Student-led acquisition project diversifies St. Olaf’s art collection
On the St. Olaf College 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, art is everywhere. On a campus so saturated with creative work, 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 of art to join the Flaten Art Museum’s collection and be displayed around campus, intentionally working to diversify the college’s collection.
Prior to determining 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, purposefully contemplating whose work was present on campus, and whose wasn’t.
For the project, students worked in groups based on their interests; in those groups they developed 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.
As a result of their work, there are four new pieces in 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. The 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 depict 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.”
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.Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04
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 benefited from these gallerists visiting virtually as well.
The artists that created all four of the pieces — Palmer, Baker, and 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 it actually does 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?”
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 it actually does for us.Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Hannah Ryan
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 2020–21 school year, 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.” Gronlund adds, “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. 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.”
Ryan and Becker Nelson are thrilled to announce that a second Acquisitions Project will run in Ryan’s Art Now class this spring semester, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation. Students will have the opportunity to acquire works of art to meet the Flaten Art Museum’s evolving collecting goals, in this case prioritizing Contemporary Indigenous art, works by recent immigrant and refugee communities highly represented in Minnesota, pieces by LGBTQIA+ artists, and works by Asian American Pacific Islander artists.