One may think that designing a gallery exhibit is simple, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Most shows take weeks of planning, including communicating with the artists, composing and signing artists’ contracts, planning the lighting design, positioning the works, and much more.
So is it possible to stage a gallery exhibit in less than 24 hours? Students in Kristen Van Patten’s Exhibition Practicum class had the opportunity to try their hand at it in October.
During the week of Oct. 8-10, Southwestern hosted the 8th annual international conference of the American Society for Shufa Calligraphy Education. Famous calligraphers from around the world were asked to bring samples of their art to be put on display in the Fine Arts Gallery on Oct. 9. Patten and his students were in charge of gathering the calligraphers’ works as soon as they arrived at Southwestern, designing the show and displaying the art by the end of the day.
“We had no idea when we would receive the pieces, how many there were, nor the sizes or colors of them,” Van Patten said. “We are all just playing it by ear.”
Normally, Van Patten said, pieces for an exhibition are received a month or two in advance, contracts are drawn up at least three months in advance, and there is constant contact with the artists. They also work on lighting designs, placement and installation for about two weeks.
None of that was possible with this show, which was called “Crisscross 24,” plus there was the additional problem of the English-Chinese language barrier.
Fortunately, students said, Van Patten had already taught them the basic skills of measuring, hanging and designing. Around 5 p.m. on Oct. 8, Van Patten and his students received about one-third of the pieces. They set up the gallery in a way that it would be easy to hang, remove, replace or receive the pieces as they continued to come later that night. They designed a general style lighting, rather than specific, so that all the pieces could be highlighted equally.
“Because we had no way of knowing the number of pieces or their sizes we were going to hang until the last ones arrived an hour before we were finished, we had to keep several different options open in order to make sure it would turn out well if we received two pieces or 30,” Van Patten said.
The final batch of four scrolls arrived around 8:15 p.m., and the gallery was staged for the next day’s opening by 9:20 p.m. − less than five hours from the time they received the first scrolls.
The students’ favorite part of the project was unrolling the tightly wrapped scrolls to see what they looked like. They were amazed at how all the scrolls were very different and how each one showed different styles of the calligrapher. “It’s like opening up Christmas presents,” one excited student said.
Van Patten said the students really impressed him with their abilities. “They all had to take the reins and solve some problems on their own with this installation because there was just too much going on for me to oversee everything,” he said.
The exhibit opened to the public at 1 p.m. on Oct. 9. Many people came out to attend an evening reception and watch a demonstration put on by the calligraphers.
“The reception went really well, so it was great that our hard work paid off and lots of people visited the gallery and saw the scrolls that night,” said senior studio art major Noel Kalmus.
After being up for just 24 hours, the calligraphers came to pick up their work and take it home. Some of them left scrolls as gifts to Southwestern, so Van Patten and his students added those scrolls to an exhibit of facsimile scrolls owned by Southwestern that will be on display in the Fine Arts Gallery through Nov. 18.
Van Patten said staging the 24-hour exhibition was a great learning experience for his students. “If there’s one thing I hope they take away from this experience, it’s the importance of planning for all possible outcomes from the beginning,” he said. “Things rarely stick to the original plan 100 percent when it comes to fine art, and this was a great opportunity for the students to learn that, and to understand that they can make it work even if it seems like there’s no hope of organization. I think they all gained a degree of confidence with this project that will help them put together exhibits after they leave school.”
Marion Clendenen said the experience will definitely be helpful to her. She’s an art history major who plans to be a museum curator.
For the senior studio art majors in Van Patten’s class, their next project will be to install their own gallery exhibit which will open Nov. 29.
“That’s when the real stress begins,” Van Patten said.
− LeLoni Brown