The Art of Curation

Art history student Andrea Stahlman ’13 unveils her first exhibition.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

When Andrea Stahlman ’13 looks at the work of Felrath Hines, she doesn’t just see angles and juxtapositions, color and contrast; she sees tenacity, activism, and hope.

Hines, an African-American artist who began his art career in the 1950s, was involved in the civil rights movement, considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a friend, and was once part of Spiral, a group of sixteen African-American artists who met weekly to discuss their role in politics and the civil rights movement.

“But unlike a lot of African-American artists at the time, many of whom were using art to express their place in society, Hines thought art transcended race. It was really revolutionary at the time,” says Stahlman, who is majoring in art history. “He wanted to express the human experience and reach out to everyone. So he used color to convey emotion but it said nothing to his race.”

While it wouldn’t exactly be accurate to call Stahlman an expert on Hines, the process of curating an upcoming Felrath Hines exhibition for the Cornell Fine Arts Museum has certainly broadened her outlook on the abstract painter.

As the Fred W. Hicks III Fellow at CFAM, Stahlman is spending an entire academic year interning and getting exposed to all facets of the museum, including donor relations and marketing. The pièce de résistance is curating an exhibition, an opportunity that’s almost unheard of in the undergraduate world.

“It really is something most people my age don’t get to do,” Stahlman says. “Typically, students don’t get this opportunity until after they’ve completed their PhD. But it wasn’t shadowing; I was actually curating.”

By that she means taking the six Felrath Hines works that were donated to CFAM by Dorothy Fisher and diving into primary sources and articles about the artist. She researched the artist’s life, wrote all the text associated with the exhibition, and decided how the pieces would be arranged.

“Watching over Andrea’s shoulder while her project has come together, piece by piece, has been intensely satisfying,” says CFAM Curator Jonathan F. Walz, who didn’t curate his first exhibition until graduate school. “Her hard work has paid off and the results of her efforts are now on public view for all CFAM visitors to enjoy.”

“I think the biggest thing is learning how to write for a museum audience; researching and then writing the wall text for the exhibition is a lot different than writing an art history paper,” Stahlman says. “I also learned a lot of valuable decision-making skills about choosing wall color, and where a painting is to be hanged. I’ve learned to rely on my instincts.”

An added perk was getting the opportunity to interview the art’s donor and Hines’ widow, Dorothy Fisher. “That doesn’t always happen in the art world,” Stahlman says. “She is coming to the opening of the exhibit on February 1, and she will be giving two gallery talks that day.”

Stahlman will also be giving a few gallery talks, one of which will be about her curating process and what she learned from it.

“I see the role of curator as interpreter but also allowing the audience to do some of the heavy lifting. I’m the medium between the art and the viewer—the person who chooses the art, where it will go, and how to best communicate a collection to the viewer,” she says. “I felt a lot of pressure taking in all the resources and then filtering it back out. But researching, writing, and then seeing my exhibition come together and knowing that was my work has been so rewarding.”