On Campus, Social Justice, The Arts

Southwest Studies Class Experiences New FAC Vision for Teaching

Julia Fennell ’21

Students in the Block 2 Art, Power, and Resistance course had the opportunity to learn hands on how culture and identity were expressed through early forms of Indigenous and Southwestern art, using the new Agents of Care: A Collections Transparency Project exhibition space at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College (FAC).

The collaboration between the FAC and the Southwest Studies class is a new vision for teaching in the museum, where classes are fully immersed in the space.

Sara Hodge, Head of Collections at the FAC, helps students in Block 2 Art, Power, and Resistance learn about how culture and identity were expressed through early forms of Indigenous and Southwestern art, using the new Agents of Care exhibition space at the Fine Arts Center, on Sept. 26, 2023. The collaboration between the FAC and the Southwest Studies class is a new vision for teaching in the museum, where the class is fully embedded into the FAC. Photo by Karuna Abe ’20/Colorado College.

“The Art, Power, and Resistance course meets for class in the Agents of Care gallery space, where they are surrounded by art pieces selected from the FAC’s permanent collection to support their coursework,” says Blair Huff, Interim Education Manager and Curatorial Assistant at the FAC. “We’ve hosted classes elsewhere in the building before, but this is the first exploration into how we can embed a class totally into the museum. We’re excited that the class is able to meet in the galleries and use an adjoining gallery space to display some of the work they’ll produce over the course of the block.”

The FAC and CC have a great and extended history of collaboration, one which benefits CC students, faculty, and staff, as well as the general public. The new Agents of Care initiative will only strengthen this relationship, increasing access to the FAC collections for both CC community members and the public.

“The museum cares for over 17,000 works showcasing the rich history and vibrant contemporary cultures of the Southwest and the Americas,” says Sara Hodge, Head of Collections at the FAC. “We hold these collections in the public trust, for the benefit of communities past, present, and future, so we believe it only natural we invite those communities to be a part of the conversation in how we care for these collections.”

Hodge readily admits that this is a break from how museums have traditionally operated. However, she sees this as a positive step forward for the FAC and other exhibition spaces. “Ordinarily the care and stewardship of museum collections happens behind the scenes without public input or even awareness,” she says. “Agents of Care seeks to completely re-envision what that collections care can be. The Fine Arts Center seeks to engage our communities in dialogue surrounding this practice, inviting them to collaborate with us in the future of our collections stewardship.”

To do this, the FAC took 1,500 square feet of gallery space and turned it into a public collections workspace.

“Agents of Care is an exhibition space that focuses on the permanent collection stewarded by the Fine Arts Center,” Huff says. “It’s effectively a lens for us to engage with the existing collection in a new way by making visible the FAC’s education- and collections-based work.”

Class instructor Dr. Karen Roybal, Associate Professor of Southwest Studies, believes teaching the class in the Agents of Care space helped her students tremendously, as it gave them more exposure to work done by FAC staff that is often not open to the public.

Students in Block 2 Art, Power, and Resistance with Dr. Karen Roybal work with objects in the Agents of Care space in the Fine Arts Center on Sept. 26, 2023. Blair Huff, Interim Education Manager and Curatorial Assistant at the FAC, and Sara Hodge, Head of Collections at the FAC, assisted students with learning about the museum materials and collections. Photo by Karuna Abe ’20 /Colorado College.

“I have been collaborating with FAC staff since I began teaching this course; Agents of Care is an amazing extension of this work because students receive more exposure to the behind-the-scenes work in which FAC staff is engaged,” Roybal says. “Inviting both students and community to engage with collections in this way offers the potential to subvert the notion that institutions like museums continue to hold the power to dictate which stories are told and shared with visitors because this space signals to them that the FAC is shifting that narrative through accessibility and more transparent modes of engagement.”

“The Agents of Care space benefits students and community because it offers accessibility to objects in our Southwest collection,” says Roybal. “Providing students with hands-on experience through their work with objects gives them an opportunity to better understand what it means to steward them, how the objects can be understood as forms of storytelling about various peoples and places of the region, and how processes of collecting such objects lends insights into the complex and layered histories of the Southwest.”

Roybal earned her Ph.D. in American Studies, with specializations in Southwest Studies, Chicanx and Latinx literature and history, and Cultural Studies. In this course, students analyzed and interpreted early forms of Indigenous, Mexican, and Hispanic art.

Agents of Care provides entrée into the layered histories that the objects represent and provides students with opportunities to better understand the interplay between art, identity, and power,” Roybal says. “Students in this course gain experience researching the objects and artists currently on view. Many of the Southwest collection object records are sparse in terms of background information on the piece, the artist, the location where the object was created. My students are crafting object biographies that will hopefully help build a more robust archive at the FAC, as they will be included in the records that accompany the objects currently on display.”

Hodge and Roybal discussed themes within the Art, Power, and Resistance class, and then Hodge worked with the FAC collection team to select objects from the museum’s collection that intersected with the class themes.

“After selecting the objects, we had to create reports on their condition, physically move the works into the gallery and install them, research and write labels for them, and update their location in our internal database,” Hodge says. “For Art, Power, and Resistance we pulled over 50 objects from our permanent collection to facilitate discussion and learning.”

Michael Christiano, who has served as the Director of Visual Arts and Museum since September 2021, says the idea of Agents of Care developed after conversations at the FAC about growing the museum’s practice of collections care and stewardship.

“We were also exploring the FAC’s collecting history and how that was connected to and contributed to colonial practices in the Southwest,” Christiano says. “We wanted to create a more public platform to have these critical conversations about museum work while celebrating the works we do steward. Not only does this enable us to better support coursework, it opens opportunities for public engagement with work that, in some cases, has never been on view.”

Students agreed that holding the class in the Agents of Care space gave them insight and more personal experiences and connections to the museum’s material and collections, which allowed them to directly connect what they were learning to the artwork surrounding them.

“Learning in the Agents of Care space has been extremely beneficial in that it gives us inside access and a hands-on approach to our class,” says Macy McCauley ’26. “There are not many classes at this level that are structured to actually put learned material into practice. Also, having the knowledge and experience of the FAC staff at our disposal has been wonderful. They have been very gracious hosts, who have assisted in many of our class projects including object biographies and curatorial questions.”

Students in Block 2 Art, Power, and Resistance had the opportunity to learn about how culture and identity were expressed through early forms of Indigenous and Southwestern art hands on, using the new Agents of Care exhibition space at the Fine Arts Center, on Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by Karuna Abe ’20/Colorado College.

“Having a class in the Fine Arts Center is great because there are applicable examples of everything that we are talking about in class that are within the museum,” says Geology major Anders Pohlmann ’25. “For example, we have had discussions about the types of artwork within the FAC and other art museums that are often underrepresented. It makes the practices of the FAC really transparent, which shows the steps that the FAC has made in terms of collecting art in ways that are ethically sound and morally responsible.”

“I chose to do a minor in Southwest Studies to get a sense of place during my time living at Colorado College,” says Rachel Phillips ’26, an Organismal Biology and Ecology major who is originally from Appalachia. “Taking these courses dedicated to the Southwest has allowed me to understand this region on a deeper level than I ever could’ve imagined. It has also given me the skills to reflect on my home and its history.”

Roybal also notes that the class focuses on more than just the history of the art. “I want to emphasize that we’re not solely studying ‘the past’ through these artworks and it’s important that we challenge static conceptions of Native and Indigenous and Hispano artistic traditions as dying practices,” she says. “I emphasize that these are living practices that continue in the present. I draw from Gerald Vizenor’s concept of Native survivance, or an active presence andway of life that honors Indigenous ways of knowing that persist. We challenge those narratives that cannot fathom Native and Indigenous and Chicanx futures.”

Outside of working with objects in the FAC collection and discussing and contextualizing various Southwestern art, students met with artists and curators, visited different spaces where the art is housed, and even engaged in cross-class discussion with other courses on campus. Students also got to participate in some creative production at the CC Press, working in the tradition of José Guadalupe Posada, Mexican lithographer and printmaker.

“Getting to draw, transfer the design to the linocut, and carve everything out gave me an insider look at what Jose Guadalupe Posada did most days of his life,” Phillips says. “To produce art for the public in the eyes of regular people was something mostly unheard of during a time when ‘fine art’ was highly revered. I feel very inspired by Posada and his works.”

Through this work, students examined the histories of colonialism and how cultural mixing produces new identities, influencing contemporary Southwestern art and culture. They discussed how art is a tool for decolonization and how artists have created narratives about resistance through their work.

Roybal says collaborating with the FAC staff is one of the best parts of teaching in the Agents of Care space. In addition to learning from Hodge and Huff, students in the fully enrolled class got the opportunity to gain insight into curatorial practices when Savanah Pennell, former Assistant Curator of Collections at the FAC and current Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, took the class through the Mi Gente: Manifestations of Community in the Southwest exhibition.

“Understanding the curatorial process from experts with first-hand knowledge is a great opportunity for students,” Roybal says.

“I believe that the FAC and its collections help to take the abstraction out of class,” McCauley says. “Often, classes will not really be able to impact students because the material they are learning seems so out of reach.” She adds that the space also serves as example to other areas of exhibition. “The FAC is a great model for how museums can and need to become indigenized spaces that are working to correct the mistakes of the past. It has the power to change the public’s perception, and I believe it is succeeding.”

Students in Block 2 Art, Power, and Resistance had the opportunity to learn about how culture and identity were expressed through early forms of Indigenous and Southwestern art hands on, using the new Agents of Care exhibition space at the Fine Arts Center, on Sept. 26, 2023. The collaboration between the FAC and this Southwest Studies class is a new vision for how CC courses can take place in the museum, where the class is fully embedded into the FAC. Photo by Karuna Abe ’20/Colorado College.

The Fine Arts Center continues to be an invaluable resource for CC classes, initiatives, and clubs across campus. Last year, the FAC worked with 71 different courses to organize 115 total class visits. Additionally, the FAC collaborated with 52 different faculty members across 26 academic departments, emphasizing how the FAC is such a valuable resource for all members of the CC community, regardless of major.

“In terms of student numbers, that’s 2,322 total student visits — which means that we were able to facilitate repeat visits for students throughout the year,” says Huff.

“Every work in our care has a unique history and story, many of which offer important perspective about the region in which we live,” Christiano says. “I hope people feel a deeper sense of connection to these works and their stories. I also hope that Agents of Care makes it clear that museum work cannot happen in isolation. Collections care is informed through partnership with many different communities and is constantly evolving. We hope that through Agents of Care, we can better connect with our publics in this process, after all every one of us can help steward this essential cultural resource.”

FAC staff are present and available to interact with visitors in the Agents of Care space on most Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. The staff connects with visitors while caring for collections within the space. The initiative is an ongoing program, so guests can come back multiple times and see how the space has changed. The featured artwork changes based on the museum’s evolving collections projects, as well as the needs of different CC classes.

“We encourage visitors to come up to us and ask us about what we’re working on,” Hodge says. “Collections teams usually work in basements and never really engage with the public. This can lead to our work becoming siloed and lacking the perspective of the communities we serve. This new direct engagement with the public will introduce fresh diverse perspectives that we believe will only strengthen our work and the care of the collections we safeguard.”

Agents of Care is supported by the Catharine and Bart Holaday Endowment for Interactive Art.

One response to “Southwest Studies Class Experiences New FAC Vision for Teaching”

  1. Camille Getz Avatar
    Camille Getz

    I am impressed by the level of integration and comprehensive approach to learning about art, curation, and appreciation that this program provides.

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