Creating Space to Curate

March 29, 2017

Justine Goode

Students perform at an improvisational performance art show
Students perform at "Counterpoints," an improvisational performance art show held this spring. Exhibition Initiative hosts several different student-curated shows and workshops each semester.
Photo credit: Dale Preston

Exhibition Initiative, Oberlin’s student-run curatorial organization, was founded on a simple premise: “If you have space, create.”

This egalitarian approach to making and presenting art is the backbone of the organization, which provides students the opportunity to curate shows featuring artwork created by their peers. Boasting a weekly WOBC radio show and guest artist lectures in addition to multiple showcases and galleries each semester, Exhibition Initiative gives students from all disciplines the chance to engage with art in ways they may not be able to in their college courses.

“In art history class, you learn about these shows, but you don’t get to use that information,” says fourth-year Leah Newman, an art history major and the organization’s chair. “[With Exhibition Initiative], we’re able to develop the curatorial skills that we need for outside Oberlin. We’re filling in that gap, and that’s the role of student organizations.”

Zenobia Marder, the organization’s co-chair, explains that Exhibition Initiative grants students access to the arts community even if they aren’t majoring in studio art or art history, or even taking classes in the departments.

“I feel the studio art major can be particularly inaccessible because of the added cost, in terms of lab fees and materials,” says Marder, a third-year majoring in comparative literature and studio art. “So I think it’s cool that we have an organization where you can produce work for and engage with the arts outside of that.”

Though many members are studio art and art history majors, there is significant representation from other departments, including Technology In Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) and cinema studies majors.

“[Our members] are people who are just kind of interested in sticking their foot into the arts,” says second-year Maya Blumenberg-Taylor, Exhibition Initiative’s communications manager and a studio art major. “EXI isn’t supposed to be really exclusive—it’s not just for art majors. We just want creative people to come together and make shows and put on these various events.”

In addition to providing students the figurative space to discover a passion for curation, the group provides literal spaces in which students can share their art. Many of Exhibition Initiative’s showcases are held in student houses, like the recent “Counterpoints” exhibition on March 10. Described as an improvisational collaboration between artists of various mediums, “Counterpoints” exemplified one of the organization’s main goals: to facilitate the meeting of different artists and mediums.

“I definitely think as a studio art major, there’s a limit to how much students within the studio arts really collaborate with one another,” says Blumenberg-Taylor. “With EXI, it’s very much a collaborative process, and that’s something I really love, because everyone’s involved in doing something. When we’re sharing ideas, the ideas are just ultimately a lot better.”

Since September, Exhibition Initiative has hosted several significant showcases, as well as a highly successful pillow-making workshop. Future projects include a show featuring 50 gold frames donated by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, as well as a textile workshop.

“I’m excited about these workshops we’ve been having, because it’s an opportunity for people to learn skills,” says Alyssa Mattocks, a third-year art history major and the organization’s treasurer. At the previous workshop, participants had the opportunity to use sewing machines and learn embroidery techniques.

The organization’s chairs hope to keep expanding the breadth of their undertakings, with an emphasis on giving students the resources they need to create, as well as engaging with artists in the surrounding community. Exhibition Initiative’s upcoming shows will help raise money for the restoration of the home of Reverend Albert Wagner, a Cleveland-based artist. Wagner, whose work is featured at both the Cleveland Art Museum and MOCA, filled his home with artwork before his death in 2006. It was his dying wish that his house become a museum, and Exhibition Initiative will be working alongside his family to help make this request a reality.

And while past guest speakers have included high-profile artists such as the Guerilla Girls, a group of radical, feminist female artists fighting sexism in the art world, the organization is now thinking more locally—a shift that is both cost-efficient, and fosters a connection with local artists (as Blumenberg-Taylor says, “There’s people creating art everywhere”). They also hope to expand the size of the organization itself, and continue to foster the collaboration of as many different genres of artists as possible.

“The art community is not just studio art, and I think that’s the unique thing about Oberlin,” says Newman. “A lot of times EXI makes me happy because I feel like it’s the epitome of why I came to Oberlin. Just because someone might not be a studio art major doesn’t mean they don’t get to make art, and work with other people. I think it just makes it feel more expansive, and that’s what we’re trying to do for the years to come—expand the group to a variety of different mediums and different people.”

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