A Reciprocal Affair

Museum Term

by Briee Della Rocca

Fatima Zaidi ’16 thinks about culture a lot. She thinks about collective memory, community education, and how art is communicated inside the creative community and outside of it. She thinks about all of this in English because it is the only language she speaks despite growing up in Pakistan. Before coming to the U.S. it was the kind of thing that she never questioned. As a product of a post-colonialist culture, she saw it in terms of one language being better than the other, a framework that prevailed beyond the languages she spoke and did not speak but also the history and culture she learned and did not learn.

“I could tell you a lot about Shakespeare and Jane Austen but almost nothing about Pakistani poets and Pakistani artists. If I wanted to know more about big artists or processes in my country, I’d have to find people who knew about these things and try to talk to them.” But in the United States, she noticed, “You don’t need to have an art history degree to know who Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol are; they are in the cultural vocabulary. That history is important, but it is a cultural and social history that is not mine.” 

President Silver hoped to encourage faculty members and administrators to develop a program that would enable students to understand that culture is not only received, but also actively produced. “I want our students to graduate with a very clear understanding that we actually make culture, and that institutions play a role in that. When institutions decide what art to fund and display, for example, they are making decisions about the culture we all share. I want our students to understand the processes behind those decisions.”

With a driving interest in supporting the study of art and cultural production not only as a form of individual expression but as work that participates in larger social structures, faculty members Yoko Inoue, Robert Ransick, Andy Spence, Liz White  and visiting faculty member Carol Stakenas designed the Museum Fellows Term. 

The pilot program, which launched last spring with generous support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, invited students to explore such questions as: how does art live in the world? what belongs in institutions? how are institutions curating trends and tastes? what are the roles of the creative practitioner and the larger community? The program embeds students in cultural institutions in New York City, where they work, study, and pair up with artist mentors during their winter and spring terms. For the pilot, the Bronx Museum of the Arts served as the students’ home base, under the leadership of executive director Holly Block ’80

“The Museum Fellows Term is designed to enhance students’ ability to observe and understand the complexity of systems in which art is situated,” Provost and Dean of the College Isabel Roche explained. “To do that we put students in direct contact with the locations where art and culture are most visible—where they are developing multiple perspectives on the art world from working within it, to reading about it, to taking it in as viewers in their own right and synthesizing what they’re finding.”

For five months the fellows spend three days a week working in key roles at cultural institutions, meet individually with working artist mentors, visit museums and galleries throughout the city, and meet regularly with faculty supervisor Liz White to discuss readings and experiences.  Over the 14 weeks of the spring term  fellows also participate in two academic courses that use the city as a classroom and introduce students to a broad range of institutional contexts and arts professionals. “And they read a lot,” White emphasizes. “I put together a list of books exploring art and its contexts from multiple perspectives.  Last year each fellow read approximately 10 books and was responsible for presenting their chosen texts  to the rest of the fellows when we met.”

This year the program has expanded its cultural partnerships to include the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The partner institutions are selected with their missions as their first priority. The Bronx Museum, for example, was an ideal fit for Zaidi. Given its sharp focus on connecting diverse audiences to the urban experience, she got to see firsthand and from nearly every vantage—as an administrator, artist, viewer, and art history student—how the museum manages to reflect the borough’s dynamic communities through its collections and special programs. It was in the center of these new perspectives, in this new culture, that Zaidi’s ambitions broadened.

One of the exhibitions the fellows assisted with was Three Photographers from the Bronx: Jules Aarons, Morton Broffman, and Joe Conzo. “I would see all these parents coming in with their children and learning together about their own history or reconnecting with it through the art. They were seeing their past come to life. They were seeing their immigration story in the art, and their life in the art, and it was changing them,” Zaidi explains. 

“It wasn’t until I did the Museum Term that I realized that is what I want to do: I want to make a space like this for the youth of Karachi. I want them to know the great artists in our country. I want them to know our history—not the patriotic history that is scrubbed clean and fake, or westernized history and culture—the real history, the real culture. I have become much more interested in creating a contemporary space where there are more questions than answers.”

That’s what happened to all of the fellows, each in her own way. All came to their studies with a different lenses; each left the term with a new, more complicated view of her own work and the work that creates culture. 

“I had one of the fellows come up to me when she got back to campus this fall to tell me that she can’t look at art the same way ever again. She told me that when she used to look at works on slides, it was just something she was studying. But now when she sees reproductions of a work  she imagines its size and texture, and visualizes it in relationship to other work and to particular spaces and communities. She has a different relationship with the work after encountering it physically.” And, White adds, “That is something you can only learn by being in it—in the museums, in the work, in the deep and intense study of art in all its contexts.”

While the program is still experimenting with size and partnerships—adjusting each of its core elements in response to robust student, faculty, and site feedback, they are certain that embedding students in New York City cultural institutions will remain core to the program.

“At Bennington students are afforded generous space,” White says. “Here they have room and the right tools and facilities to be generating work. But the Museum Fellows Term serves to complement this by opening opportunities to study and contextualize their work in a way you cannot get by being at Bennington alone. We think this will give students a richer experience of art altogether, and we are already seeing that happen.”