Self Portrait: Shivangi Ladha
Self Portrait. Shivangi Ladha; A screenprint with masking tape on Japanese paper

How do you know if an artwork is museum-worthy? Who decides, and how do they do it?

Ten students from the Interterm course “Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the Mead” pondered these questions in January, during a whirlwind trip to New York City. Their mission: to think like museum curators and to choose potential new works for the Mead’s permanent collection.

Most of the students had no formal background in art. The course deliberately does not require one—it’s a crash course in art-world terminology, the vagaries of the art market, and how museums manage and expand their collections. As part of the course, the students also received training and support from Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement and Writing Center.

Palimpsest: William Villalongo
Palimpsest. William Villalongo; The artist is known for reframing familiar images and themes. Credit: Graphicstudio/University of South Florida

The Search

The trip began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, where students explored the question of what makes an artwork both innovative and timeless. With guidance from Mead staff members Miloslava Waldman, a European-print specialist, and Danielle Amodeo ’13, who coordinates public programs, the students then shopped for contemporary art prints at six galleries in Chelsea and two studios in Brooklyn. They also attended an exhibition opening at International Print Center New York (IPCNY) and met the show’s artists.

By the time they returned to Amherst, the students had divided themselves into four teams. Each team prepared an acquisition proposal, explaining why the Mead should buy a particular print. The winning print would have to fit with the museum’s existing collection and teaching needs, while also bringing something fresh to the collection.

I Exist Between Every Line: Cedar Kirwin
I Exist Between Every Line. Cedar Kirwin; This lithograph detail is a self-portrait. Credit for photo: Stephen Fisher/Mead Art Museum

The Vote

On Feb. 13, some 50 students, staff and community members crowded into the Mead’s William Green Study Room, where each work was on display. The artwork selection event is open to the public, and every person who attends gets a vote.

Jake Montes-Adams ’21, Cosmo Brossy ’19 and Mount Holyoke College student Zahin Islam advocated for a pair of self-portraits—Shivangi Ladha’s Self Portrait (2017) and Cedar Kirwin’s I Exist Between Every Line (2017)—which together explore what unites humans across differences.

Jacob Gendelman ’20 spoke for William Villalongo’s Palimpsest (2017), a screenprint that comments on recent and historical racism in the United States.

Skylhur Tranqille ’18, Camilo Ortiz ’20 and Mount Holyoke’s Daphne Schneewind hoped the Mead would acquire Emma Amos’ Stars and Stripes (1995), and Davis Brown ’19, Matthew Ezersky ’21 and Stephen Johnson ’19 favored acquiring Reigning Queen (2017), a print by Diana Al-Hadid.

The Results

After tallying the votes, Waldman announced that the pair of self-portraits by Ladha and Kirwin had won, closely followed by Villalongo’s Palimpsest. Waldman then announced that, because benefactor H. Nichols B. Clark had increased the acquisitions budget, the Mead could acquire all three of those prints.

Gendelman was all smiles. “I’m just so incredibly grateful,” he said. “I would never have been able to do anything like this anywhere else in my own life after Amherst. I’m glad Mr. Clark decided to bring [Palimpsest] to Amherst. I think a lot of people will enjoy it.”

The class allowed students such as Gendelman to impact the canon of art history, says Amodeo: “Buying this art supports the artists. More important, the works will be taught. They’re going to be written into history.”

The annual student-driven art purchase is made possible by the Trinkett Clark Memorial Student Acquisition Fund, named in honor of the former Mead curator who died in 2006. Nick Clark is her widower. A decade ago, he underwrote the fund, which has now allowed the Mead to acquire 33 new works by American and international artists. He attends the selection event every year.

The day after this year’s event, Clark reflected on the experience. “I applaud all the students for their poise and passion,” he said. “That is the beginning of a true love affair with art.”