Linking Art and Inquiry
At the Berman Museum, students are taking a multidisciplinary approach to collaborating with contemporary artists and curating exhibitions at the intersection of some of the world’s biggest issues.
On any given day, walking past the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art on the Main Street side of the Ursinus College campus is like window shopping. It’s hard not to stop—no matter how quickly you need to get to your next class, practice, or staff meeting—and admire the work that’s visible from the outside. It’s a visual treat; a landscape of color and texture.
Peering down through the windows that bend around the lower-level Pfeiffer Wing, the vibrant, contemporary works that adorn the walls offer a glimpse into the thought-provoking and often innovative exhibitions on view. At this moment, it’s Immigrant Flora: Rising Under, a wall drawing that explores the intersections of science, commerce, and politics to prompt discussion and thought surrounding immigration and displacement.
It’s only fitting that Ursinus students with an interest in each of those topics were involved in its creation. “We are able to draw upon our own interests to see where it took us,” says Nina Rosario ’23, an East Asian studies major who also happens to be a familiar face in the Berman. She works at the front desk and greets visitors who come from all over to see the latest on display.
Curating is an artform. Research informs art. There’s a creative and conceptual processes behind works and exhibitions, and at the Berman, students learn to consider their responsibilities to artists and to the people who visit the museum, Berman Creative Director Deborah Barkun says.
“One of the ways that we have reconceived this space [in the Pfeiffer Wing and the Baldeck/Hollis Gallery in the lower level of the Berman] is as a literal laboratory space, where students can work in really engaged collaborative ways with artists to approach a project.”
The students who worked with Behbahani on Immigrant Flora: Rising Under had a special opportunity, but it isn’t an uncommon one. For a few years now, students have been working directly with artists through Ursinus’s Museum Studies interdisciplinary academic minor.
“Most importantly, museums and museum collections function as ways of knowing and as laboratories for learning,” Barkun says. “What we do at the Berman is part of the college’s [Quest] inquiry-based core curriculum. A lot of times, people don’t think about the extent to which artists fold research and inquiry into the evolution of their work.”
In 2017, Natessa Amin: Dancing on the Water Tank was the first time Ursinus students had a chance to work directly with an artist to curate a Berman exhibition. In this case, it was the first solo museum exhibition for Amin, a Philadelphia-based artist. It served as a unique opportunity for Teddi Caputo ’18, who now works as a curatorial assistant at the Berman.
“My hands-on experience as a student informed how I saw the arts live and breathe in the professional realm,” Caputo says. “I think the most important thing I learned from the artists I worked with is that people can make careers as professional artists and thrive in those careers.”
“At the Berman, you’re able to talk about a variety of topics through art,” Shelby Bryant ’18 told the Berman in an interview last year. Bryant is a former Berman student worker who is now a museum assistant at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum. She talked about exhibitions that have tied together art and science and art and history to view contemporary topics through a broader lens. “That helped to prepare me to think differently about subject areas.”
Contemporary art is interdisciplinary. It’s in conversation with science, psychology, history, and policy. It’s innovative and immersive, and there is never a singular meaning to a single piece or a larger exhibition.
In 2018, the entire Ursinus community was invited to help artist Justin Favela create a paper mosaic, a recreation of Mexican landscape artist José María Velasco’s 19th century painting, Valley of Oaxaca. Favela spent several weeks working on a large piñata piece with the help of students, faculty, staff, and community volunteers. The installation spanned the two walls and even ventured onto the ceiling of the Pfeiffer Wing.
A year later, Adam DelMarcelle partnered with Ursinus students on Bearing Witness, a response to losing his brother to a heroin overdose and discovering countless more families torn apart by addiction. He and the students used “design activism” to address larger societal issues.
In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, artist Shannon Collis partnered with the Museum Studies program to present Strata, which explored complex social, economic, and environmental intersections between the natural landscape and human industry. And this year, Behbahani’s research-based practice approached landscape as a metaphor for politics and poetics.
“I really value the work that I do, and I value museums as cultural institutions,” Caputo says. “My time as a student taught me how much hard work and genuine passion is required to make an exhibition possible. I learned that none of this happens alone, that it’s OK to ask for help, that collaboration is the stuff of magic. I think many of the ways that we consume art gives off the impression that it exists in a vacuum, however in a museum everything is contextualized. In museums art exists in a time and place. I think about this a lot as an artist. I will always carry conceptual intent with me in the work that I do.”
Barkun says the Berman has intentionally brought emerging artists to campus who are still in the early stages of their careers. She says, “Students get to see a model for what next steps could look like in a career as a curator, or museum worker, or an artist. There are so many ways to live a creative life and having this level of intimate connection with a working artist is invaluable.”
She says a student’s work in the Berman also allows them to think critically, thoughtfully, and reflectively about not only the impact of their art, but all their academic and career interests.
“They form these really intellectual working relationships in the process of creating art.”