Strolling down the path to the west of Sharples, past the grime of the fraternities and the sweat of the tennis courts, one will come upon a discreet stone structure that houses the Kitao Gallery. Intercrossed birch planks tile the floor of the room, dimly glowing from the light that filters through the smudged windows. On rainy days, the smell of wet grass permeates the room. It is a modest, comfortable space, where solitary students may calmly face the exhibited pieces.
This solipsistic experience is however the product of a collective, dynamic process. The Kitao Gallery Board curates student-led shows collaboratively, drawing from the individual ideas, skills and experiences of its members to best make use of the space. The board is as diverse as the experiences of those on it.
Board member Emmy Liu ’17 was drawn to Kitao as a freshman for the new opportunities it provided. She said, “I was initially attracted to Kitao because the concept of a student-run gallery seemed challenging and something I’ve always been interested in but never had the opportunity to participate in.” Her initial curiosity was soon replaced by an admiration of all those involved in the process. “I’ve noticed that everyone, from the board members to the artists, […] believe in what they do, whether it’s providing and sustaining an outlet and open space for creative expression without fear of being watered down or edited, or filling up the spaces with their art,” she said. “It’s inspiring to be around driven and passionate people, and centered around creativity and art is a major bonus as well.”
Working for Kitao has helped her learn more about the realities of art curating, and she finds that the board structure creates a safety net that alleviates the stress of the job. “I used to think being a curator meant dictating what goes where and how to organize the space. Being on the board and working together to run Kitao gave me a really cool experience seeing the inner mechanisms of running a gallery. Collaborating meant having support and being supportive when things get a little messy on some end,” she said.
Maybe for this reason, Liu was particularly impressed by the exhibition of Leah Gallant ’15, who worked solo. “Her show was really interesting because it seemed to me she wasn’t really doing it for a class or an academic purpose, other than exercising an initiative to get herself out there and have a gallery show. An event like that, personally, is what resonates and means the most to me in terms of Kitao’s purpose.” She feels it’s the event she committed to the most, “just in terms of scheduling and wanting to fit her in the calendar.”
To board member Deborah Krieger ’16, student-led initiatives are the most crucial element of the group. She said, “I think the strengths of Kitao lie in its mission — it’s pretty much the only place on campus that is dedicated to displaying student artwork.” They do both displaying and representing, as Krieger describes her investment in last year’s “Unbreakable” show, which featured posters by anonymous survivors of sexual assault. She said, “I really wanted to use the fact that I had access to a space like Kitao, and a time slot that I arranged for, to show my support for these brave students.” Kitao, as a space, has and will be used as a means for students to share what they couldn’t through other means.
To further its mission of featuring as large a cross-section of student artists as possible, Kitao hosted its first juried show last spring. Krieger, pleased with its success, said, “We had a good number of submissions in a variety of media: painting, sculpture, photography — even video art. It was definitely heartening to see the turnout we had for the opening.” The event allowed the board to work in unison, and all took part in the final decision process.
Because it is student-run, Kitao is a space that isn’t censored. Summer Sloane-Britt ’16 links this to independent nature of the gallery, saying: “We are technically not affiliated with the List Gallery or the Art Department, so Kitao has a lot of flexibility in regards to what we can do.” She finds running all aspects of the gallery enriching, and it even ties into her studies. She said, “It has been interesting working with Kitao board in conjunction with studying museum strategies for diversifying audiences because it directly relates.”
Sloane-Britt was able to vest herself personally in the seniors’ show, making the process of curating all the more stimulating. “I definitely got into [it] because it was a group of people that I not only spent time with socially, but were also so creative in diverse ways,” she said. “There are a lot of talented artists on campus who many of us would never see their work because they are not Art majors and this show was an opportunity to recognize and display a group of students doing great work.” It was a final hurrah for these Swarthmore artists, a project with friends to look back on fondly.
All interviewed board members enjoyed working collaboratively. Krieger said, “I am consistently pleased with the ideas and passion that our board members bring to the table for each project we undertake.” As discussed, individuals feel more or less vested in different projects, but to Liu “the board functions well as a unit.” She finds that the informal nature of the group means that it’s a relatively low-stress environment, where she can practice the logistics of setting up an exhibit without too many consequences. She jokingly said, “That’s what college is about, right? Experimenting?”
However, the experiences of the artists working with the Kitao board have been somewhat more mixed. Gallant explained that she used Kitao for her aforementioned show “because it is the only gallery space accessible to students.” She regrets that the space hasn’t been as active as it could have been in recent years, saying “It’s an incredible resource to have a gallery space that anyone at Swarthmore can use, but I’ve never seen Kitao meet its potential.”
Regardless, Gallant has faith in the space, and said, “I’m excited to see what the board this year has planned.” She has ideas for what the board could do in the future, and is hoping it could “bring a more contemporary vision to art at Swarthmore.” She’d also like to see the use of the space extend past class times. She said, “I would love to see a mini-residency program for students to spend a summer creating an installation in the space.” As a student-run space, Kitao has the flexibility and dynamism to enact these sorts of positive changes.
Raven Bennett ’17 participated in the juried show because she had a piece she “was fond of and found the idea of having it displayed in a gallery appealing.” The organization surrounding the show for her was very smooth. She said, “I found the process very easy and efficient.” She was also happy with the way her piece was displayed.
Nick Schmidt ’17, however, had a somewhat different experience. “My main draw in participating in the art contest was that participating in the arts is one of the things that I was determined to do while at Swat, but my schedule was always too full to accommodate an art class and, aside from formal courses, there did not seem to be many opportunities for creating art on campus,” he said. Although there weren’t too many hiccups, he did struggle a lot in picking up his piece, since the board didn’t accommodate his track practice at all. He said, “In the end, I was visiting a friend’s photography exhibit, spotted my piece on the floor of the upstairs room, and just walked off with it. In my opinion, this definitely could have been handled better.”
Schmidt did call out Kitao for lackluster advertising. He said, “I was the only one in the gallery both times I visited and most of the people I talked to had no idea that it was going on.” The board is conscious of this, and according to Sloane-Britt they are trying to work on promotion. “One issue Kitao has struggled with in the past was reaching its audience and effectively getting people to attend events and continue to come back. But, I think in working with the Swarthmore artists and community at large more actively and will help change this,” she said.
The board has many other plans for the upcoming year, mainly spearheaded by Sloane-Britt. There are plans to try and branch into Philly, organizing outings and tours. “One event I’m particularly excited about is doing our own Mural Arts tour,” she said. “Murals are so important to the city, and more specifically the communities they’re in, so we hope to go into the city and have to opportunity to look at a few.” The ideas are coming from other members of the board as well, honoring its non-hierarchical nature. Liu said, “I would really love to do some performance art or interactive art.”
Sloane-Britt also has visions of Kitao as a social, creative space for artists. “I envision Kitao being a place where student artists, and there are a lot of them on campus, can bounce ideas off one another, make art together, and be in an alternative social space,” she said. “We don’t want to be like the List Gallery, but a more collaborative space.”
Kitao’s plans are diverse, but its ambitions simple. When asked to describe the gallery’s desired image, Sloane-Britt succinctly said, “To be a collaborative and creative space for everyone who wants to be involved.”