“Hey, kids, let's put on a show!"
Marshall Rousseau could have used that famous line from the 1930s movie Babes in Arms to begin the syllabus for Museum Laboratory, a course he's teaching at Eckerd College this spring semester.
Instead, the opening description read: "Students learn how to plan an exhibition from idea to opening reception and beyond."
Such a dry, straightforward sentence wouldn't normally cue the orchestral flourish. But anyone who knows anything about art exhibitions would probably raise an eyebrow at the proposition.
Amateurs plan a professional art show in four months? Seriously?
As it turns out, yes.
"Art Lab Presents: S/ART/Q" opened April 10 at Eckerd's New Cobb Gallery and is a serious show. But all involved agree that it was a lot harder than anyone expected and taught both the amateurs and professionals valuable lessons about more than art.
Rousseau, in addition to being an adjunct professor at Eckerd, is interim director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and director emeritus of the Salvador Dalí Museum. He has planned exhibitions with major museums throughout the world and could have done this one from a sensory deprivation chamber with no call button.
"But I wanted to stay out of the way and let them make the decisions," he said.
It turned out to be one of his most difficult lessons "to tell them, when one would call in tears, 'You just have to deal with this.' Then worry about it for hours, calling back and being told everything was fine."
A major exhibition can involve dozens of loans from many institutions or individuals and take years to organize. Even smaller, less complicated ones, such as those in galleries, are usually planned at least six months and often a year or more in advance because there are so many components — practical, legal and aesthetic — to deal with.
Four months from start to finish is rare, even for a professional arts organization.
But mounting an exhibition is the point of the class, the first of its kind at Eckerd and an elective mostly for art majors. Arthur Skinner, head of the art department, conceived the idea several years ago.
"I thought it would be a valuable learning experience for a class to curate an exhibition," he said.
The problem was finding a space that could house an outside art show on campus because the college's Elliott Gallery is usually booked with student and faculty exhibitions.
About a year ago, he received permission to use part of the former Cobb Library, now partly vacant, for gallery space. Rousseau, who has taught art history and museum studies classes at Eckerd for years, agreed to lead the effort. Museum Lab was born, with 18 students enrolled. Although all the visual arts majors have to present a show of their works as seniors, they don't have to concern themselves with many things involved in a professional exhibition.
"I wanted to take it to learn the proper ways to handle the execution of one," said Andrew Long, who chaired the marketing committee.
Rousseau developed a list of standard duties: analyzing the gallery space and the number of possible linear inches on its walls, meeting with artists and selecting the art, designating where it will hang, arranging for its transportation and safekeeping, writing wall labels, installing the show, publicizing it and arranging special events around it. He asked students to list their preferences and assigned committees with chairmen.
The one thing the students did not have to do was choose artists. That alone could have taken an entire semester, Rousseau said. He approached a group of artists that he knew would help.
S/ART/Q, formed in 2008, is a collective of Sarasota-based artists who participate in unconventional shows and events that engage new viewers in a contemporary art experience. (The name derives from the Sarasota Airport abbreviation — SRQ — which its members liked as a regional reference.) Most of them have been in numerous shows in this area as well as some nationally and internationally.
Painter Tim Jaeger, S/ART/Q's president, said they were excited about helping because it fit so well with the group's own educational mission and the artists had never had an event in St. Petersburg.
Jaeger has learned from working at Ringling College of Art and Design's Selby Gallery that "there's a whole different learning experience (between being an artist) and producing exhibitions."
The consensus among five of the key students involved, all of whom are visual artists, is that Jaeger's assessment is truer than they ever thought. The students talked about their experiences recently at the gallery and on a class field trip to the Dalí Museum in downtown St. Petersburg.
"It was definitely stressful," senior Jeanne Collins said. "I tried to keep myself as patient as I could, but it got crazy." Collins served as director, the person in charge of coordinating everything.
Co-curator Meagan Gilliam, who designed the show, dealt with the vagaries of placement that include precise elements, such as height and width of a work, to subjective issues, such as, "Why did my artist only get to show one work and hers got three?"
"The complications of working with a large group of people was hard," she said.
She also learned of a common curatorial problem when substitutions had to be made — in one case, a work had sold — which threatened to derail her carefully planned arrangement.
Dan Ayers, chairman of the class' installation committee, was the most experienced student, having volunteered at Florida Craftsmen Gallery in St. Petersburg and helped with its installations.
"I'm pretty comfortable with the physical part of an installation," he said, "but I learned how vital communication is. It was very easy to cross the lines of communication. I had Meagan's plans and people wanted to change things around, but I really wanted to stick with her design."
"We decided we would only take one day for the installation," Gilliam said.
"And there was another show up when we got here," said Collins, "so we had to take that one down before we could start on ours."
"The biggest challenge for me as president of S/ART/Q," Jaeger said, "was making sure that when the art left the studios, it would be taken care of."
Ayers had driven a rented truck to Sarasota to collect the art, which wasn't crated, and one of Collins' responsibilities was to fret about it arriving (and departing) damage-free. Ayers had to explain to some of the students helping with the installation that they couldn't eyeball a spot and hammer a nail into the wall.
"They didn't know about measuring from the center line," he said. (You measure to find the center line of the painting and then hang it so that center is at average eye level, at about 60 inches, which is an industry standard.)
The students dealt with one of the most compelling challenges of art exhibitions, fundraising. Though the class had a budget, the students were asked to raise some money for publicity. So they organized a campus event several days before opening at which the artists in the class for a fee screened original designs onto T-shirts or other items students brought.
They planned the opening reception and got a break on refreshments. They were not entirely typical, though au courant: A friend has a sustainable garden and donated collard greens and kale for the menu.
The exhibition, critically, is handsomely done with thought given to the flow of works that have no shared theme or medium. That's probably its biggest flaw, but an unavoidable one, since the works weren't — and couldn't be — selected with a common idea in mind.
"I think the collaboration between the two groups (students and artists) was its own kind of art," Jaeger said. "It was unique for most of us as a teaching experience, and I think as a learning experience for the students. It was a real-life experience for them."
And it was a new, real-life learning experience even for a veteran like Rousseau. In his efforts to let the students make the decisions and be in charge, he found himself assigned only a simple task during the reception.
"They were worried they were going to run out of drinks," he said, "so they sent me to the store to buy liters of soft drinks. I have never bought a liter of a soft drink. And I don't think I knew what Mountain Dew was before."
The show went on.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.