USC students as museum curators
Two look-alike oil paintings hang side by side in an alcove of the Fisher Museum at USC: one in an intricate gold frame, the other pinned to the wall like a memo.
To the untrained eye both are the work of French painter Charles Émile Jacque, but USC senior Jayme Wilson points out a handful of flaws in the unframed painting. The lighting is off, details such as the animals and house are warped, and there are color variations. It turns out the pinned-up painting is a replica.
The sociology and art history student had discovered that at least two museums claimed to own the same painting. She wanted to hang them together at the Fisher, but when her loan request was turned down she found an oil painting reproduction company and commissioned her own copy of the second Jacque.
“When you go into a museum, you trust that what you’re looking at is a one of a kind,” said Wilson, 22. “While researching [Fisher’s] collection, we discovered there were other copies of the painting. We found this paradox of mass producing.”
Wilson was among a group of USC undergrads who have taken over the museum in a new approach to hands-on learning. The class project turned them into curators, forcing them to apply art theory to actual practice, and shut down a long-running exhibition in midrun.
Over two weeks the students mounted their makeover of the show, employed criticisms of traditional museum exhibits and used contemporary art and multimedia to rethink art history for the intervention, which they titled “re: View,” on display through April 17.
Richard Meyer, a co-professor of the course Contemporary Art and the Art of Curating who is responsible for the takeover, said the idea came from the class using the L.A. museum world as a laboratory.
“We wanted them to develop a constant consciousness that everything you see in museums is choreographed. The idea wasn’t about training the next generation of curators, it was a hands-on experience,” Meyer said. “Instead of having them do a small show, we had them intervene in this permanent show. It’s very unusual that undergrads have this experience.”
For “re: View” the students were asked to offer a fresh take on the exhibit “Four Rooms and a View: Highlights From USC’s Collection,” which opened in January. Each student’s project was based on how they reacted to the work already there.
One student project challenged the idea of curators as gatekeepers. The original exhibit included some of the so-called best landscape paintings owned by USC. In contrast, the student decided to hang every landscape in the university’s collection, floor to ceiling, including some damaged and partly restored works that had never been displayed. The room was transformed to re-create the “icebox,” the temperature-controlled room where the art is stored.
Lauren Maldonado’s and Francisco Rosas’ projects relied on research both students did on the sprawling mural completed in 1914 by Maynard Dixon that once hung in the Anoakia mansion, built in Arcadia by the daughter of that city’s first mayor, Elias Baldwin. The mural comprises nine segments collectively known as the “Jinks Room.”
Rosas, a senior in art history and public relations, said existing literature claimed the mural, which features fairies, trolls and friars in medieval costume, was located in a children’s playroom. But he discovered the playroom wasn’t for children; it was for adults and the mural hung in a room used as a private speak-easy.
“The museum owns six of the nine pieces; that’s why we have the three silhouettes. I wanted them to not be here,” Rosas, 21, said as he pointed to the walls showing the dark looming figures.
On the floor in the re-created “Jinks Room” is a large, blueprint-like installation of white silhouettes representing the original arrangement that was reconstructed by students, allowing visitors a chance to walk through and experience the room as it was intended.
Maldonado, a sophomore in art history and biology, crafted a documentary that traces the history of the “Jinks” pieces.
Selma Holo, director of the museum and co-professor of the course with Meyer, said the unique class project is another way to highlight the responsibility of the Fisher Museum to be a teaching space.
“We decided it would be interesting to see how they viewed [the permanent gallery]. We also thought it would be good to find a contemporary artist who got it,” Holo said. “If there was an artist that could respond to this type of art, the students would see it as a conversation.”
Holo and Meyer brought in contemporary artist Susan Silton to brainstorm with the students. She also contributed her own interpretation of the old exhibit in a banner that hangs outside the gallery.
In the banner, as in Wilson’s project, two nearly identical desert landscapes are side by side, representing how people perceive art. The words “We see it differently, you and I” are written in bold white type across the top, nearly challenging the viewer to think otherwise.
“This multilevel perception of landscapes led to my thoughts of a Hollywood backdrop. I like this notion of the levels of ‘fictionality.’ I found these two desert landscapes. I was intrigued that one refers to each other, they are clearly different, yet similar,” Silton said. “It’s really ambiguous, in that way.”
Silton said she hopes the students won’t look at exhibitions the same way after the project.
“Rarely will they get this opportunity again. I think that’s what’s so exciting about this as a model,” Silton said. “Not all the students are art majors. This may be the last time some of them touch art.”
Wilson said she is walking away with a greater appreciation for exhibits.
“Going into the class it felt really experimental. I think it’s a bigger risk for the museum to take,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know anything about curating. It’s an art form within itself.”