessarily art freaks—art experts—to walk in and see how maybe this does apply to them,” says doctoral candidate Heather Farkas. “There’s a lot going on that has to do with the outside world, not just the museum.”

The first lesson for the uninitiated lies in the show’s title. Modernism “is defined as a period around the turn of the century to the beginning of the 1930s or end of the ’20s,” says Cameron. “So it’s a very specific time. Contemporary is sort of everything after that, in a way. It tends to be the much more edgy stuff.”

Since she arrived in 1993, Faberman has been meeting art collectors from the Stanford community as part of the museum’s focus on developing its modern and contemporary collection. Picasso to Thiebaud comprises 65 pieces from approximately 50 lenders. The works span the 20th century in style and medium—from cubism to abstract expressionism, still lifes to landscapes, ceramics to assemblages. “We call it painting and sculpture,” Faberman says. “But the sculptures are in different media. Some are bronze, some are ceramic, some are wood. We’ve got one piece in Play-Doh.”

Because most of the exhibition pieces came from Bay Area collectors, the five undergraduates and three graduate students in the class were able to visit private collections and interview their owners in preparation for the catalog. “It was incredible to see people living with this art,” Cameron says. The experience exposed students to another side of art—one without the museum’s white gloves. One lender “had this big dog tearing around the house and his son was tearing after the dog,” adds Cameron, “and I was just like, ‘but there are Légers on the wall!’ ”

Faberman and Young also thought interaction with students would give collectors a better idea of how Cantor works with academic programs on campus. Deedee and Burt McMurtry, MS ’59, PhD ’62, longtime supporters of the museum and veteran lenders, found the experience “more meaningful this time because the students got to come and see where [the paintings] usually hang,” says Deedee. She and her husband are lending two of their personal favorites, including Thiebaud’s Dark Land, and believe opening their art to the Stanford community is important. They hope many students take advantage of Stanford collectors’ willingness to share. “A lot of people haven’t been exposed to art,” she observes.

The catalog incorporates such comments from the lenders. Some speak of the University’s impact on their love of art—a message not lost on Faberman, since eliciting feelings for Stanford is a big goal of the exhibition. Gene Corman, ’48, tells of the time he was looking for “an easy course to balance my schedule” and the woman he was dating suggested a course called Lectures on Painting. Charles Cowles, ’63, worked at Stanford’s museum during his student days and helped start a program to acquire art for the then-new Tresidder student union; he is now an art dealer in New York. The diversity of the lenders—in their professions, former majors and ways they got into art—fits right in with the students’ theme for Picasso to Thiebaud and makes their own limited experience somehow seem even more apropos.

The range of interests among the students in Anatomy of an Exhibition made the class as much about art as it was about producing a show. Only one, Farkas, focused her studies on modern art; other areas of concentration varied from ancient Greek and Roman to Chinese art. And most of the students had never worked on a major museum exhibition. “The closest thing we’d ever done,” says Brown, who is now interning at New York’s Guggenheim, “is hang up postcards in our dorm rooms.” But they say their inexperience may have helped them think of creative solutions to problems.

Once they’d launched the catalog, the class turned to the installation of the show, where there was plenty of opportunity for novel answers. Dividing 65 major works of art that span the century by academic theme, keeping them roughly chronological, making sure they look good together, and then dealing with the pieces (like Flip and Flop) that don’t clearly fit into any of their categories wasn’t simple. Trying to get eight students to agree with each other and with two curators—on everything from the goals of the show to the color of the walls—added another level of tension. “People who thought they definitely wanted to do museum work—they see that it’s not just picking pieces and putting them on the wall however you want,” says Farkas. “There’s a lot of politics. It was enlightening, if difficult.”

Still, when Faberman and Young invited anyone who wanted to stay on for spring quarter to finish the show, three determined students—Brown, Cameron and Farkas—returned, spending upwards of 10 hours a week on the project. (A fourth, Janice Ta, who graduated in winter quarter, also returned to help part time.)

The finished product is a pluralistic gathering that highlights the private holdings of Stanford alumni and friends as well as the ingenuity of eight Stanford art students. Calder’s 50-year-old Double Gong will hang in the entrance to the gallery. The show’s largest piece, an Alex Katz seascape, is 10 1/2 feet by 8 feet and warrants its own wall. “There are so many delectable items,” says Faberman. “We’ve got a Jackson Pollock, a Picasso. My God, how many museums on the West Coast have a Dalaunay? You see them in New York, maybe, but otherwise only in France.”

Lenders weren’t told about the theme ahead of time, so the final result will be just as intriguing for them. “It will be interesting to see where they’re hung together and that kind of thing,” says Deedee McMurtry. “I think it’s really exciting.” The exhibition gives Cantor a chance to show artists who aren’t represented in the museum’s permanent collection or even in Bay Area museums. Many of the selected works have been in a family for decades and not given much exposure.

For class members, this is important curatorial exposure. The best part of the exhibition opening? Getting to talk about the show “with a kind of depth you can only get having worked on it for eight months,” says Farkas. And, she adds, having “your name on the wall.”

The students’ broadest goals reach beyond Cantor to the rest of campus. They hope their involvement will draw in fellow students who may be scared of modern art and help them understand it in a new way. The apprentice curators also see the mini-university theme as a demonstration of how the museum can be useful to professors for classes outside art. “There’s such potential that people don’t even think about,” says Cameron, who is now working on her master’s degree in archaeological heritage in museums, at Cambridge. Finally, they hope alumni and friends of Stanford will see that students are “getting an education here that they can’t get anywhere else, really,” she adds.

Oh yes, and the walls will be tinted in gray-blue hues.

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