Student-led Acquisitions

The Art Now acquisitions project is a collaboration between Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Hannah Ryan’s Spring 2021 and 2022 Art Now classes and the Flaten Art Museum. Students met their goal of bringing greater diversity to St. Olaf’s visual culture through four new art acquisitions, thanks to support from the Dreyfus Foundation. These additions to the museum’s collection fulfill current collecting priorities that seek to address the historic underrepresentation of contemporary Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, AAPI, Latinx, Somali, and Hmong artists in the collection, and advance the project’s goal of fostering a greater sense of belonging and respect for marginalized students, faculty, staff, and campus visitors.


Image Captions (in order of appearance):

Renluka Maharaj (b. 1966, Trinidad and Tobago)
Lillah (Pelting Mangoes series)
Found photograph, acrylic paint, paper, rhinestones on canvas
40 x 30 inches

Cara Romero (b. 1977, Chemehuevi Nation)
Archival pigment print on paper
50 x 40 inches

Muna Malik (b. 1993, United States)
Archival inkjet print
24 x 36 inches

Muna Malik (b. 1993, United States)
Archival inkjet print
36 x 24 inches

Purchased by the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College with support from the Dreyfus Foundation and Brenda Berkman ‘73.
Selected by the 2022 students of ART 280: Art Now Critical Issues in Contemporary Art taught by Professor Hannah Ryan: Emily Barta (staff), Lily Braafladt ‘22, Sophie Call 24, Zoe Golden ‘22, Emma Haren ‘22, Marcus Hauck ‘24, Cris Hernandez ‘23, Elias Ravn Iversen ‘25, Lauren Jacobson ‘24, Manaw Kyar Phyu ‘25, Jessenia Mia Prado ‘24, Lauren Schilling ‘25, Martha Slaven ‘24, Charlotte Smith ‘24, Han Timm ‘22, Kira Vega ‘24.


Thanks to the generous funding from the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Professor Hannah Ryan’s Spring 2022 Art Now class, in collaboration with Jane Becker Nelson and the Flaten Art Museum, acquired works of art by underrepresented artists of color for The Acquisitions Project 2.0: Art Acquisitions to Diversify the Visual Culture of the St. Olaf Community. This has increased the visual representation of people from historically marginalized groups on the St. Olaf College campus in a meaningful way and the works will now be part of the Flaten Art Museum’s collection in perpetuity. 

Guest speakers were welcomed into class throughout the semester to expose students to artwork and artists from historically underrepresented groups and critical issues in contemporary art. Speakers focused on contemporary Indigenous art, work by immigrant and refugee communities highly represented in Minnesota, art by LGBTQIA+ artists, and works by Asian American Pacific Islander Artists. The speakers expanded the students’ frame of reference and enabled them to make informed decisions about which art to propose for accession. These conversations were pivotal to the success of the overall project.

Each individual member of the class gave a proposal presentation for one or more pieces of art to add to the Flaten’s collection. The students proposed work discovered through the guest speaker’s presentations and their own research. Prior to presenting, students corresponded with galleries and artists to obtain information necessary for their proposals such as pricing, availability, and additional insight into the artwork. This gave them real world experience working with professionals within the art world. 

A vote was held and the Art Now class chose to accession Lillah by Renluka Maharaj, Safe and Silence by Muna Malik, and Julia by Cara Romero. This fulfilled the Flaten’s collecting priorities of acquiring artwork by Asian American Pacific Islander, Somali, and Indigenous artists. Each piece in the chosen grouping is a work of portraiture. The class responded to the weight of figurative representation as a valuable component in making campus a more welcoming place. These works directly interrupt the legacy of a lack of diversity in St. Olaf’s art collection and will help make the college a more welcoming and inclusive place.

Following the selection of the works of art, the class wrote interpretive texts for each piece and voted to select the text which will accompany the pieces once they are installed on campus. During the proposal presentations students held many enlightening discussions on potential locations for the art to live. This gave students the opportunity to examine the meaning of placement of artwork and its impact on the audience. Students discussed reasons for why these locations should be considered including foot traffic, lighting conditions, sounds, nearby activities and the likely demographics who would be exposed to the work. The class has made several proposals to the Flaten for where they would like to see the pieces hung, and has given their blessing for the museum to make the final decision for installation locations. 

Since acquiring these works, we are now better able to convey the values of inclusivity and equality across campus. Institutional portraiture gives a clear impression of exactly who the institution values. We are now able to better communicate our values of diversity and promote a sense of belonging for the future students, faculty, staff, and visitors at St. Olaf. 

For more information about the selected artworks, contact us.


Image Captions (in order of appearance):

Florine Démosthène
Untitled 11
Collage on paper (ink, mylar, glitter)
15 x 11 inches

Georgette Baker
Lakefront Music Festival- Fusion
Collage on crescent 400 hot press board
30 x 24 inches

Charly Palmer
Toni Speak
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 12 inches

Charly Palmer
Baldwin “Time”
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches

Purchased by the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College through The Glen H. and Shirley Beito Gronlund Fund for Art Acquisition. Selected by the students of ART 280: Art Now Critical Issues in Contemporary Art taught by Professor Hannah Ryan: Mal Alford ’22, Emmanuel Araba Ameri ’24, Vazgen Ananyan ’24, Tija Atkins ’21, Israel Baltazar ’22, Eric Besonen ’21, Madalyn Brandt ’23, Amalia Buck ’22, Anne Clark ’21, Anna Clements ’22, Aimi Dickel ’22, Emily Domres ’24, Sadie Favour ’23, Olivia Jager ’23 Ted Jorstad ’22, Chloe Joy ’21, Thomas Lako ’22, Hongye Lyu ’21, Casey Parker ’22, Amanda Rose ’21, Ashley Sarpong ’23, Levi Scott ’23, Madeline Shields ’23, Eamonn Stanton ’21, Justin Vorndran ’23, Evelyn Wakeley ’21, Caleb Wood ’24, Malee Yang ’22.


Going anywhere on St. Olaf College’s campus, it is all but impossible to not be enveloped in works of art — from sculptures dotting the campus green, to student work lining the walls of academic buildings, to community members sipping their coffee from mugs made by ceramicists. On a campus so saturated with art, it can be easy to not pay much mind to the larger meanings of a piece or the artist who created it. 

Students in this spring’s Art Now: Critical Issues in Contemporary Art course led by Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Hannah Ryan embarked on a student-led acquisitions project that ultimately led to the purchase of four new pieces to join the Flaten Art Museum’s collection and be displayed around campus, intentionally working to diversify the college’s collection.

Prior to starting the journey of finding what art they hoped to bring to campus, students learned about the themes, trends, and materiality of contemporary art, then applied this knowledge to the visual culture of their campus. They looked for what they felt was missing, going around the Hill purposefully contemplating whose work was present, and whose wasn’t.

For the project, students worked in groups based on their interests; in those groups they formulated a presentation outlining what specific artworks they hoped to acquire, the reasoning for each piece, and where they envisioned the work housed on campus. The group whose proposal was ultimately picked focused on showcasing Black artists.

There are four pieces joining the Flaten collection: Toni Speak and Baldwin “Time” by Charly Palmer, Lakefront Music Festival: Fusion by Georgette Baker, and Untitled 11 by Florine Démosthène. The works by Palmer depict novelist Toni Morrison and author James Baldwin, respectively, celebrating the life and work of two revolutionary Black writers. Palmer’s work was acquired through ZuCot gallery, a Black-owned gallery in Atlanta that the class was in contact with throughout the process. The chosen work by Baker incorporates archival photos of Black Americans into a collage celebrating live music. This piece by Démosthène — like much of her work — is focused on showcasing a duality within Black female bodies in an otherworldly mixed media composition. All of the works acquired were created by Black artists and depicted Black people; according to those in the course, these pieces were chosen in an effort “to uplift and support contemporary Black artists; work towards dismantling white supremacy on campus; disrupt spaces dominated by whiteness; and to prompt conversations around important art being made today.”

A core goal of the project was to advance Flaten Art Museum’s collecting priority to increase the representation of historically underrepresented artists in its collection. Flaten Art Museum has never had a dedicated budget for acquiring new works. As a result, Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 says the collection has grown mainly by donor serendipity, largely by alumni of the College “whose identities align with the historically dominant Norwegian-American and Lutheran identity of the College, leading to a collection that reflects the same.”

The impact of whose work is — and is not — present in any collection impacts the physical space it holds, which in turn permeates through the culture of any given place.

“There’s nothing neutral about art. And depending on our identities we read these artworks, and we read these spaces differently,” Becker Nelson says. “So I would argue that art plays a really big part in setting the tone in physical space, and has a role in establishing, or diminishing, an environment that is respectful of many different identities.”

This model of student-led acquisition is something that Ryan had been hoping to implement in a course since she arrived at the college two years ago. The project was inspired by initiatives her mentor Cheryl Finley has led at Cornell, where Ryan was her doctoral student, and now at the AUC Art Collective, where Finley now serves as the Director of the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective. Finley’s Lunchtime Conversations on Instagram Live provided an opportunity for Ryan to hear from Onaje Henderson at ZuCot Gallery, and these conversations encouraged Ryan to initiate an acquisitions project, partnering with ZuCot. ZuCot became an integral part of the project; Henderson spoke to the class about how to embark on the project in ways that would be the most actively thoughtful and anti-racist. Throughout the process, students also connected with other gallery owners and artists. The class partnered with Black-owned Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago to acquire the piece by Florine Demosthene, and benefitted from these gallerists visiting virtually as well. 

In the end, the students voted on what group’s chosen works would ultimately be acquired, the artists that created all four of the pieces — Charly Palmer, Georgette Baker, and Florine Demosthene — also virtually visited the class and interacted with students

“[This project] activates students as true  participants in the visual culture of their campus. Instead of just sort of being surrounded by art, which is a wonderful part of St. Olaf, [the project is also about] being really intentional and thoughtful about what kinds of art surrounds us, and what does it actually do for us,” Ryan says. “Especially for folks who are already marginalized, and perhaps not feeling totally welcome; what is the power in very intentionally seeking out artists and works of art to fill these spaces?”

Just as St. Olaf works to diversify its collection, so does much of the art world. Through this project, students were able to ideate changes that can, and ought, to be made both on the Hill and beyond.

“It made me feel like it was possible to take this into the real world,” says Aimi Dickel ’22, a member of the course. “I know we were really lucky to have all the support we did; a lot of art museums still have issues with performance activism, or suppressing people behind the scenes. But it kind of gave us a feeling of what it’s like for that model to be successful.”

The project was able to come to fruition this year largely as a byproduct of programming changes due to COVID-19 — Glen Gronlund ’55 and Shirley Beito Gronlund ’56 regularly fund an exhibition to take place in Flaten Art Museum. During the 2020-2021 school year though, programming was smaller and Becker Nelson had a difficult time administering the funds in their intended realm. So she approached the Gronlunds, who enthusiastically permitted the funds to be reallocated into funding the Art Now acquisitions project this year.

After the class made their final decisions on which pieces to acquire, the group presented their selections to the Gronlunds, and the entire class had time to reflect and share what they gained from the experience.

“They were just great,” Beito Gronlund says. “It was very stimulating actually for us to hear these great young minds talking about the artwork and how they went about selecting it.” While Gronlund added that: “Our loyalty is to St. Olaf, but it became personalized when we were involved in talking specifically to students — because they make the college become real for us. And that was special.”

While Art Now is a course taught periodically, the syllabus is highly malleable from one semester to the next — as a result, Ryan was able to shape the coursework based on student interests and spend a significant portion of the semester entirely dedicated to the student-led acquisitions project. 

Dickel attributes much of the success of the project to Ryan’s pedagogy and devotion to students. “Hannah is a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “She is a wonderful person, and clearly has people’s best interests at heart; she cares about learning more herself, and not sitting in the back and kind of just watching the students. And also making sure her students can move forward in the world with the tools she gives them.”

Across the board, those involved view the acquisition of these works as a concrete first step, creating a tangible change in the visual culture of the school — while still noting that there’s much work to be done.

“It feels like a drop in the bucket. It feels — and I think this is so important to convey — I don’t see this as a token project, one and done. I think the imperative on us to keep evaluating our collection, and changing our collection is going to be ongoing and probably never-ending,” Becker Nelson says. “So I see this as only the beginning, and I feel really thrilled to be able to make these additions this year. This launch is exciting, but you’re still talking about four artworks in a collection that is 4,000 objects strong. So it’s going to take a long time to move the needle, but we nudged it a little. We just need to keep working at it, endlessly.”

For more information about the selected artworks, contact us.