A great example for how to integrate a discussion about budget cuts, democracy into a class project.
From March 3rd to 19th, students in a course on curatorial methods taught by Professor Susette Min (AHI 401) at UC Davis presented Meet the Regents, an exhibit focusing on the California Master Plan for Higher Education and the role of The Regents of the University of California in relation to the recent UC budget crisis. As their press release stated: “Under Article IX, Section 9 of the California Constitution, The Regents are given “full powers of organization and governance” of all the UC campuses. The decisions to appoint Mark Yudof as UC President and to approve to increase student fees 32% were made by The Regents. Who are The Regents?”
Meet the Regents was co-curated by the students of AHI 401: Alison Flory, Ruthye Cole, Kevin Frances, Jane Oh, Elizabeth Ottenheimer, Lucille (Lucy) Potter, Dayanita Ramesh, Stan Nghia Trinh, and Camille Wheat. Two of those students Interview with Dayanita Ramesh and Lucille (Lucy) Potter agreed to be interviewed for UCIRA’s State of the Arts this summer after school was over and there was time to step back and reflect on this project. All photos by Jane Oh.
Going into this class, did you know that you would be making a project that was so timely and focused on the University of California budget and administration?
Lucille (Lucy) Potter: Originally, no. I’m a double major in biology and classics with little-to-no art/art history experience. I went into this course hoping to challenge myself in a new field and become acquainted with the world of museum curatorial studies.
The first day of class, we were presented with three different routes the quarter could take: purely theoretical with focus on lectures and field trips, the classic route of the course in which we would all propose different exhibit themes/designs and decide on one, and finally that we would each propose different curatorial visions for one topic: The UC Budget Crisis. While I’m not sure what the final vote was, I’m pretty sure there was resounding support for this latter choice… We were excited to have such a relevant yet versatile focal point to work with!
Dayanita Ramesh: Not at all, although I’m extremely pleased with how it all turned out. I’m actually an art history and international relations double major. One of my ideas for post-university is to possibly work for a museum or some kind of art institution, which is why I decided to take the class. I wanted to learn more about what it means to be a curator and how a show is actually set up in a museum. I had no idea that our class would become a group of curators. It was actually kind of amazing to work with so many different people to create and produce the show.
When Professor Min announced that we could curate our own show regarding the budget crisis, I think we all came to realize the power of our position. We already the space to display on campus and plenty of ideas, we just had to decide how to move forward.
Did you know much about the UC Regents before this class? What were you able to learn through this process? How is learning through exhibition making different from other kinds of research processes?
Lucille (Lucy) Potter: I knew next to nothing. I wasn’t even sure where they stood on the hierarchy of the UC system! I’d say that I learned a lot even before we had decided on the Regents as the theme of our show… There is so much material locked up in the legal and academic jargon of works such as “California Master Plan for Higher Education” that ought to be more apparent to the public eye… The first time I saw the final draft of the video component of our show (which takes facts from the Master Plan as well as legislative acts), it hit me like a ton of bricks: it’s all very heavy and rough to hear, but with this knowledge we can build the foundation of so much change.
Learning through exhibit-making is sort-of similar to learning by teaching: you have to distill the important concepts and facts while leaving out the unnecessary (even if interesting) pieces of information, you have to be clear while making it fun to explore, and you have to know your audience. Given the subject matter, we also had to be really, really sure that every single thing we were claiming was true… THAT was super stressful!
Dayanita Ramesh: All I knew is that the UC Regents were the ones that voted for tuition increases and thus they had certain connotations within my own mind. I had no idea who these people were, how they came into the position and what they stood for. I did a lot of research on the individual Regents and I was surprised to find out what they all did for a living. The weird part is, that hardly any of them are involved with education outside of this position. Most of them are CEO’s, Presidents and VPs of corporations, financial institutions, businesses essentially. However, I’m still puzzled by how such a diverse group of people could all come to the same unanimous vote.
Preparing the information for the exhibition was different from most kinds of research I had done before. I had to learn it myself, understand it completely and then break it down for others to read. We constantly had to fact check and double check everything we wanted to be read by visitors to the exhibition. It had to be accurate, concise and clear.
How did the exhibition relate to the protest movement bubbling up since the summer of 2009 around the UC budget?
Lucille (Lucy) Potter: The exhibit itself was held in an art-hall-turned-study-lounge on campus. While we could not be as audibly present as the movement had been on campus, we were pretty visually loud—you should have seen the walls covered in those larger-than-life portraits! Our show was meant to be an informative supplement to the actions being taken at that time. In fact, our reception was held on the week of March Fourth! It was very exciting to have everything come together in the timeline that it did!
Dayanita Ramesh: I think the most important way to be involved in a movement like this is foremost, to be educated. You have to understand why it is you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for. I believe that our exhibition was our subtle, yet tactful way of being involved in protests. I can only hope that our “portraits”, our video on the Master Plan for Higher Education and the family tree opened the eyes of at least a few of the students who weren’t already involved in the demonstrations. And to those that were already out on the streets, our exhibition could have been a sign of solidarity and support for the cause.
Did this project change your ideas about how exhibitions can be used in relationship to social/political struggles?
Lucille (Lucy) Potter: I guess I’d never really seen exhibitions as a tool for these types of struggles before. There were definitely proposals made by our classmates that were more protest-minded; while we didn’t choose something as progressive as those concepts, it was great to push the boundaries of my idea of curation into the role of activism.
In these types of movements, the historic record usually focuses on the ACTIONS (as opposed to events) of parties involved. At the same time, I think our show reached a lot of people who weren’t really in tune with the Budget Crisis previously. It showed me how much of a backstage, but important facilitative role an exhibit can have.
Dayanita Ramesh: Absolutely. We knew we were going to be curators, but we didn’t know we’d be activists. I think when people think of museums or curators; they think art and sculpture, which unfortunately isn’t always accessible or appreciated by the masses. We were both blessed and cursed by our exhibition space, an art and study lounge on the second floor of the Memorial Union. Aside from the atrocious carpet and sleeping students in the corner, the space was manageable and I think we used it creatively. However, I liked the fact that we used a public space accessible by all students to do our show. I think we discovered how an exhibition can turn from something passive to active.
In the process of developing this project, or in reflection afterwards, did you think of other interesting approaches to creatively engage in education, debate or protest around the UC budget crisis as it continues to unfold? What else needs to happen either in the classroom, board room, gallery or streets to alter the effects of the budget crisis on public education in California?
Lucille (Lucy) Potter: In terms of the movement, I think there is a lot of assumption (at least on the collegiate level) of the student body being unified behind this cause. The truth of the matter is that a vast portion of the student body does not agree with the methods of the protest. I keep observing the frustration on both sides as they both continually spiral away from one another: activists make ripples that scare some of their potential members away, which in turn leaves the movement lacking numbers so they need larger ripples in order to have the same affect on the system. I would love to see more people involved, even if it means making our methods a little more moderate. Informing the student body as opposed to thrusting ideas on them is one way of doing this. Having facilitated, small-group discussions (like we had in our AHI course) is another. The concept of University was founded around the vision of interdisciplinary communication—let’s realize this vision here and now!
In the grander scheme of things, education and learning are nowadays used as tools or means to an end as opposed to a way of life. It is cultural devaluation of the act of learning that has caused the shifts in allocation of government funding and the subsequent degradation of educational systems that plague California (and our nation as a whole) today. In order to combat this phenomenon, I humbly propose that we make learning “cool” once again. Fostering an active imagination and genuine curiosity in our world will encourage the engagement that is so integral to discovery and active learning, which in turn promotes curiosity and ultimately results in a greater investment in education. I see the role of the media (as well as other cultural structures—such as museums) as that of strong potential vectors for this spiral of individual and societal success through being a foundation to the development of a fascination in active learning.
Dayanita Ramesh: What I’ve come to realize is that it’s difficult for the decision makers to take students seriously. I think that while those actively engaged on the streets have the best intentions, there is no way it will make a difference if it is violent or not well planned. It has to be non-violent, methodical and needs to bring together the most students possible. There is strength in good ideas and in numbers, of course. As Lucy mentioned, if there are rifts and divisions between the student body then this already another setback. It seems as though certain populations of the university have realized the crisis more than others. Certain parts of campus are getting renovated, updated and beautified, while others are left with what they’ve got. It’s not fair, but it’s pulling students a part, based on what they’re studying.
I think what’s forgotten is the bigger picture; it’s a slippery slope. When the price of education goes up, those of a lower socioeconomic status who are not fortunate enough to receive aid cannot attend school, thus the gap between the college educated and those who cannot afford it is widened. There are more opportunities of career and wealth for those with degrees. Thus there is gap in wealth. There will be more poverty, more ignorance and less progression. It’s really hard for me to understand how some see education as a privilege and not a right. I’ve always agreed with the adage, none are free when are others are oppressed and when not all people can become educated, what is it really worth?
Lucy Potter just finished her fourth and final year at UC Davis. Her double-major in Biological Sciences and Classical Languages/Literature is the best indecision she has ever made, pending her ability to combine the two into a career of some sort.
Dayanita is a fourth year, double majoring in International Relations and Art History. Last summer, she volunteered at an orphanage in Mongolia with Volunteers for Peace and in the fall of 2009, participated in the UC Washington Program and interned at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She is a member of Model United Nations, on staff for Whole Earth Festival, enjoys the Arboretum, trying new food and modern art. She is currently spending a hot summer with her older sister in New York City.