HORIZONTAL AND OUTSIDE: How to encourage innovative senior exhibitions

2012 senior Leah Rafaela Ceirello at Montserrat College of Art's Artrageous! 26 Auction
As I send along this proposal to the College Art Association's 2013 PPC Panel Session: Senior Exhibition Curricular Requirements, I thought folks would be interested in hearing the ideas on my blog. Please post any comments and thoughts below - thanks!

Explain your interest in presenting on this topic:
I am the Exhibitions Manager for Montserrat College of Art, an undergraduate art college with 10 - 11 senior thesis exhibitions a year. I am interested in innovative uses of space for senior exhibitions, including a potential for non gallery and off campus exhibitions.

What is the focus of your presentation:
Montserrat College of Art students are engaged in evolving disciplines and media and our exhibition practices continue to evolve as well. Our baseline expectations for studio art degrees require a senior thesis exhibition, but students continue to reinterpret what an exhibition means for them and their work, resulting in new uses of our exhibition space, prefiguring a possibility of foregoing the physical gallery. Students coordinate along side their peers in horizontal rather than top-down model.

Describe your institution’s curricular/graduation requirements and/or expectations (either formal or informal) as they relate to senior exhibitions for BFA and BA students.

In order to graduate, Montserrat College of Art seniors are required to publicly exhibit work created during their attendance at the college. Each year, roughly 60 - 70 seniors are divided within disciplines (Fine Art, Illustration, Graphic Design, Art Ed) into roughly 7 - 9 students per exhibition. The students are responsible for collaboratively deciding on the content, layout and promotion of their group’s exhibition in the 301 Gallery, an 1100 square foot space.

Students are responsible for branding their exhibition

Our model for these senior exhibitions is horizontally structured and the fundamentals of a student’s senior exhibition (press release, postcards, layout, install) is ultimately negotiated through their fellow students instead of faculty and staff.  By allowing students more control in a peer environment with less top down expectations, we allow for more innovative interpretations of what an exhibition can be. Montserrat often sees substantial reinterpretation of exhibition practice by its students, as opposed to Montserrat’s formal Gallery and Visiting Artist program which must abide by professional best-practices, contractual and administrative obligations and the cross-over expectations of loaned works, commercial galleries and their artists, et al.

Departments, as well as students, have varying approaches to exhibiting work. For example, the Illustration Department allows students to exhibit work not created their senior year; a decision based ostensibly on building their portfolio for professional positioning after college, but that is a point of contention between departments. The conventions of a gallery-based exhibition are also up for reinterpretation, e.g. qualified online publishing for our Animation or Design students may constitute a public exhibition in the future, but what artifact could be brought into the gallery space as evidence? Students involved in temporal or performance art are increasingly presenting their work in off campus venues, e.g. screenings and actions that take place in the community, which could be coupled with an exhibition of ephemera from these actions.

2012 senior Zachary Goldstein with his thesis installation, 6 feet below surface and touching a 12 foot ceiling
So far senior exhibitions have always taken place in the 301 Gallery, but the writing does not explicitly state that senior exhibitions must occur on-campus.  Further, a “public exhibition” does not necessarily stipulate that it be publicly exhibited at or under the namesake of Montserrat College of Art, leading to questions of how far removed from the college an exhibition could be and still be considered a degree fulfilling requirement. Each year several seniors have substantial solo or group exhibitions off-campus which could satisfy this requirement.  However no student has requested to only have an off-campus senior exhibition in lieu of their guaranteed on-campus exhibition, a statistic that would lead administration to believe students expect to exhibit their work on campus before they graduate.  Moreover no mechanism is in place for students to request that their off campus exhibition be considered for this requirement.

The annual All Senior Show, an additional (but not required) exhibition where each of the 60 - 70 graduating seniors receive invitation for a guaranteed placement in the Montserrat Gallery (the college’s primary exhibition space of 1400 sq ft), has an average of only 30 - 40 participating seniors each year.  Although, this show cannot qualify as their required senior exhibition, what explains this lack of participation if students are so actively seeking opportunities to exhibit?  Perhaps the more controlled protocol and vertical structure of the All Senior Show deters some participation: a submission form, stated drop-off and pick-up times, as well as restrictions on alloted space (roughly 2 - 3 linear feet per student).  Even with these limitations, students have proposed and executed interactive installations or performances as their submission to the All Senior Show, demonstrating their willingness to invest in this show and their ability to navigate within different and more vertical protocols in order to exhibit.

In conclusion, Montserrat encourages innovative senior exhibitions through its baseline expectations, mostly horizontal rather than vertical negotiations, and an openness to redefining the substance and function of an exhibition.  Questions remain over the viability of off campus or non gallery senior exhibitions, where more experiential and intangible works may find better staging.  So far our open and horizontal approach has resulted in an education in negotiation, a broad survey of exhibition practice and a groundwork for a student’s artwork to function within or without an exhibition space.