An Eye for Art: Students Select Art for College Collection

a group of students and a few adults stand together in an art gallery

Art 348 class photo taken during their trip to New York City. Students are with Lia Newman and donors on the far right (R-L:  David ʳɫ92 and Betsey Boshell Todd ʳɫ93, Joe Logan ʳɫ77).

In mid-May, four big packing boxes arrived at the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center. Inside were four original works of art that would join the more than 4,200 pieces in the ʳɫ art collection. The purchase had a special twist, it was made by a group of 13 students through the ʳɫStudent Select: Art Acquisition Fund.ʳɫ

The students spent the spring semester in Art 348: Purchasing Art for Davidson. The classʳɫs assignment: To use $50,000 from donors via ʳɫStudent Selectʳɫ with the lone stipulation that they must buy art for the college. 

Everything else was up to them. 

ʳɫThis course was really fascinating and unlike any other I've taken,ʳɫ said art major Isabelle Easter ʳɫ25. ʳɫWe were allowed to be very independent. The style of teaching really promoted self-growth.ʳɫ

The idea came from alum Joe Logan ʳɫ77, who was inspired by a similar opportunity at Wake Forest University. With his support, Art 348 was first taught in 2022. (The  are currently on view around the Belk Visual Arts Center.) The 2024 cohort, the second class, enjoyed Loganʳɫs support - and that of the Boshell Family Foundation through David ʳɫ92 and Betsey Boshell Todd ʳɫ93. 

The class leaders, John Corso-Esquivel, chair and associate professor of Art and Lia Newman, director and curator of the Van Every/Smith Art Galleries, do not tell the students what art to buy. Instead, they help them discern the values that would drive their search.

ʳɫWe left it open to them,ʳɫ said Corso-Esquivel. ʳɫThey could have come up with any number of ways of describing what they wanted."

ʳɫThey did interviews with professors who use the collection to figure out what areas of the collection they wanted to fortify. The students started asking, ʳɫWhat do we want more of?ʳɫʳɫ

They created a scoring rubric that prioritized art that could support classes on the art history of craft, gender and sexuality studies, and Islamic studies. Each student chose a handful of artists from galleries in New York both are familiar with. Then, they pitched the artists to their classmates, arguing how each artistʳɫs work would enrich the schoolʳɫs collection.

The class winnowed the list of 72 pitches to a top 25, according to the selection rubric they created and then, it was time to arrange visits to the New York-based galleries.

Again, Corso-Esquivel and Newman empowered the students to set up the visits and lead the in-person discussions with the gallerists. 

headshot of John Corso

You can practice all you want in the classroom, but until you're in an unfamiliar circumstance and you have to apply your skills, you really donʳɫt know how it feels to be in a gallery, discussing a possible purchase.

John Corso-Esquivel, Chair and Associate Professor of Art

Buying art is a delicate dance that none of the students had attempted before. Getting in the door is just the first step ʳɫ especially in the rarefied air of a New York gallery.

ʳɫAs weird as it sounds the gallerists judge you as much as you judge the art,ʳɫ Easter said.

The buyer wants art that is compelling at the best possible price. The seller - the gallery - wants art to be well-represented. 

ʳɫThey want to know about your collection and to be reassured that you genuinely appreciate the art and artist,ʳɫ said Corso-Esquivel.

Thanks to a dry run at a local Charlotte gallery, the class was ready for a two-and-a-half day, 14-gallery marathon through New York City in early April.

At each gallery, two students were designated conversation leaders who had prepared questions in advance. Meanwhile, one student was responsible for surreptitiously evaluating the condition of the art, noting any flaws or damage to the piece.

a group of students stand around examining a collection of quilts in an art gallery

Students from Art 348 examine quilts by Stella Mae Pettway. They decided to purchase the one laid out on the floor.

ʳɫThe visits were very engaging. We were stepping out of Davidson and into this role and it was like, ʳɫWhoa, we have this power and authority to do something for the school,ʳɫʳɫ Easter said. ʳɫIt was really, really cool.ʳɫ

After seeing the works in person, the students huddled on the street to debrief. 

ʳɫThey would discuss any kind of conservation issues they had noticed about the works and they would talk about what they thought were strengths or weaknesses of the works,ʳɫ Newman said. ʳɫThen they would vote on a Google form for the top choice by that artist and the group would decide on a single piece from each artist that they would discuss at the final deliberation.ʳɫ

Once they had wrapped the gallery visits, it was time to vote. 

Newman and the 13 students convened in a hotel nightclub/restaurant that sat empty during daylight hours. They patched Corso-Esquivel in on Zoom (he was home dealing with a mild-but-travel-prohibiting case of covid), and, sitting in a big circle, they started to deliberate. 

ʳɫWe went round robin so everyone had the chance to talk about the work of that artist or that collective. It was not a debate; it really is a way of getting the entire group to weigh in,ʳɫ Corso-Esquivel said.

Then, they set about ranking the artworks, once again, falling back on the values they had outlined earlier in the semester.

Three and a half hours later, they emerged.

ʳɫWe are really proud of how seriously they took their work,ʳɫ Newman said. ʳɫBy the end of the deliberation, there was consensus on three fantastic works by three different artists, all working in different media.ʳɫ 

It turns out, they actually had enough of their budget left over, that on the following Monday, they reconvened and voted on buying a fourth piece.

The class decided to buy the following pieces:

a mixed media piece of art of a woman holding a man while sweeping

Larissa de Souza
Livre como uma borboleta, 2022
Acrylic and mixed media on linen

a mixed media piece of art in a frame of a star and facial features

Hayv Kahraman
Star, 2017
Oil, linen, RSG and pigment on paper

a colorful quilt

Stella Mae Pettway
Candy Bar, 2017
Jean, cotton, flannel

a piece of pottery in an art gallery

Ibrahim Said
Uraeus 1, 2023
White Earthenware

The works will be on display in the Belk Visual Arts Center next fall. And Corso-Esquivel and Newman expect to teach the course again in the next two or three years. 

ʳɫI was really happy with the way they started envisioning themselves as collectors,ʳɫ Corso-Esquivel said. ʳɫAnd I think, without a doubt, these are the next generation of collectors. They've started envisioning themselves after Davidson and how that, you know, they might acquire works and how those works might respond to different communities.ʳɫ


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