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Students Put Social Justice on Display in UnBlocked Gallery

The Charge: The many benefits of the extraordinary alliance between the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the college include new community offerings and enriched student experiences — creating a synergy between the two that invigorates the other. As part of the strategic plan for the FAC, we will develop an arts education program that becomes highly regarded nationally; and encourage and sustain vibrant connections across all programs, developing shared physical space and encouraging risk-taking to try new things that will contribute to this aim.

What’s Happening: The UnBlocked Gallery at the FAC arose from a decade of CC faculty teaching experiments, many of which were centered around the former IDEA Space in the Cornerstone Arts Center. In experimenting with the question of how a museum space teaches, these faculty pushed beyond usual museum (and classroom) practice and developed unique and innovative teaching strategies. A central component of these experiments was the idea of an open exhibition space, in which classes could engage deeply with visual material as well as present ideas, theories, and arguments in visual form.

As part of students’ work in these classes, curatorial essays, critical interventions, and artistic explorations appeared in the IDEA Space from time to time between 2008 and 2016. During the initial phase of the alliance between the CC and the FAC, gallery renovations in 2017 enabled the museum to create a permanent rendition of such a space, the UnBlocked Gallery. The UnBlocked Gallery serves as a CC-focused teaching and exhibition space within the FAC’s museum.

“We wanted to create an exhibit that would foster active engagement, internally and externally, with social justice issues,” says Suzy Lewis ’19, who took a museum studies course this academic year. “We curated a list of social justice terms and a series of artwork from the FAC collection that we hoped could spark connections for the visitors. It was amazing to visit the exhibit months after it had gone up and look at the thoughts of the community around us. Overall, the course facilitated a truly impactful way for us to ground our new knowledge on museum best practices and utilize it, to the best of our ability.”

The space is available to faculty in all disciplines, with the intention of building sustained engagement with material and visual culture into a wide variety of courses across the college, and enhancing collaboration among students and faculty across the campus. UnBlocked Gallery projects have included: mini-exhibitions of objects from the museum’s permanent collection; studio displays of students’ creative response to objects on display; visual essays with objects; audience-centric experimental displays; and exhibitions with changing curatorial narratives. In working with the FAC’s nationally recognized collection, students gain a deeper understanding of the history and culture of our region, develop a healthy respect for the nuanced work of connecting to many audiences, and build critical skills by examining the history, roles, and power of the museum. 

“I personally enjoyed learning about the intricacies of museum ethics,” says Lewis. “It often seems like there’s no winning, there are so many angles from which any given issue can be viewed. We looked at several different examples of museums around the U.S. and the world displaying misguided ethics, and I had to ask myself every time ‘Would I have known better? Would I have made the same mistake? Would I still make that same mistake?’”

Given the FAC’s robust public audience, the UnBlocked Gallery also functions as a place of sharing — one that invites in a wide variety of viewers (both on campus and in the region) to partake in a bit of a CC class experience. The gallery’s creative energy and dynamism has made it a popular site for museum visitors, who often check out the latest student project in the gallery. As the museum grows its program of faculty development and training, the UnBlocked Gallery is a site for faculty across the college to undertake radical explorations of teaching in museums. Faculty from CC Departments of Philosophy, Art History, Art Studio, Religion, Southwest Studies, Museum Studies, Psychology, English, and others have brought innovative projects into the space, and are helping the museum achieve its goal of being a national leader for teaching innovation among academic museums.

Whether experiencing a visual essay on philosophy, an exhibition up-ending the art historical canon, or most recently, this interactive exhibit on social justice, you will always find something new and interesting in the UnBlocked Gallery.