Department of Art History and Art

Navigation + Search
Home / From Classroom to Gallery: the Making of an Exhibition

From Classroom to Gallery: the Making of an Exhibition

By

James Wehn

When I chose to pursue my PhD in art history at CWRU, the program’s object-based focus and integrated partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art were the most important factors in my decision. It was important to me as an aspiring print curator that I have the opportunity to work with a world-class collection while engaging in the rigorous academic studies required of any doctoral program. I found the promise of a third-year internship in the CMA’s department of prints and drawings to be particularly enticing. During a campus visit, Jane Glaubinger, the museum’s Curator of Prints, suggested I might work on my own exhibition. I made my decision, crossed my fingers, and moved to Cleveland, optimistic that the joint doctoral program would turn out to be as good as it sounded.

Now, at the start of my fourth year, I have finished my coursework, completed the language requirements, and defended my dissertation topic. The exhibition Elegance and Intrigue: French Society in 18th-Century Prints and Drawings, which I organized for the CMA as part of my required internship, is just a few weeks from closing, and there is no doubt in my mind that the show exemplifies the successful partnership between the museum and university.

The idea for an exhibition of 18th-century French prints and drawings began in “Material Examination of Works of Art,” a required course for every PhD student in the program. I chose to analyze and write about Zephyre and Flore, a color wash-manner etching and engraving with applied gold leaf made by Jean François Janinet circa 1776. Around the same time, Jane asked what topic I might like to work on for a print exhibition to be organized during my forthcoming internship. Because of my coursework, I was aware that the CMA has several excellent 18th-century French color prints in its collection, and so I suggested a show that included this material. Jane readily agreed, knowing that it had been well over a decade since the museum had displayed a similar exhibition and that several recently acquired prints from the period had never been on view. Good idea!

It was, however, just that: a good idea. As I filled out the museum’s exhibition proposal form under Jane’s supervision, I realized that, aside from the technical process French printmakers used to make color etchings and engravings, I was woefully unfamiliar with 18th-century French art and the society for which it was made. Discussing this concern with Prof. Scallen, my academic advisor, we decided that I should complete an independent study of French print culture as part of my second-year coursework. That was a really good idea. The directed reading and related paper allowed me to fulfill coursework requirements while conducting research about prints I knew would be in the exhibition. As an added benefit, I further developed one section of my paper about an etching related to the CMA’s exquisite rococo silver tureen designed by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier and presented it at the 14th Congress of the International Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in Rotterdam.

Going into my third-year internship, I had many of the academic tools I needed to develop the show. But writing a research paper and producing an exhibition require different skills, and my attention shifted toward selecting the prints and drawings and planning their layout in the limited gallery space. Jane explained that in addition to choosing prints and drawings that supported the themes and points I wanted to relate, the works had to look good: not too crowded nor too far apart, placed so that works would visually relate, but with a sense a variety, and never monotonous. As I made my choices and tested groupings in the art study room, Jane would review my plan and make suggestions. Jane’s expert eye continually impressed me as even minor changes could make a good-looking arrangement especially eye catching. Occasionally, I would have two prints that I wanted to include, but only space for one of them. I would explain the pros and cons of each print to Jane and ask her which one she would pick. One day she said, “I’m not playing that game anymore. Do you know why? Because it’s hard to decide; but a curator has to do it. You’re the curator. You decide.” So I did.

With my checklist and layout planned, it was time to work on the didactic panels and object labels. While writing, I frequently referred to my papers from the independent study and the course in material examination. Struggling to concisely summarize the cultural importance of drawings in 18th-century France, I found myself sifting through first-year notes from Prof. Scallen’s seminar on the history of connoisseurship and re-reading sections of treatises by Roger de Piles and Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville. My former coursework was no longer a list of completed assignments or credits earned, but a vital resource I depended upon.

The rest of the exhibition production is a blur of meetings and exchanges with a team of museum professionals. The Education and Editorial departments helped me hone the text panels and labels to make them as concise as possible for museum visitors. I met with designers to select colors and fonts, and we discussed how each work would be matted and framed. Paper conservator Moyna Stanton examined each drawing with me to make sure their media descriptions were accurate. I presented an overview of my exhibition to museum staff, and I wrote an essay about the show for the CMA members’ magazine.

 

planning-the-gallery-layout

Planning the gallery layout in the Art Gallery Room

 

Finally, it was time to install the show. Jane was out of town at the time, but very present in my mind. As I resolved a few unanticipated spacing problems, I whispered to myself, “what would Jane do?” Since the exhibition opened, I think the nicest compliment I have received was “your show is beautiful and intelligent.” This thoughtful comment is, I believe, truly a testament to the joint program and the resources made available to me from both CWRU and the CMA. However, I don’t really think of it as “my show.” Anything that is smart or attractive about Elegance and Intrigue certainly belongs to everyone who worked on it. Though I will take ownership of one thing: my decision to pursue my PhD here. It’s been a lot of very hard work, but absolutely worth it.


james-gives-a-gallery-talk

James gives a gallery talk in Elegance and Intrigue

a-selection-of-prints-and-drawings-installed

A selection of prints and drawings installed in the gallery

Page last modified: February 7, 2017