Curatorial Movements at the University Art Gallery

Leslie Rose


Curatorial Movements at the University Art Gallery

Author: Leslie Rose

2019 Hot Metal Bridge Diversity Fellow in History of Art and Architecture and University Art Gallery intern

As someone with a deep interest in museum display, curation, and education, I saw my internship in the University Art Gallery (UAG) as a chance to gain a greater understanding of what it means to work in an academic gallery. I was most excited to learn how a strong focus on education influences the UAG’s mission, from day-to-day operations to exhibition planning and public programming. Though there are many components of my internship that introduced me to the unique role of a teaching gallery, my experiences curating for the UAG have been the most illuminating. 

As part of my internship, I was given the opportunity to curate a small exhibition to complement the traveling exhibition, Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers, on loan from the Schomburg Center of African American Culture, which was on view in the gallery in February – March 2019. For inspiration, I was asked to think broadly about themes present in this show, such as migration and exchange, agency, and representation. Using these themes as a starting point, I curated Movements, an exhibition exploring the representation and expression of people of the African Diaspora in the transatlantic world. My exhibition explored three different definitions of the term ‘movement’: movement as migration; movement in relation to musical composition; and political and civil rights movements. The show incorporated a variety of works ranging from 17th century prints related to the Atlantic slave trade and portraits to the Black Panther newspaper and contemporary zines. 

The first difficulty I encountered in the curatorial process related to the UAG’s holdings. In every collection, there are bound to be gaps. Initially, this frustrated me: how could I create a dialogue around the people of the African diaspora when these artists were not well represented in the UAG collection? However, it was with the guidance of faculty, graduate students, and UAG staff that I began to see how to work with these “gaps” in a way that would help build the conversation with the viewer and as a way to better underscore the important points of the exhibition. These gaps also reinforced my belief that this type of show is needed and it offered me an opportunity to think more creatively. I turned to the University Library System (ULS) and the Heinz History Center in search of more material, forcing me to reevaluate my own expectations of what objects belongs in an art gallery. So much of my previous museum and gallery experience insisted on the separation of art objects and archival material; however, within an academic gallery setting, I was able to place the unconventional material in conversation with art in order to create a larger dialogue on visual culture. Movements grouped together maps, prints, comic books, music sheets and more to encourage visitors to see various representations and expressions of people of the African diaspora and consider the weight and influence of images in the world. 

Through this project, I was also able to expand my understanding of curation and exhibitions. Rather than thinking of an exhibition as a visualization of an academic essay, which is where I began, I started to think of it as a space where discussions begin. Curating was not a way to talk at the audience, similar to an essay, but to talk with them. I began to imagine an audience and potential dialogues as a part of my process, altering my selection, arrangement, and labeling of objects. For example, I juxtaposed a stained glass image of a minstrel-inspired character from the Stephen Foster Memorial with a photograph of the Pittsburgh Community Choir, both from the mid 1930s, to encourage the audience to look closely at each work and think on how they operate within a larger system of representation. Rather than dictate this relationship through lengthy didactic labels, I felt that it was important for the audience to question this grouping and perhaps speculate in a conversation with a friend or fellow visitor.

These experiences allowed me to see first-hand the ways a teaching gallery differs from public museums and galleries, and how the emphasis on education and dialogue informs all aspects of the UAG’s work. This experience also drastically changed my perception of my role as an emerging curator. Rather than seeing myself as solely a source of information, I now see my role as a facilitator for a broader conversation with our audience. As I hope to pursue a career in academia and curation, this is a lesson I plan to take with me throughout my career. 

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