Corcoran Gallery of Art shifts focus in spring to its college students’ work

April 27, 2011

For her senior thesis, Corcoran College of Art and Design student Victoria Ashley Shaheen has created dozens of ceramic tchotchkes. She has fired dolls, candles, pipes and other pieces, leaving them in a chalky pile in one of the Corcoran’s museum galleries. There, they are free to viewers who want to inspect, steal, smash and otherwise handle them.

It was only a matter of time before one of her ceramic fixtures appeared in another work in the museum. One ceramic fixture migrated several galleries down the way — passing photography, photojournalism, paintings and other student projects — to interrupt a minimalist cluster of drinking glasses filled with water, the thesis work by fellow fine arts senior Jill Wittman.

Willingly or not, these artists are inviting the participation of the audience — something most student exhibitions lack.

Both projects are part of “Next at the Corcoran,” a sprawling spring exhibit featuring the graduating class of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in an unprecedented Corcoran Gallery of Art display of student work. Bachelor’s degrees nearly in hand, the more than 50 members of the college’s class of 2011 have stormed all of the special exhibition spaces that the gallery has to muster.

It’s the first time that the gallery and the college have exhibited as one Corcoran.

“When you see these works together at once, you can pick out themes. You get a detailed perspective seeing all the work together,” says Catherine Armour, provost and chief academic officer for the Corcoran. “I think the gallery spaces themselves inspire the students to work at very high levels.”

The upstairs galleries are filled chockablock with art. Two documentary films are projected in one gallery, including a work by photojournalism student Madeline Marshall, whose film follows Mabel Sawhill, a 97-year-old woman who lives independently and runs a catering business. Photojournalism student Matthew Borowick’s nighttime landscapes of downtown D.C. skirt the fine-art photography line. Several students mentioned Forest Allread — a fine arts senior whose multimedia projects play on the gender and racial identities of iconic pop characters such as Betty Boop — as the class’s strongest talent.

“Next” takes up seven traditional galleries as well as the museum’s stairway and famed rotunda. There, the school’s graphic-design seniors have displayed senior texts on subjects as diverse as Arabic calligraphy and women in Soviet design posters. Overhead hangs a cloud of letters — N, E, X and T — made with plexi and translucent color vinyl.

Arguably, the show itself is the students’ greatest artistic achievement. From the massive banner advertising “Next” on the side of the Corcoran’s building to the design of the text placards by each piece, the look and feel of “Next” is the work of the Corcoran’s design lab — a hands-on graphic-design course offered by the college. The “Next” cloud in the rotunda is one example of the work they did to put together the exhibit.

“It’s definitely the most important part of our careers here,” says Victor Ware, a graduating graphic-design senior who served as the design lab manager. In that role, Ware explains, he didn’t work directly with the design of the show’s “collateral” but instead managed keeping his team of four students on schedule, directing e-mail correspondence and drafting proposals.

Maria Habib, the director of the Corcoran’s small design department, says that the design lab (for which she serves as the instructor) is a pilot program. The course is designed so that the Corcoran serves as the design lab’s client, and the students do everything, from fielding the design brief to meeting with stakeholders — including department chairs and the Corcoran’s marketing department — for identity and positioning meetings.

“I’m still fine-tuning the list of projects they end up working on,” Habib says, noting that the design lab could eventually take on outside clients. “ ‘Next’ is going to be a staple. I think it’s going to be the primary focus for next year at least.”

Student spring shows are a rite of passage in any art-school education. For many Washington area art programs, where gallery space is limited, thesis shows by graduating bachelor’s and master’s students can sometimes last less than a week. In the past, student shows at the Corcoran happened sequentially, with clusters of five or six students grouped by concentration, showing work for a few days in a smaller space — most recently in Gallery 31, the dedicated student exhibition space for the college.

The decision to alter the format was proposed two years ago by then-president Paul Greenhalgh, according to Armour. “It took great commitment on the part of the curators to find room in the exhibition schedule,” she says.

The costs associated with “Next” have not been determined, says Armour, but they’re significantly lower than fielding a show from outside the institution. Still, hanging a show costs the institution in terms of time and effort.

The Corcoran didn’t so much find room for the show as make room. “Next” absorbs the space formerly occupied, in part, by the “Washington Color and Light” exhibition. That show will go back up on the walls in June and continue its run through mid-August. “Next” will also make room for the next installment of “Now,” the other component of the Corcoran’s newfound emphasis on contemporary art.

Students and recent graduates play an important role in Washington’s art economy. They staff art-gallery desks and museum security posts and donate works to charity auctions for nonprofit art organizations. Commercial galleries have adopted programs to show their work and satiate collectors looking for rising stars (with low price tags). Conner Contemporary Art launched “Academy,” its annual summer survey of work by recent art graduates, in 2002; Irvine Contemporary Art on 14th Street NW followed suit in 2005 by introducing its annual “Introductions” program. To cull work for those shows, their organizers hurry from one student show to another all spring.

The Corcoran has made it possible for many more people to see its students’ work. Hanging the show under the standard of the Corcoran Gallery of Art — every spring, at least for the foreseeable future — ensures that hapless springtime tourists will find it. Hanging the work for a month, as opposed to a week, gives dedicated viewers time to seek it out.

Happily for the students, the timing of the student exhibition coincides with its spring gala on Friday. And on April 23, the Corcoran held a formal celebration for the students, their families and their friends. In typical Corcoran fashion, it was a regular ball, with more than 600 people in attendance, says Corcoran public relations manager Rachel Cothran.

Capps is a freelance writer.

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