Catalyst for Innovation
Art students get creative outside gallery walls
By Christine Byrd
After more than a year away from campus due to the pandemic, Claire Trevor School of the Arts students were thrilled to get back into studios and in-person classes in fall 2021. For the five student leaders of the Catalyst Undergraduate Student Art Gallery, the return was especially exciting: they planned to reopen their cherished gallery space.
For more than 15 years, the Catalyst gallery has played a vital role in the art student experience at UCI. The CTSA supports only one juried undergraduate show annually, so honors art students typically volunteer to curate additional undergraduate exhibitions in the Catalyst gallery on the second floor of the Art Culture and Technology building.
“Without something else student driven, there’s not a lot of opportunity to show your work,” explains Teresa Bernadette, Catalyst’s head curator and a senior majoring in art. “One of the important things about being an art student is learning how to present your work, how to get it ready to hang and show.”
But just hours before the Catalyst team was to present its plans for its fall 2021 exhibitions at the Arts Involvement Fair, they discovered the gallery was already occupied. The space had been turned into a graduate student’s studio as the campus scrambled to provide exhibition spots for M.F.A. masters thesis shows that had been postponed by the pandemic.
Image: Catalyst board members at the annual Arts Involvement Fair (from left to right) Sarah Coscolluela, Teresa Bernadette, Renee O’Connor, Arios Munoz (behind), Eleanor Yu.
Making it Work
When she learned the gallery was unavailable, Teresa emailed her colleagues with the news, and braced herself for their reactions.
“The team was amazing. Everyone said, ‘We will make it work.’” Teresa recalls. Their unflinching support brought tears to her eyes, and drew admiration from faculty.
“The Catalyst team was very empathetic and conscientious of what it meant to the grad students to prepare for their show that had been canceled previously,” says Deborah Oliver, associate professor of teaching and advisor for the student group.
From that moment, the Catalyst students knew they must embrace innovation in a whole new way.
Now they’ve taken us out of the box, so suddenly we can go any place we want to.
“Our goal is to showcase the work that we’re doing as students. Now they’ve taken us out of the box, so suddenly we can go any place we want to,” says Teresa. “We can reserve any space, we can have live performances, we can do stuff outside in the open. It was actually really exciting.”
So Teresa and her colleagues began reserving the outdoor spaces; getting permits for amplified sound; securing projectors, easels, pedestals; and rallying undergraduates to submit and prepare to show their artwork.
“When they would get to hurdles, they would discuss it with their team, ask my advice at critical moments, and then they would quickly respond and make adjustments, always saying, ‘We can do it,’” says Oliver. “They never lost focus on the fact that they wanted to
have a public event with their classmates and invite friends and peers and family.”
History of Innovation
The Catalyst gallery was founded in 2005, and operated without a permanent home, until ceramics professor Gifford Myers gave the student group his office space. Since then, it’s hosted a steady stream of undergraduate exhibitions, workshops, and lectures by M.F.A. students, who also benefited from the experience of giving art talks.
Though not an official UCI student organization – the current team has plans to apply for that status – Catalyst students have found creative ways to seek funding for their projects, including applying for grants from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to mount their shows, and then presenting again at the annual UROP Symposium.
Their innovation was pushed to new extremes during the first year of the pandemic, when courses were online. During that time, the student group produced two entirely digital publications showcasing undergraduate art: Time Delayed Volume 1 and 2.
“They have consistently come up with really interesting strategies for getting exhibitions out,” says Shelby Roberts, associate professor of teaching, who advised Catalyst for several years. “It’s been an incredibly successful program and all it has in the department is that one room.”
The faculty who have advised the student group over the years include Oliver and Roberts, as well as lecturer emerita Mara Lonner and Claire Trevor Professor of Art Daniel Joseph Martinez. While they have each brought their own approach, they stick to supporting roles: Roberts once taught students how to plaster over holes in the gallery wall in years past, and Oliver signed stacks of paperwork to help them reserve equipment this year.
Image: Students visit the Painting II open studio in the Department of Art during the Tenth Thursday event. (Photo: Courtesy of Teresa Bernadette)
Experiment and Expand
Committed to mounting an exhibition offline and outside of the gallery walls at the end of 2021, the students focused their energy on Tenth Thursday, the day during the last week of the 10-week quarter when undergraduate art classes traditionally showcase their work. In recent years, Catalyst has become the driving force behind organizing Tenth Thursday, but Teresa and her colleagues planned to recruit students to submit other work directly to Catalyst to be considered for a large outdoor exhibition to be held simultaneously.
As inspiration, the team drew on the successful undergraduate honors showcase when students projected digital images of their artwork onto the exterior walls of buildings in Spring 2021. But Catalyst added easels for painting displays and pedestals to showcase sculptures, and included live performances in the courtyard between the buildings that house art studios and classrooms. Ultimately, two photography, two sculpture, two drawing, and two performance classes all agreed to showcase their work, which meant more than 150 pieces of art were displayed in that single evening.
“We had to be prepared to support not only our artists but this extended network of classes,” says Teresa. “It was more than what we signed up for, but it was important to keep it going to make sure our fellow students had these opportunities.”
Hundreds of students, family and friends ended up attending the exhibition organized by Catalyst on Tenth Thursday. Although the students hoped to host a reception, that was not possible within the campus’ current health and safety guidelines, so they made the best of it and offered canned sodas to guests.
“Teresa really has a gift in the way she was able to rally her team to be able to answer all of these questions collectively,” says Oliver. “She offered a vision about how to collaborate on an endpoint, the show, and not lose sight of it even during what felt like overwhelming hurdles.”
She offered a vision about how to collaborate on an endpoint, the show, and not lose sight of it even during what felt like overwhelming hurdles.
Even with all of the work they had done to pull it off, the Catalyst team was able to enjoy the evening.
“It was really beautiful,” says Teresa. “We were all so caught up in it.”
The students still look forward to reclaiming their gallery space, but Catalyst is unlikely to ever again be contained by its four walls. Now that the students have experience showcasing their art in everything from websites to outdoor projections, they are likely to continue taking innovative approaches to their shows.
“We want to celebrate and professionally showcase our peers. Even if this would have been a ‘normal’ year back in the gallery setting, we came in thinking about how we could be more inclusive of new media and non-traditional genres,” says Teresa. “So in some ways, this has given us the opportunity to experiment and expand what Catalyst is able to do in the future.”
Image (from left to right): Christina Calma, Andrea Badillo, and Renee O’Connor stand in the installation Sorry for This One-Way Conversation by Andrea Badillo. (Photo: Courtesy of Renee O’Connor)
More info: May 28 - Open Studios; June 2 -Tenth Thursday, in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts plazas.
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