By Gabrielle Swaney & Kerri Villani, Avonworth School District
The Pittsburgh Galleries Project began in 2013 as a collaboration between students at Avonworth High School in Pittsburgh, PA, and six museums in the city, including Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Glass Center, The Andy Warhol Museum, The Mattress Factory, Toonseum (2013-2014), and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (2014-present). With this project, student teams work alongside museum and gallery professionals to learn about the behind-the-scenes world of art museums before curating exhibits on the Avonworth School District campus with their partnering museums.
Students apply to be a part of The Pittsburgh Galleries Project at the beginning of the school year, and do not have to be enrolled in an art class to participate, giving all students the chance to participate, even if their schedule does not allow time for a studio arts or graphic design course. They rank their interest in each of the museums, and must explain why they want to work with that particular museum. Each group is overseen by either Kerri Villani (Studio Arts), Gabrielle Swaney (Graphic Arts), or Kenneth Lockette (Assistant Superintendent). Each of the museums has a mentor assigned to the group, giving the students a contact person to work with throughout the project. After the groups are formed, an initial meeting and museum visit can take place.
Museum visits can look very different for each group. In the past, students have meet with curators, lighting specialists, handlers, art historians, docents, artists, and education staff. It is important that they learn that all of these people must work together in order to make an exhibition come together. The project relies heavily on collaboration, and seeing it happen at the museums reinforces that need. After their initial museum visit, each group must work to plan the curation of their space. As the adults overseeing each group, we try to give minimal input and keep our opinions to ourselves, as we really want the project to be student driven. We have learned ways to offer guidance and suggestions without spoiling their ideas or visions. Once they have come to an agreement, they can begin work on their presentations.
Each group must present their idea to a panel of stakeholders, including administration, museum mentors, community members, fellow students, teachers, and maintenance staff. Traditionally their presentations have been a slideshow, but we would love to see them expand to short video presentations or the development of a website as an alternative. Included in their presentations are their vision, art procurement, design of exhibit, creation and production, and budget. Once presentations are complete and approved by the panel, the curation of the space can begin.
At this point, students must really learn how to collaborate to get the job done. The production portion of the project can often be the most stressful and time consuming for the kids. They must quickly figure out how to delegate responsibilities and work within a time frame in order to make a deadline. The annual Avonworth Art Show serves as the opening night for The Pittsburgh Galleries Project, when each exhibit is unveiled to the school and the public. Students are on hand to answer questions and explain the process of the work.
One of the most rewarding parts of the whole experience is seeing the kids take pride in the work they have done. Watching them work together, even in moments of stress, shows that they are wholly invested in the project, and truly care about the outcome. They have faced roadblocks in the past, in the form of verbal backlash from not only their peers, but adults in the building. It makes us proud to see them stand their ground and work to help people understand that art isn’t always pretty, and you don’t have to like it, but you can appreciate the process and aesthetics of each exhibit. Our hope is always that participants walk away with a final product which they are proud of, and excited to share with others.
The Pittsburgh Galleries Project is a DML6 Playlist recipient.