Pitt students curate ‘Pattern Makers’ exhibition at Westmoreland Museum of Art

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Courtesy of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art

“Pattern Makers” is a temporary art exhibition from The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, curated by 10 members of Pitt’s history of art and architecture department. The exhibit is open both in person and virtually until May 9.

By Suln Yun, Staff Writer

We see patterns in our surroundings every day, but those patterns are more than just repeating shapes. A new exhibit focuses on the visual effects of patterns drawn from nature, created by the imaginative manipulation of geometry to reflect social, cultural and economic life.

“Pattern Makers” is a temporary art exhibition from The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, curated by 10 members of Pitt’s history of art and architecture department. The purpose of the exhibit is to display items from the permanent collection that are not often on view in the museum. Open both in person and virtually until May 9, the museum is accessible for the Pitt community for free after registering online at the museum’s website.

According to Claire Ertl, the director of marketing and public relations for Westmoreland, the exhibit tracks the presence and meaning of patterns across a selection of works from Westmoreland’s collection that are not often on view, and brings a startling connection across divergent styles and mediums.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the museum overall, including postponing the opening of “Pattern Makers” from mid-December to Feb. 7, Ertl said the pandemic has made the exhibition feel more special.

“Like many art museums across the county, Westmoreland postponed its temporary exhibition program due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ertl said. “This provided the students [the ability] to explore the Westmoreland’s permanent collection and delve deeper into the stories of American art and develop an exhibition proposal.”

Still, according to Ertl, gathering students to bring out the stored collection of artworks in the museum makes the exhibition different from others, providing both graduate and upperclassmen art history students with an opportunity to have a real world curatorial experience.

Barbara Jones, the museum’s chief curator, said inviting Pitt students to collaborate on creating this temporary exhibition helps bring a new perspective towards the artwork that was stored for years.

“Inviting these students of art history from the University of Pittsburgh to really look at our collection with fresh sets of eyes has allowed us to explore new narratives,” Jones said. “Additionally, I believe this exhibition will encourage our visitors to think more fully about the processes of exhibition making as well as the connections across the history of American art.”

Though “Pattern Makers” is a temporary exhibition, the concept for the show was finalized after the team members had gone through a long process, from choosing the proposal to selecting the artwork.

Alex Taylor, an assistant professor and academic curator in the department of history of art and architecture, led the student curatorial team at Westmoreland. Taylor said the purpose of this project was to help the students learn how to develop curatorial storylines and interact with professionals across a museum to set a large-scale exhibition that the students have never experienced before.

“The concept for the show was one of the three exhibition proposals developed by students in my fall 2020 curatorial practicum class, and this was the concept that was ultimately chosen by the museum to be realized,” Taylor said. “For the class, three teams of students developed exhibition concepts inspired by works in the museum’s collection. From a collection of almost 4,000 works, the class narrowed their selection down to just 60 objects.”

Even though the students attended virtual meetings and used digital tools to research the collection of artwork, Taylor said it was disappointing that the process of preparing for the exhibition could not be done in person, as the museum was following the COVID-19 safety policies and procedures.

“We used digital resources including photographs, databases and other digital documents,” Taylor said. “Of course, it was disappointing to not be able to explore the collection in person, but the format also allowed some students who weren’t in Pittsburgh to be active members of the exhibition’s curatorial team.

Though the pandemic has prevented the students from being able to work in person for most of the process, Annie Abernathy — who participated in the exhibition as an undergraduate student — said the team members were able to quickly process the preparation for the exhibition using an online database.

Abernathy, a senior history of art and architecture major, agreed with Taylor that she also had challenges preparing the exhibition during the pandemic. 

“We relied heavily on the museum’s online database and other materials shared with us like spreadsheets and photos taken of collection files,” Abernathy said. “It was easier to comb through the vast collection virtually than if every artwork had to be taken out of storage, but it was difficult at times to get a sense of the object, especially in terms of scale.”

Still, Abernathy said there are specific reasons why she decided to contribute her work to this exhibition in particular, as she has never felt heavily responsible in other curatorial settings. 

“I decided to contribute to this exhibition because this was really the first chance that I’ve gotten to have this much curatorial responsibility and see an exhibition through from start to finish in a museum like this,” Abernathy said. “In particular, I did curatorial research and wrote the wall labels for the quilts on display as well as a few other objects.”

Abernathy wasn’t the only student who was eager to share her passion in the local art industry. Working with nine other collaborators at Pitt as well as the Westmoreland museum staff, Vuk Vuković, a Ph.D. graduate student in history of art & architecture and film & media studies, said he wanted to build a connection between his talent and creativity to local art production.

“I wanted to take a curatorial course with Professor Taylor as I’ve been following his academic journey for a while, and this was an incredible opportunity to learn from him and engage with the local art scene,” Vuković said. “As a graduate student, I was in a constant quest to expand our research tools which the collaboration with The Westmoreland Museum of American Art enables us to do.”

While working with Taylor and researching the art collections for the show, Vuković identified one work that stood out the most to him.

“I had my eyes set on Donald Judd’s Untitled (1987) from the second I saw it in the museum collection. As someone who spent a lot of time studying the modern and contemporary U.S. American art, I was thrilled to see Judd’s sculpture in the Westmoreland collection,” Vuković said.

Though the process of opening the “Pattern Makers” exhibition was challenging as everything went virtual, Vuković said he was very satisfied with the result of the collaborative exhibit as a whole. 

“The collaboration between the department of history of art and architecture and Westmoreland was fantastic,” Vuković said. “Though this was the first collaboration between the two institutions, I hope it will continue [in the future] because it generated an opportunity for students to engage with the local community.”

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