When One Door Closes: Examining Issues of Space and Student Curation on Campus

Wen Zhuang
BFA PH 2022

Google capture of 204 Westminster, old Exposé gallery.

A college education is riddled with firsts. First time living away from home, first time choosing your own classes, first time making your own decisions. At RISD, we have some unique firsts: the first time we took an eight-hour class, the first time we consumed our dinner dusted with charcoal, the first time we learned to critique and to take critique. Another significant first might be when we first see our work placed in a gallery space, out of a studio or classroom. Whether it’s in a department show at Woods-Gerry or a one-night living room show curated by some of your friends, the context in which we see our work—and witness othersseeing our work—is a big part of our growth both as artists and as critical thinkers. The importance of shows is manyfold: they create a space to think and talk about our work, to see ourselves as artists, and to begin to question our roles within a broader, interdisciplinary conversation.

In Fall 2015, my friend curated a show on the theme of swimming and encouraged me to put up a few poems I had written. At the opening, I remember having an enlivened discussion with a student in Sculpture who likened my poem to drowning, not swimming. Seeing my work alongside a painting or a sculpture helped re-contextualize its meaning, and broadened its potential going forward. The show was housed in Benson Gallery, a then student-run gallery space in the Printmaking building. Though shows were conceptualized and brought to the department coordinator by Printmaking students, both the curatorial responsibilities and the work presented were always apportioned among friends and collaborators. Guidelines and restrictions were loose. Each week or so, something new appeared: a show could be just a one-room video installation or it could be iterations of one theme expressed across departments. The gallery’s limited space offered just the right scope for students hoping to test their knack for curation, as one Printmaking alum, Hazel Elsbach (BFA PR 18) described: “Benson Hall Gallery served a niche of smaller-scale shows and allowed students to come up with really interesting ideas for exhibitions without the pressure to fill a huge space.”

This semester, Benson Hall Gallery was closed to make way for a new tech lab with computers and plotters for student use; the layers of paint that remain are the only reminders of shows past. This came after a year-long fight for the continuation of Exposé, a student-run, student-curated exhibition space founded in 2009. The mission statement on their Facebook page says Exposé was created in hopes of “providing shows and events that cross disciplines, spark collaborations, and bring students and community together” as well as “linking RISD students with the goings-on at other local venues and spaces, and building ties between students, alumni, and community.” Housed on the second floor of a beautiful building on Westminster Street in downtown Providence, Exposé had gilded trimmings and an old wooden bar that split the room in half, allowing for multiple shows in one night. Each Thursday, Facebook inboxes would flood with the invites to the show of that week. By 8:00 PM, a gathering could be heard across that block of Westminster and a glow emanated from the windows. Unlike Benson, Exposé was run by students from any and every major; applications for director positions opened as each generation graduated. You did not need to be part of the staff to pitch, curate, or be included in a show. Curatorial pitches could be sent to Exposé’s official e-mail or just passed along through hallway conversation. Additionally, various student groups could sign up to rent the space for a designated night. Student-run publications like Y the Beef? (a collaboration between RISD and MICA students) as well as other student groups would hold launch parties there.

Monel Reina (BFA FURN 19) and Lotte Walworth (BFA FURN 19) have been directors of Exposé since the end of Spring 2017, just before Exposé lost its lease. The Center for Student Involvement—RISD’s main liaison for students who wish to start and sustain clubs on campus—informed the directors of the closure in the summer following their initiation. In late June 2017, Erika Paradis, CSI director and Exposé’s supervisor, told Reina and her co-directors in an e-mail, “We still continue to look for a space that Exposé can call home for the fall.” Their tenure since, they say, has largely consisted of writing e-mails and attending meetings, running over possibilities for new spaces. So far, efforts have amounted to no progress: at one point in the summer and again this Fall, potential new spaces were proposed, but with Spring 2019 forthcoming, Exposé is still without a home. Reina attributed the loss of space to an increase in rent; however, she wonders whether Exposé and 2nd Life—RISD’s second-hand materials store now housed on N. Main Street, previously below the gallery—were disliked by other offices in the building. “We’d sometimes get complaints about left out trash or excess noise.” Reina acknowledges that information has clouded with so much time and even she cannot connect all the dots. But the issues are still vivid. “It’s sad because this is an art school—there should be more than major-specific galleries,” laments Reina. “If our work is only ever shown in the context of an institution, we’re only able to see our work in critique and no one else outside of your major will ever see it or talk about it.”

Following Exposé’s closure, a petition was sent out by Exposé directors in the Fall and received over 400 signatures, many of which came with personal, often emotional testimonials.

A read of the comments suggests that a lack of space in general is not the issue. The issue is a lack of interdisciplinary space and space that is left entirely to the agency of students, devoid of institutional influence. RISD currently has a number of department-specific galleries showcasing student work. Red Eye gallery shows thesis work of Photography students, ISB that of Illustration majors, Sol Koffler that of graduate students. The Gelman Gallery, in the RISD Museum, is interdisciplinary and allows students to propose and pitch ideas for shows. Recent ones include Criteria of Beauty, curated by Qualeasha Wood (BFA PT 19) and David Guy (BFA SC 19), and In the Mood for Love, curated by Christine Cho (BFA PT 19), Emi Chun (BFA PT 19), and Zak Nguyen (BFA PT 19) (both shows opened dialogue on diversity and race in art).  But even here, student involvement is buffered by institutional limits and structure. The Exhibitions staff at RISD works alongside the students every step of the way, from selection of work to layout of the show, and, according to Campus Exhibitions director Mark Moscone, “Most often our staff installs works.” These are all skills past Exposé members felt were important to learn by doing on their own.

This Fall, RISD welcomed students back with a newly remodeled lobby in 20 Washington Place, better known as Prov-Wash. The space glistens with the futuristic glamour of a spaceship but it left students pondering its purpose. Why fix something that wasn’t broken? Why call attention to a lobby largely unused by students when a space that students did need had been at risk? This space is connected to a larger “student success center” but students have wondered, seeing their long-standing fight for Exposé having plateaued, how this space actually serves them, considering their consistent demands for a specific space. “Installing temporary shows in Prov-Wash would be more beneficial to students than the select, seldom-changing pieces that hung in the space pre-renovation,” writes Jeremy Wolin (BFA INT 19) in the College Hill Independent, pushing for a more critical use of the space. “And its central location would be a boon to young artists showing for the first time.” As Fall semester comes to a close, the lobby is seeing some changes, even introducing a small gallery space, though the work is currently being curated by Moscone. “This is very much in the preliminary phases,” wrote Taylor Scott, President Somerson’s Chief of Staff, “and if we decide to move forward with having it be student-curated it wouldn't be until next year as we have 2-3 exhibitions already scheduled for the remainder of this academic year and one currently up.” Scott also mentioned a plan to install moveable “half walls” that would provide more exhibition space.

However, the lavish renovation awarded to Prov-Wash, and the reason for it in the face of what they see as more crucial needs, continues to befuddle students, desperate to find a reason for the lack of progress on issues important to them. “What it feels like to us, Exposé’s co-directors,” said Reina, who is in her last year, “is that the school is waiting for our generation to die out, for the people who know what Exposé was to graduate so that they don’t need to worry about resolving this issue.” Far-fetched conclusions like this have become common. Students who started their RISD experience off with vibrant student-run campus initiatives fear for the absence of them for future generations. After all, this is not the first time students have questioned RISD’s use of its spaces. In the March 25, 1996, issue of Your Name Here(RISD’s then campus newspaper), one student answered the question “What Empty Space?” by wondering, “is RISD really packed to the rafters afterall?”

These points of concern and contention have fueled action from those not directly involved with Exposé but who felt passionate about the need for independent student curation. Raina Wellman (BFA GD 19) worked with the Exposé directors and Praxis, a new collective formed this past September by students Yasmine El Alaoui El Abdalloui, (BArch 21), Dan Mangano (BArch 21), Dan Mitrovic (BFA FR 20), and Namrata Dhore (Barch 21) “to Proliferate, Protect, and Preserve interdisciplinary discourse within the RISD community.” Their one-night show, held on December 6 in the Graphic Design Commons, was a tribute to the closed gallery, as it revived “BYOW” or “Bring Your Own Work”—an event Exposé held often, where students brought in their work to the opening and pasted it on the wall then and there. “I felt inspired to do this because Exposé was one of the few moments you could see how things could fit together,” Wellman noted, adding, “Every department is so stuck in themselves and it’s just become the work environment here.” The GD Commons typically does not house extra-departmental events but under the direction and application of Wellman, students were granted permission to host this BYOW—a bright spot, however short-lived.

The Student Alliance also caught word of the conversation around student-run gallery spaces and this past November held a Town Hall, in which students were invited to present their ideas about student-run gallery spaces Shark Tank–style. Only one student presented a proposal but many expressed concerns about lost real estate (including the closure of the Cable Car Cinema, the beloved independent theater that ended its lease under complicated circumstances in a RISD-owned building last year). Others questioned why it felt as if students consistently had to fight for what they wanted. Alliance president Sophie Weston Chien (BArch 21) nodded to the sometimes muddy communication that happened between administration and students: “At the first Town Hall meeting we held this semester about the Quad Building renovations, there were many who questioned the lack of student-run gallery spaces,” she said. “And in response to that, we’ve been working with students to see what kind of support we would be able to provide them. The Alliance hopes to continue being responsive to the needs of students.” She noted that considering it was finals season, the turnout was great, and they came away with productive suggestions on how to continue shows like December 6th’s BYOW that didn’t require an immense amount of extra time from students—one being sharing a space with neighboring institutions like Johnson & Wales or Brown. Erika Paradis and Kim Almeida of CSI were present at this discussion as well though didn’t speak, recalled Reina. Commenting on the event afterwards in an e-mail to v.1, Paradis reiterated their intent: “The goal was to see what we could learn from students and to show administration that this is a pressing issue.” She also noted, “As Monel said, we've been talking about Exposé and finding a new home for a while now.” For a year and a half in fact. (Almeida and Paradis have not responded to further questions about this issue, citing busy end-of-semester schedules and the recent passing of a student. They could not accommodate the timeline of this article, but offered a potential meeting in the coming weeks.)

While there may be grey areas in reconciling what students need and how institutions answer those needs, student-run galleries at RISD do not seem to one of them. With such an essential unique first comes a need for adequate support from the institution to ensure that it continues. Students and administration seem to consistently be toeing a thin line, with communication scant and unhelpful. However, each semester brings potential for change and in this case, for resurrection. There is still no certainty around what will become of groups like Exposé or Praxis, or how student-run exhibition spaces will regain their voice in the larger RISD dialogue, but students are not giving up on this fight, ensuring that the philosophy around student-run spaces are cemented in existing traditions at RISD, and that incoming classes will continue to experience firsts that a space like Exposé was able to bring. This is not an optional feature of a RISD experience. As one student noted in their petition signature: “Exposé is everything RISD should be.”

Yasmine El Alaoui El Abdalloui (BArch 21) contributed reporting.

Wen Zhuang is beginning her last semester at RISD. If the school has taught her anything, it’s that students can accomplish anything. She just wishes it wasn’t so often a choice between progress and sanity.