The 2020 SAIC MFA Thesis Show was scheduled to open on April 24 until May 13. The work of 116 artists across 16 departments was to be represented. A comprehensive floor plan of the Sullivan Galleries was put together with the consideration of a diversity of mediums and practices. For most MFA candidates, this show was the culmination of their two-year graduate programs, framed by the now iconic facade of the Sullivan Center in the heart of Chicago. The curatorial direction of the show was to be overseen by 12 Graduate Curatorial Fellows (GCFs), a competitive and prestigious program within SAIC where fellow graduate students curate the thesis work of their peers and friends for public viewing. This yearlong process took the Curatorial Fellows into the intimate spaces of these artists’ studios, pouring hours into creating relationships and understanding the practices and values to better represent their intentions. The majority of the spring semester consisted of meetings in order to create a floor plan that would allow the MFA artists to showcase the work made to be seen by their families, art world professionals, and peers. On March 12, the floor plan for the MFA show was finalized. On the same day, SAIC President Elissa Tenny announced to the SAIC community the school’s measure in response to the COVID-19 national health emergency—the immediate closure of campus.
In the process of curating the show, Graduate Curatorial Fellows scheduled visits with the MFA candidates in their studios. Two of this year’s GCFs have a studio-based practice themselves and the remainder of the Fellows are part of non-studio-based programs here at SAIC. For many GCFs, myself included, we decided to take on the challenge of curating the show in part to connect our different modalities of practices with that of the larger graduate student body. While we naturally meet some of our peers through coursework, social groups, and just the mere fact that the art world is the size of a napkin, the sheer number of students in the show meant new relationships were built between curators and artists. While peers of sorts, the changed dynamic meant new roles emerged as we came to occupy a space of reconciliation. For many, the graduate studio is where this change happened. Ever since the cancelation of the MFA Show I have been thinking of the graduate studio as having two axes: one of volume and another of growth.
Developing the floor plan for the MFA Show was among the most daunting and intricate parts of the whole curatorial process. With 116 participating artists came, inevitably, at least as many spatial and material needs and requests that required fastidious planning. Carried out in numerous round-table discussions, the GCFs drafted various floor plan scenarios according to the many factors that were at play, as informed by any and all information communicated from artists to their fellows, and provided as suggestions from our curatorial advisors and staff members from the exhibitions team.
The GCFs had finalized a floor plan for the MFA 2020 Thesis Show exhibition on Thursday, March 12, 2020, four short weeks from the first day of installation. During this meeting, our emails binged with an announcement that the school was going to take an extended spring break and transition to remote teaching. This sparked initial concern from the GCFs and faculty. How was the MFA Show going to be impacted? What about all of the work we had just done? In order to maintain a form of normalcy and address the artists’ anticipations, an email concerning space allocations and floor plan discussions was sent out the following day. The subject of the email read “MFA Show Floor plan Coming Tomorrow,” where it outlined the process of space allocation, given the new circumstances. This email, copied to all 116 artists to ensure transparency, drew a slew of responses within forty minutes and began to accumulate over the next few hours, into the weekend and following week.
Caitlin Mattia and Krina Mehta played dual roles in the 2020 MFA Show process, working simultaneously as Graduate Curatorial Fellows and as artists participating in the exhibition. In this conversation, Krina and Caitlin describe their unique perspectives and discuss the dynamics of the process, their artistic work, and the changes brought on by the pandemic.
Krina Mehta is an architect who received her MFA in Architecture in May 2020. She completed her Bachelors in Architecture in India and has been a practicing interior designer ever since. During her time in the MFA program she focused on experimenting with materials and curating installation art.
Caitlin Mattia received their MFA in Studio Art with a focus on Film, Video, New Media, and Animation in May 2020. They have worked on sets, in PR, at a zoo, behind a bar, and waiting tables, but have always, always, kept making.
Francisca Rudolph is an arts administrator and independent curator envisioning creative approaches for showcasing the work of emerging new media artists. Her research considers the impact of the digital realm on the dissemination, interpretation, and preservation of art historical information online.
“It seems unnecessary to define an explosion, for everyone knows what it is — a loud noise and a sudden going away of things from the place where they have been.”
Dr. Tenney L. Davis, The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives
“The natural correction is to make intent of accident. To get back before dark is the art of going.”
– Wendell Berry, Traveling at Home
Curation, to me, is about community. I believe knowledge and empathy, ideally, should walk hand in hand, and so I believe that the most important way forward is one that is informed by equity.