Thanks to its flexible Create Spaces, and resources and support, the new Visual Culture, Arts, and Media building has made possible a surge in faculty-inspired, curriculum-related, and student-initiated creative projects on campus.
When the exhibition The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America opened in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in October, its reach extended beyond the walls of the gallery. Linked to the exhibition, originally created by the Brooklyn Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative, was a daylong symposium organized by Assistant Professor of English and Visual, Culture, Arts, and Media Fellow Lindsay Reckson, who was instrumental in bringing The Legacy of Lynching to Haverford. In addition, Reckson worked with student research assistant Drew Cunningham ’20 to organize an evocative satellite exhibit on campus that brought the subject closer to home. The Lynching of Zachariah Walker detailed the 1911 lynching of a man in nearby Coatesville, Pa.—just a 40-minute drive from campus.
Featuring photographs, newspaper and journal articles, and other materials, that exhibit went up in one of the two flexible Create Spaces in the Visual Culture, Arts, and Media facility (VCAM). And it’s just one example of the many faculty-inspired, curriculum-related, and student-created exhibits that have been made possible by VCAM. Call it an exhibitions boom. Since the VCAM facility opened its doors in fall 2017, the Create Spaces, along with the expansive Exhibition Wall on the main floor, have played host to 42 exhibits, installations, and other projects.
In Progress, part of the course “Theory and Practice of Conceptual Art,” featured work by students in the class along with a collaboration with artist Mariel Capanna, who donated a large painted mural she completed during a Haverford residency and asked visitors to cut out their favorite sections, leaving verbal descriptions in their place.
Somatic, created by Cole Sansom ’19 and Katie Hulihan BMC ’20 for the class “The Documentary Body,” featured a plastic mannequin that was used to explore themes of embodiment via interactive live-streaming video.
Shedding City, created by Colin Fredrickson ’20, which focused on the discarded or “shedded” items that are designed to be forgotten, and drew on recyclable materials collected over a month on campus.
Offering a space for collaboration and conceptualization was exactly what Haverford leaders had in mind when they decided to convert the old Ryan Gym into a creative center for the 21st century and beyond. Besides housing the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, and the College’s new visual studies interdisciplinary minor, VCAM has a screening room, an equipment check-out room for audio-visual gear, a film/media editing studio, and a Maker Arts Space that houses 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other machines.
VCAM Director and Associate Professor of English Laura McGrane says VCAM is part of the College’s vision of a modern liberal arts education.
“Traditionally, you take a class, create a project, and then show the work in a science poster session or a fine arts lab,” McGrane says. “VCAM underscores and emphasizes that the process of making is part of what we do and it in itself can be visible to the public, and we can learn from that.”
“It’s been exciting to see how VCAM both satisfies existing needs and also prompts new faculty and new students to imagine their projects here,” says James Weissinger ’06, associate director of the Hurford Center and VCAM’s operations manager. “There are some professors and students who have been staging projects like these for years and they’ve always said, ‘We love doing this kind of work, but we want proper facilities in which to do it.’ They finally have those. In some ways, VCAM marks the College’s facilities catching up with programming realities.”
With its three dedicated project spaces—and range of resources for presenting ideas and information in a way that is immersive and multi-media—VCAM has expanded opportunities for students to share their course-related learning with a wider audience, and has allowed an increasing number of faculty to move their teaching beyond the classroom. For many Haverford faculty that’s a welcome development.
The first exhibition to grace one of the Create Spaces, in fall 2017, was American Queen, a component of Assistant Professor of Visual Studies Christina Knight’s course “American Queen: Drag in Contemporary Art and Performance.” Featuring a collection of images from Haverford’s own Special Collections, the show explored drag culture and its influence on American culture.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies Anne Balay also took her “Oral History and Activism” course beyond the classroom, working with students to mount the VCAM exhibit Bus(t) the Bubble, which highlighted the Tri-Co bus and van drivers who knit together the Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore communities.
For Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan, mounting a small exhibit had always been a way for him to provide context for his course “Tales of Troy.” In the past he’d used the tiny Alcove Gallery of Magill Library. But with Magill undergoing renovations during the fall semester, he says, “it seemed like a great opportunity to explore staging an expanded exhibit in VCAM.” So, with the support of the Hurford Center and Quaker and Special Collections, and utilizing both the Exhibition Wall and cases in VCAM’s Object Study classroom, Mulligan gathered prints and antiquities that depict scenes from the Trojan War, as well as digital versions of two recent graphic novels, one a modern retelling of the War at Troy, and the other a sci-fi take on The Odyssey. Two of his students helped out with the exhibit, and Mulligan also worked with Maker Arts Space Technician Kent Watson to create 3D-printed reproductions of ancient sculptures, all based on open-source designs available online.
In an end-of-semester VCAM exhibit titled The Power of Words, students in the “Advanced Japanese” course taught by Lecturer in Japanese Kimiko Suzuki showed examples from an indigo-dyeing workshop they’d attended and shared what they’d learned about the historical and political backgrounds of the traditional craft. The multi-media project was designed to teach advanced students one of the more sophisticated aspects of the Japanese language, says Suzuki. “Namely, how words can assume different meanings in different contexts.” But the exhibit had a wider aim as well. Along with giving visitors an opportunity to enjoy the textiles and learn a bit about indigo-dyeing culture in Japan, Suzuki saw the show as a chance to spotlight her “Advanced Japanese” course. “My secret agenda was to expand student interest in taking Japanese courses, ” she says.
Visual Media Scholar John Muse, who has staged student-curated “pop-up” exhibits connected to his course “Theory and Practice of Exhibitions” in various spaces on campus, says VCAM made the College’s new visual studies interdisciplinary minor possible. The facility, he says, showcases the vitality of the existing media arts and film scene on campus, and builds upon it.
“By literally bringing these people together under the same roof, we could develop a curriculum for a minor that captures the exquisite work going on,” Muse says. “Students who were doing the work already could do it together and in the full view of faculty.”
Booking a VCAM space is a straightforward process. The two Create Spaces and the Exhibition Wall may be reserved for up to two-weeks for curricular and co-curricular experimental media and performance projects, course-related digital projects, and small-scale exhibitions. Faculty members with an idea for an exhibit are asked to reach out to McGrane and Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, VCAM, and Campus Exhibitions. For students, the process involves filling out a detailed form that goes to the Hurford Center Postbac Fellow (a position currently held by Courtney Carter ’17) and submitting a 500-word essay describing the project concept and how it will be executed. Students also must submit a detailed budget for their project, including any materials, transportation, technology, personnel, or other resources needed. (For help with those budgets, students may apply to the Hurford Center’s Student Arts Fund.)
Callinan says he has particularly enjoyed seeing how students use the Create Spaces to showcase their work. During the 2017–18 academic year, VCAM hosted 20 different student projects. And so far in the 2018–19 academic year nine student-initiated exhibits have gone on view.
“The demand is amazing,” Callinan says. “All three spaces at VCAM are booked and have been since the fall. All of this activity was looking for a home and it finally got one.”
Even before the renovation that turned Ryan Gym into VCAM, students were appropriating the space for art projects, turning the old squash courts into “guerilla galleries,” with one artist collective honoring the sporting space by taking the name “Drop Shot.” Other students staged performances there, including one whose artistic statement was to recreate his dorm room and live there—until he was politely asked to move back to his own room. “The ethos of that student work has informed the wealth of activity in the building today,” says Weissinger.
Among the student-initiated exhibits that have found a home at VCAM: Please Touch The Art, organized by Tess Haas BMC ’18, which aimed at total accessibility with textile works meant to be touched; Marisol, a multimedia performance and exhibition created by Cristian Espinoza ’18 that explored the intricacies of an embodied intersectional life; and Coming to Terms, a series of portraits of Haverford students painted by Ainsley Bruton ’21.
“Students learn a lot just from the staging of a project— the nitty-gritty of what it takes to conceptualize an exhibit, source the materials, express ideas through the materials, put together a time line and a budget,” says Weissinger. “Then there’s installation, getting the AV to work, getting the video file to render properly, and then getting people to come to the opening. At every step of that process, students are learning conceptual and concrete skills that will be helpful in all sorts of avenues of their lives.”
Before VCAM, “there was really no place to exhibit student art,” says Isabella Siegel ’19, a fine arts major and visual studies minor. Prior to the opening of VCAM Siegel staged two art installations: one in Woodside Cottage, the other on the lower level of the Dining Center. Neither space was designed to showcase art, she notes drily.
But in less than two years, Siegel has participated in two VCAM exhibitions. In one, titled Lay/Lines, she visualized three “layers” of Philadelphia neighborhoods and drew them onto sheets of clear acetate that were hung from the ceiling and allowed visitors to rearrange them to bring layers to the front or push others behind. More recently, she collaborated with Phillip Norman ’19 and Colin Fredrickson’20 on Off the Wall, which explored the creations of 17 Philadelphia artists with photos of their graffiti, street art, and public art and included oral histories in which the artists speak about their work. (The exhibit was sparked by the trios’ Center For Peace and Global Citizenship 2018 summer internships. Siegel and Fredrickson worked with a New Orleans public art project, and Norman did an independent project that collected oral histories in Philadelphia.) Siegel says she and her collaborators got lots of support from Hurford Center postbac fellow Carter. “We could not have done it without Courtney,” she says. “It was like a crash course on how to put an exhibition together.”
All in all, the Create Spaces in VCAM are a real inspiration, Siegel says. “People are constantly muttering, looking around, thinking, wondering ‘What can I do next?’”
With additional reporting by Michael Weber ’19 and Allison Wise ’20.