A portrait of students as young Walters curators

The Baltimore Sun

Last spring, Juliana Biondo was a high school junior, merely learning about art.

But this fall, she has gone from student to teacher. The 17-year-old is one of the first high school students chosen to co-curate an exhibit at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, a portrait show that explores themes of race, class and identity over the centuries.

One of 12 students chosen to collaborate on the exhibit with a renowned Chicago photographer, Dawoud Bey, Biondo had a hand in selecting the drawings, paintings and photographs that will be displayed during the two-month run of Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project, which begins Saturday. She also helped draft the wall text and labels, contribute to a Facebook page about the exhibit, and promote it by writing an article for her school newspaper.

"For me, what was so appealing was to be able to work with a living artist" and influence how a museum exhibit comes together, said Biondo, now a senior at Towson's George Washington Carver Center for the Arts and Technology. "We got to see behind the scenes, the curatorial process. There was a lot of intellectual conversation and dialogue."

Besides marking the first time that high school students have played a role in curating a show at the Walters, Portraits Re/Examined represents an effort to find new ways to get young people involved in all aspects of the city-owned museum, rather than just bringing them in on field trips.

Portraits Re/Examined is one of two exhibits opening this week featuring Bey's work. A companion exhibit of 40 color prints by Bey of high school students from around the country, Dawoud Bey: Class Pictures, starts Saturday at the Contemporary Museum.

For Class Pictures, Bey - who is known for his portraits, often of teenagers from urban areas - spent several weeks in public and private schools. His subjects come from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and his portraits provide a glimpse into the lives of youths facing 21st-century challenges.

Portraits Re/Examined, by contrast, is the result of a three-week summer residency at the Walters during which Bey collaborated with students from public and private schools in central Maryland. Writing on his blog, Bey describes the collaboration as "a continuation of my long standing interest in de-territorializing the institutional space of the museum, and reinventing it as a more dialogical kind of space that opens itself up to greater participation."

For the Walters exhibit, no new works were generated. To create the exhibit, the students helped Bey pair his contemporary portraits with historic drawings and paintings from the Walters' collection. The process began with the students selecting 10 of Bey's photographs. Bey selected about 140 portraits from the Walters collection and asked the students to pick 10 from that group to juxtapose with his portraits. The idea was to show how the art of portraiture has changed over the centuries, but many other themes are explored as well.

Because the Walters' drawings and paintings date from before 1930 and typically depict upper-class subjects, and Bey's photographs were taken from the 1970s on and depict people from a wide range of economic levels, one might think the paired images have little in common.

That's where the students' pairings come in. The subjects they chose are different in many ways, but there are also striking similarities to the coupled pieces, from the way light hits the figures to the positions they're in and the expressions on their faces.

In a 17th-century Dutch oil painting, a young boy with long hair looks just as sullen as the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based subject in Bey's 1988 photograph titled Boy Eating a Foxy Pop. Bey's 2003 print of a woman named Articia strikes a remarkably similar pose to that of the Walters' Study of Juliette, painted by Julius Stewart in 1905.

The similarities and differences between the portraits give viewers plenty to think about, and that is what the exhibit was designed to do.

The exhibit also raises questions about the art of portraiture, both in the past and today, the age of Facebook and YouTube. What was the purpose of a portrait during the Renaissance? What is the purpose of a portrait now? In an era when people can post videos of themselves on the Internet, why does the photograph have power? Or does it?

Working as co-curators also gave the students a chance to see how exhibits are put together. They went into the storage areas where works are kept when not on display. They met with conservators, exhibit designers and educators. One phase they didn't tackle was installing the exhibit, because that involves handling valuable works of art, but they will serve as docents and take part in a public discussion Saturday.

The result, for museum visitors, is a provocative show about race and identity, as told through works of art. It's also about a museum reaching out to constituents and allowing a different set of decision-makers to help determine what visitors see. Ultimately, it's about a museum seeking to expand its audience and provide access in new ways.

There is another aspect of this show that's a first for the Walters: The start of planning to opening day was fewer than five months. That's something of a record for a museum where some shows can take years to put together.

Jacqueline Copeland, the museum's director of education and public programs, said she was impressed by the quality of students in the residency and the high level of discourse they brought to the exhibit's planning and execution. At a time when many people are lamenting cutbacks in arts education, "we see a lot of negatives," she said. "This is an example of the positives. This shows what kids are doing right."

if you go

Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 16 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Admission is free. For hours and more information, all 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org. Dawoud Bey: Class Pictures, opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 16 at the Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St. Admission is free. For hours and more information, call 410-783-5720 or go to contemporary.org.

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