Photo by Walter Wilson.
Photo by Walter Wilson.

I have had the distinct pleasure to work as a practicum student worker at KAM during spring semester 2024, under the guidance of Walter Wilson (KAM Design and Installation specialist), as an almost-graduated master’s student with the iSchool at UIUC. For my final deliverable, I was at a loss for what to do. Should I make a presentation or a poster or a recorded discussion? Those options fell flat for me—I worked on so many varied and different projects during my short three (and a half) months at KAM and really wanted to showcase what I learned in a dynamic way. I was struggling to find a project that spoke to me, until Walter suggested I put up a mini exhibition of my very own. That idea thrilled me—I never expected to have the chance to actually curate my own installation, and here it was, presented to me in so straightforward a manner that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. With the blessing of Professor Maria Bonn, one of the heads of the iSchool practicum program, I got to work on my very own show.

The first step of my process was deciding what works I wanted to have in my installation, which may sound easy but was actually incredibly daunting. With over 11,000 pieces of art in their permanent collection, KAM has a huge array of works from every era imaginable, and I had no idea where to start. After some serious thinking, I decided on a loose curatorial theme of love, relationships, and beauty because I wanted to showcase works that are both beautiful and reminded me of love to express how much love I have for art and museum objects. Cheesy, I know, but 100% true. Using the above words as key terms, I did a precursory online search of KAM’s catalog and came up with 11 works that fit my theme. The next day, I got to the museum ready to get all my works lined up, only to find that I couldn’t use about half of them because they were unframed works on paper that, with a three-day turnaround time, we wouldn’t have time to frame. So, I explored KAM storage with Walter to find other pieces that could fit my theme, and I think I did pretty well in such a short time span. Apparently, I have a great eye for great work because one of the pieces I chose during my time in storage was a Renoir! Having the opportunity to not only see but also handle and hang a Renoir made me feel like a real museum superstar.

After I had selected (i.e., curated) my collection of works to display, I needed to make a small base for a small, circular ceramic object that was going in my show. Walter gave me some suggestions on how to create the base, and with the fabrication knowledge I already had thanks to my three months with Walter, I was able to make a serviceable base out of foam board and felt to safely hold the object. Something I didn’t really expect would be such a huge part of working with the installation and design team at a museum was how much fabrication work goes into it. During my time here at KAM, I’ve helped build a myriad of furniture pieces, from benches to crates to iPad mounts.

My final selection of works of art and base building happened on Friday, April 19. Over the weekend, I designed my gallery walls and floor space using a floor plan of the East Gallery. I was given a gallery as my workspace and was able to design a layout that I really liked using the dimensions of the room and grouping works together in a way that was cohesive and visually appealing. For example, the three paintings I hung on the east wall (linked here and here, as well as the Renoir) were lighter in color and had an airier feel to them, whereas the works on the west wall (here and here) were darker and moodier, which created a really interesting visual juxtaposition from one side of the installation to the other. The south wall had my title text and a huge Neoclassical painting on it, which tied in with the others quite well. I was honestly sort of intimidated by the idea of designing my exhibition space, but once I had the works picked out the design sort of just came to me naturally, like the works I picked knew where they needed to go and held their places.

The following Monday was game time—installation day. Once we retrieved all of the works I was using, Walter left me to decide what works were going where, where hardware needed to go in the walls, how high up hardware needed to be, etc. One of the first things Walter taught me when I took his class last fall was that the center of hanging artworks at KAM always sit at 58 inches. 58 inches as the center point is seared into my brain forever. But, having a center point makes finding the installation point for hardware much easier than just guessing or choosing a different center point for each piece. For all of the paintings except the two biggest ones, I was able to hang them on the wall by myself, and for the two bigger ones Walter was there with a helping hand. After some minor adjustments to a few of the hardware pieces to level everything out, the paintings were hung and everything was perfect. The final step that day was putting the ceramic and the porcelain sculpture on their pedestal together and placing the sculpture for the show in the center of the room, facing the entrance into the gallery to welcome her visitors.

Tuesday was final-touch day—I finished up making labels for my 9 beautiful pieces and hung them on the wall using a tool called a shepherd’s crook, which sort of looks like a hockey stick but with right angles and takes the guesswork out of labeling hanging. Once those were hung, Three Months: Lessons from a Practicum Student was officially ready for viewing. Although it wasn’t technically open to the public and was only up for one day, I had friends who came and saw the show as well as museum staff and faculty. Being able to say that I curated, designed, installed, and fabricated my very own solo exhibition is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to say, and getting to chat with others about my show was a euphoric experience.

I know this post is a little long, but if you only read one part of this post let it be this: I cannot begin to explain how utterly thankful, grateful, and humbled I am to have been able to work at KAM this last semester under the guidance of Walter Wilson, as well as other members of the design and installation team, Tim Fox and Rachel Gu. This experience has meant the world to me and has allowed me to not only see what behind-the-scenes museum work entails, but to do that work and gain invaluable experience in installation, design, fabrication, and so much more. Working at KAM has been an absolute dream come true and I will always have so much love for this museum.

I’ve attached a link here to a video tour of Three Months: Lessons from a Practicum Student.

Author: Alicia Detterman