By, Jamila O’Hara
“Does Winsor’s art collection aptly reflect the student body and the events of the time? What do the gaps in Winsor’s art collection mean?” These provocative questions are at the heart of a project recently undertaken by the juniors and seniors of Winsor’s fall semester Art History elective.
In the weeks preceding winter break, art history students were tasked with designing and producing an exhibit pertaining to a topic of the class’ choosing. Students first looked to Winsor’s own art collection for inspiration for their exhibit: Winsor houses an extensive collection of art in its basement archives; although the majority of this artwork is donated, the collection also includes several works which were purchased or deliberately acquired by the school. As the class sifted through Winsor’s catalog of art, students began to notice a telling trend: despite the school’s commitment to upholding gender equality, female empowerment, and cultural diversity, white male artists still appear to dominate Winsor’s art collection. Throughout their research, the art history students found that women and people of color are significantly underrepresented in Winsor’s art collection, both as artists and as subjects portrayed in the pieces themselves. In order to further explore the discrepancies and gaps in Winsor’s historical artistic narrative, the class selected the theme of “Winsor’s Missing History” as the central focus of their exhibit, highlighting specifically the ways in which subtopics of feminism and civil rights were included in or omitted from Winsor’s art collection. “[After settling on our topic] we then spent the rest of the semester writing informational blurbs for each piece, wall panel text for the entrance of the exhibit, brochures with historical information and making sure that the pieces we wanted were actually available for the exhibit,” art history student Ellisya L. ’19 shares of the class’s diligent efforts to curate the collection.
The exhibit first opened on January 18th in the gallery space on the second floor of the Lubin O’Donnell center. It featured several interesting art media, including various sculptures, paintings, drawings, and textile patchwork; particularly striking pieces include a display that features a side-by-side generational comparison of students’ art history notebooks from 2017 and from several decades ago, a piece chronicling the evolution of Winsor’s standards of dress throughout its history, and numerous works by current Winsor students. The class portrait of the Class of 1971 was also featured in the exhibit; this photograph features the first African-American students to graduate from Winsor. Ellisya believes that pieces of history such as these were important to include in the exhibit. She reflects, “Something I found interesting was that the first black student graduated from Winsor in 1971. When you think about, 1971 was only 47 years ago, so it is strange, and a little sad, that the first black student graduated from Winsor relatively recently.” Accompanying these pieces are informative blurbs written by art history students that convey their own reflections as well as thought-provoking interviews gauging the opinions and experiences of Winsor faculty members.
Although the exhibit has since closed, its impact on the student body is evident. The exhibit provided important insight into Winsor’s history and into the manner in which it is represented through artwork, especially given that many students may have known little about Winsor’s archives prior to the opening of the exhibit. Previously unaware of the existence of the art collection, Julie W. ’19 described the exhibit as “eye-opening,” reflecting, “[the artwork and information contained in the collection] shows how little we truly know about Winsor’s history.” Leslie M. ’19 also appreciated the expository nature of the exhibit, stating, “I really liked seeing all the artwork that has been forgotten in Winsor’s history, especially ones that represent the inequalities that Winsor has experienced.”
Many students applauded the art history class’s commitment to uncovering the nuances and complexities of Winsor’s complex history with diversity and representation. Lia K. ’19 observed , “Even though diversity might have been a relatively new concept to Winsor when many of the pieces were created, the exhibit definitely included a lot of representation.” The exhibit also inspired curiosity among many students regarding the messages conveyed by the art present in and absent from Winsor’s collection; Sophie D. ’19 feels that “we should definitely continue looking to see what else we can uncover.”
Continued questioning of Winsor’s history is certainly a necessary step in evaluating and reinforcing the school’s commitment to diversity and equity. As the art history students reflected in the introduction to the exhibit that hung at exhibit’s entry, “while reflection on inequality in our history can be uncomfortable, it is a process necessary for all communities to grow and develop…we feel it embodies the Winsor spirit of equality, exacting self improvement, diversity, and kindness to go forth and explore these themes in a student-curated art exhibit.”