Course inspires students to investigate artwork origins and to assemble them into compelling stories


Amy Halvorson

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Course inspires students to investigate artwork origins and to assemble them into compelling stories

Storytelling can be difficult — whether it’s by word of mouth, or on paper.

The “museum practicum” class at the University of North Dakota has taken storytelling to the next level by striving to tell stories by presenting art pieces from UND Art Collections. These stories are sprinkled throughout the UND campus for people to view and capture each exhibit’s story.

The class is taught by Nathan Rees, an art historian, specializing in museum studies, and a relative newbie to UND.

“I had never set foot in North Dakota before.” said Rees, a native of Utah and New Mexico. “I came in April for an interview and there was still snow on the ground so that was a bit of a wake-up call.”

A glowing sample of Rees’ works is on full display at the UND Art Collections Gallery at the Empire Arts Center in downtown Grand Forks. It's a new exhibition, titled Honoré Daumier: Encore! The Quest for Freedom of Expression through Political and Social Commentary. The exhibition, which will run through July 14, features works by famed French satirical artist Honoré Daumier and is devoted to people such as Daumier and others who have used their talents to promote freedom of the press through their art.

Rees, 33, curated the new exhibition with professors from UND Departments of Languages, Music, and Art & Design, including Sarah Mosher, Gary Towne, Nathan Rees and Arthur Jones.

Exciting time

In in August 2014, Reese accepted the position of assistant professor in the UND Department of art & Design.

Rees came at an exciting time for UND Art Collections, as approximately 100 pieces of art had just been discovered and donated to UND Art Collections.

“The collections here are really flourishing,” said Rees. “It has been really astonishing seeing the growth of the collection just since this past summer.”

Rees’ had always been interested in museums, but thanks to an art history class he took as an undergraduate, he discovered his true passion.

“I was excited how art brought history to life in such a bright, tangible way,” said Rees. “You don’t just have words about history but an actual object instead.”

As an art historian, Rees works to “investigate” art pieces and determine everything from when and where the piece is from to what the piece says about the culture and era that produced it.

“It’s almost like a riddle or a mystery,” said Rees. “You have to try and connect the dots of how the artwork reflects not only the artist’s own intent, but the culture they come from too.”

“It’s a very creative field, it depends not only on the facts you find out about the past, but also you have to actually look carefully at artworks and come up with creative answers through your own reasoning.” Rees said.

He continued, “you get to imagine the story behind the piece of art, or the story it’s trying to get across. There are a lot of stereotypes about art history, but it teaches people to actually look at what they’re seeing and to think carefully about it.

“If you have that training or the ability to think like that, then it can really enrich your experience of the world around you.”

Rees is very grateful for the undergraduate opportunities he had, as he was able to work with collections and arrange educational material at a museum.

“That was such a great opportunity for me that I try and find similar opportunities for my students now,” said Rees.

Hands-on students

One of these opportunities, as well as a particular highlight of Rees’ teaching, is the museum practicum class.

“It involves students in the day-to-day operations of collections management, while giving them hands-on experience curating exhibitions and contributing to a variety of display projects around the campus,” said Rees.

This forces the students to come up with a concept, or thesis, for the exhibit to demonstrate, finding art that fits the theme, researching the chosen art, writing short captions for each piece, and designing the arrangement to complement the theme.

“I love how we get to go behind the scenes and work on different projects around campus. It's a very hands-on kind of learning experience, and I enjoy that as much as the students do,” said Rees. “The students here are very hardworking; their care and dedication really shows.”

Their projects vary each semester depending upon the University’s needs. A couple of the projects they have worked on include a student-curated exhibition of artworks from UND Art Collections, as well as art installations at the Chester Fritz Library.

“One of the great things about teaching at UND is that I also get to work with UND Art Collections, researching artworks, curating exhibitions and finding ways to maximize the educational potential of our collection.”

Each time a new art exhibit is set up, pieces are drawn from the UND Art Collections repository based on their fit with the exhibit’s topic.

“We try to demonstrate the breadth of our collection,” said Rees.

The UND Art Collections repository is located on the top floor of Ireland Hall. It is a secure site that is climate controlled and home to hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of art, ranging from sculptures, to framed works, all stored in proper archival conditions.

Different departments across the campus will come forward and request a project for the class to work on. This provides a realistic setting for the students to work by giving them constraints, such as a budget, departmental approval and size restrictions. The students then provide both the vision and the so-called “grunt work."

“This class has really helped me with the practical side and given us the tools to properly display our art,” said Matt Jones, a UND studio art major in Rees’ museum practicum class. “It gives us a tangible way to affect this campus.”

Amy Halvorson University & Public Affairs student writer

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