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.
The trip began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the students were asked what makes an artwork both innovative and timeless. With guidance from Mead staff members Miloslava Waldman and Danielle Amodeo ’13, 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 IPCNY (International Print Center New York) 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 their favorite 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.
On Feb. 13, about 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 (visible in gallery below), and Cedar Kirwin’s I Exist Between Every Line, 2017 (pictured above, second from left)—which together explore what unites humans across differences.
Jacob Gendelman ’20 spoke for William Villalongo’s Palimpsest, 2017 (pictured above at center), 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 (pictured above, far left), which Tranqille described as “healing.”
Davis Brown ’19, Matthew Ezersky ’21 and Stephen Johnson ’19 favored acquiring Reigning Queen, 2017, (pictured above, far right), by Diana Al-Hadid, a multimedia artist whose print was inspired by historical forms of architecture.
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 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 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 loved working with students until her untimely death in 2006. Her widower, H. Nichols B. Clark, attends the selection event every year and is its underwriter. Over the past 10 years, the fund has allowed the Mead to acquire 33 new works by American and international artists.
The day after the event, Clark wrote, “I applaud all the students for their poise and passion. That is the beginning of a true love affair with art! I wish we could have bought everything—it was a stellar group of works. Nevertheless, we brought some extraordinary work into the collection, and I know Trinkett would be very, very pleased.”