Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt from Marjorie Schwarzer, Glori Simmons and Marlena Cannon de Mendez’s chapter, entitled “Divergent Agendas and Dobles Vidas: A Folk Art Curating Partnership between University of San Francisco and The Mexican Museum,” that was recently featured in Innovative Practice in Museums, ed. Juilee Decker (Rowan & Littlefield, 2015).
Divergent Agendas and Dobles Vidas:
A Folk Art Curating Partnership between University of San Francisco and The Mexican Museum.
In Fall 2014, the exhibition Dobles Vidas: Folk Art from The Mexican Museum opened at University of San Francisco (USF)’s Mary and Carter Thacher Gallery. Sixty-two mixed media objects selected from The Mexican Museum’s 7,000 object folk art collection told multiple stories about Mexican folk art as a hybrid of fine art and functionality. To enrich the show, USF developed an interactive digital map; topical lectures and discussions; bilingual tours; and a community festival. With oversight from The Mexican Museum (TMM) and USF staff, two graduate students from USF’s museum studies department played primary roles as co-curators.
Today’s students “seek opportunities for more engaged, fluid participation, ‘insider’ access to the process as well as the ‘products’ of culture,” according to an in-depth 2012 study on campus art museums conducted by University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. The study admitted that a more transparent, less authoritative approach to university art gallery programming would be risky and unpopular because it would involve letting go of entrenched university and museum practices. We believe that Dobles Vidas can serve as a test case for how universities and museums can successfully give students more ownership of the process of curating, while also meeting professional standards.
Dobles Vidas began with a handshake agreement. In 2013, staff from Thacher Gallery met with TMM’s executive director David de la Torre. At that point, USF had two needs: a loan of outdoor sculpture for the Gallery’s rooftop space and ideas for future shows for Thacher’s indoor space that would be popular with its growing Latino student body (USF is about 20% Latino). Thacher’s new director Glori Simmons had articulated a bold goal for Thacher Gallery: that each undergraduate student would have at least one (hopefully many more) meaningful experience at the Gallery before graduating, stimulating a life-long love of art and culture. To Simmons, bringing art from TMM’s collection offered an opportunity to engage students across the disciplines: from Creative Writing to History, Theology and Chican@-Latin@ studies. Simmons also saw an opportunity to strengthen Thacher Gallery’s visibility with neighborhood residents and public school children through free field trips and programs.
TMM also had many needs that could be served by this partnership. Founded in 1975, the museum has acquired an important collection of work by Mexican and Mexican American artists. At the same time, it has struggled with limited resources: 3.5 FTE staff, a small and hard-to-find gallery space in an out-of-the-way location, and an annual budget of only about one million dollars. Working with an accessible urban university like USF gave TMM visibility in a new venue as it kicked off a capital campaign for its 2018 relocation to downtown San Francisco. To TMM, the collaboration with USF presented the opportunity to highlight its outstanding art collection to a wider community, from the elusive millennial demographic of college students to potential capital campaign donors. Marlena Cannon de Mendez, TMM’s Assistant to the Director, was given the responsibility for overseeing the details of the collaboration.
In addition to TMM and Thacher, a new player entered the project: founding faculty and students of USF’s graduate-level museum studies program, inaugurated in Fall 2013, under the leadership of art historian Paula Birnbaum. After researching trends in academia and museum practice, faculty articulated their new program’s key goal: to combine academic study with meaningful hands-on experiences in real-world settings. Eager, bright, and investing considerable resources into their graduate training, the students who elected to participate in Dobles Vidas saw an opportunity not only to learn, but to break into a competitive field and build their resumes and portfolios.
In Fall 2013, the first project commenced: an exhibition of seven large bronze sculptures from the TMM’s collection. Simmons and student assistants worked with TMM’s staff to implement the outdoor sculpture show. Students in Birnbaum’s introductory graduate seminar participated by visiting TMM’s collections storage area, meeting with staff, and drafting label text.¡Escultura! Selections from The Mexican Museum’s Permanent Collection opened on the Kalmanowitz Hall Rooftop Gallery in February 2014 with a formal reception attended by TMM and USF trustees and other prominent citizens including the Consul General of Mexico.
The next planned project was Dobles Vidas. The original idea was that a group of graduate students would work under the tutelage of TMM staff to research, implement the exhibition storyline, and mount an exhibition suitable for travel. Faculty surmised that the five Latina students in the graduate museum studies cohort would be especially interested, but this was not the case. It turned out that the students drawn to the project were those with no Spanish language skills and little to no professed interest in Mexican culture or folk art. The attractor for each of them was not the topic; but access to the process of curating with a renowned art collection.
In February 2014 three students began to work on the project in their spare time (on top of their fulltime course load). As TMM staff became pulled into the capital campaign and other projects, the project evolved into a standalone show at Thacher. USF contracted an expert in Latin American folk art to guide the students’ initial research on regional traditions, the artists, and the motives and stories behind the principal collectors, Nelson A. Rockefeller and Rex May. In late March, based on these perspectives as well as her knowledge of the collections, Cannon de Mendez identified 200 possible objects
With no single curatorial eye, developing a cohesive organizing theme became the central conversation of weekly team meetings. Team members struggled together to determine whether a storyline or object list should drive the exhibition. What occurred was a simultaneous course of action—a reenactment of the thought process: messy yet collaborative. The students were integral to these discussions. Rather than inheriting a preconceived idea, they helped to formulate the idea. Thankfully the title Dobles Vidas (selected through several brainstorming sessions) allowed room for interpretation and sub-themes like Tradition: Festival y Fantastía and Casa y Tierra.
By now the students had enrolled in their formal summer internship course, taught by Marjorie Schwarzer. Each student was required to brainstorm one burning issue relevant to their internship with their class. The students working on Dobles Vidas, Leah Belcher and Merrill Amos, posed formative evaluation questions: what did their diverse classmates already know about Mexican folk art?; what would they like to see and learn in such an exhibition?; how could educational collateral extend the learning? Here, the Latina museum studies students, in particular, wrote passionately about what folk art means to them. Other students posed ideas that demonstrated common misunderstandings about Mexican folk art as well as aspects that aroused their curiosity.
Using this information, Belcher and Amos winnowed Cannon de Mendez’s object list from 200 to 60 and worked with Simmons to finalize the object list and design the layout. Each intern worked with vitrines owned or purchased by USF; luckily TMM was open to switches when groupings didn’t visually cohere in the available vitrines. The last-minute addition of two flutes brought the final object count to 62. At the same time, the interns drafted panel text. The group curating process turned unwieldy; the text was far too long, especially because it would need to be translated for bilingual labels. Several rounds of editing for accuracy and style were required; other USF museum studies faculty pitched in.
Security concerns were tantamount in planning the display since Thacher Gallery is located in a highly trafficked area of the University’s main library and open 24 hours a day during most of the year. Some items, including fragile ceramic figurines and wood masks, required conservation. USF contracted a conservator to assess the damage and supervise the students to help make minor repairs and provide special mounts. During the installation, the interns photographed the work for condition reports, fit mounts, assisted in securing the works against seismic activity, and created tombstone labels for each object.
After a final few hectic days, the exhibition was not yet fully complete, but ready for its Opening Celebration. At a crowded public event, Amos and Belcher proudly toured groups of students, faculty, and others through Dobles Vidas and began to recruit the new cohort of museum studies graduate students to help develop and deliver bilingual school tours and other programs and elements that would be added in the next month.
The most visible result of our collaboration was a striking exhibition that probes the artistry and meaning of Mexican folk art. Worth noting here are the unintended outcomes. By working with TMM and graduate museum studies students, Thacher Gallery was able to test new approaches. Once the exhibit was up, the Gallery engaged a group of volunteer graduate students, including Amos and Belcher, to further develop bilingual tours and gallery activities that were tested at the Community Festival. Most importantly, Thacher had a chance to determine how students respond to objects selected and curated by their peers, as opposed to faculty and experts.
TMM also gained concrete results from working with USF. For instance, a major art museum in the Midwest became aware of Dobles Vidas and expressed interest in borrowing one of the objects for a future exhibition. A co-sponsored private showing for trustees from both institutions allowed TMM to cultivate donors. And TMM received a grant from Union Bank to extend its internship program for graduate museum studies students and offer stipends.
For the young museum studies program, Dobles Vidas showcased students’ abilities and helped faculty to identify strengths and weaknesses in a new curriculum. Faculty integrated Dobles Vidas into 2014 Fall courses on museology and curating. USF held a private breakfast and exhibition tour with representatives from twenty local museums to discuss how to expand the scope and breadth of graduate-level internships. When asked to reflect on the results of this project, student Merrill Amos summed up its ultimate result: “The amount of trust that was placed on Leah [Belcher] and me was astounding. My self-confidence in my professional abilities grew.”
This project –situated at a Jesuit Catholic institution– involved a leap in faith from all parties. It was possible because the instigators were experienced museum professionals and university faculty who combined an expertise in museum best practices with an understanding of and commitment to mentoring graduate students. TMM took on this collaborative exhibition knowing that it would be far from perfect, but the leadership agrees that the outcome most certainly outweighs the obstacles that were encountered. The project would not have happened without the interns’ enthusiasm and willingness to see it through. Key lessons learned involved trust and accepting a tolerable level of risk in regard to how a collection would be handled, displayed and interpreted in a campus art gallery. All participants had to let go of expectations and accept that the process would be fluid. It was essential that the faculty and TMM care more about student success than advancing their own research agendas. Yet it was also essential that everyone agree that the exhibition would have academic integrity and the collections would be exhibited in accordance with best practices and standards.
In hindsight, some of the late minute messiness over the final text panels could have been avoided if a member of the team had been assigned editorial oversight from the outset. Likewise, museum studies faculty learned the importance of closely working with graduate students on research rigor and soft skills, like how to accept and respond to criticism and when to ask for input. The museum studies program also was reminded not to typecast its students, steering Latino students to Latino subject matter and so on. The virtues that allowed Belcher and Amos to succeed were not expertise or a rigid set of goals and expected outcomes. They were openness to a messy process and the ability to, in the words of Leah Belcher: “go with the flow.”