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Before the pandemic hit and this exhibition had to close early for safety reasons, SMFA spoke with the artists involved in the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, “SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020”, to discuss their experiences showing at the prominent museum.

Visitors flock to the internationally renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to view works of art spanning eras from ancient Egypt to today. These works recently included contributions from four graduates of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA at Tufts). 

SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020 was on view in the museum's Edward H. Linde Gallery from November 2019 through March 2020.* The show featured artists Timothy Manalo (MFA '19), Louis Meola (MFA '19), Katherine Wildman (MFA '19), and Perla Mabel (BFA '19). 

Emily Chun (MA '20) and Juan Omar Rodriguez (MA '19), alumni of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture in the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, curated the exhibition. 

Meola, whose intaglio prints incorporate materials salvaged from his late grandfather's workshop, grew up locally and visited the Museum of Fine Arts regularly while earning his BFA in printmaking at Emmanuel College in Boston. 

"I used to wonder what it would be like if my own artwork was being displayed, but I figured I'd have to be 45 years old for that to happen," said Meola, interim studio manager for print, paper, and graphic arts at SMFA at Tufts. "But now I can say my artwork was in the Museum of Fine Arts. It was surreal, seeing my work on the wall." 

Studio Visits and Interviews
Following a callout for the exhibition in late 2018, interested SMFA undergraduate and graduate students sent in portfolios and artist statements for consideration. Four of the museum's curators reviewed the submissions and chose 12 finalists. 

Chun and Rodriguez then joined the museum's chair of contemporary art, Reto Thüring, and curatorial research fellow Dakota DeVos on two days of studio visits. The final round of interviews took place in the Tufts University Art Galleries, where second-year graduate students had recently completed installation for the SMFA MFA Thesis Exhibition

The four artists were selected late in the spring of 2019, and Thüring was pleased with the lineup. 

"The exhibition featured four very different artists, each doing extremely interesting work in their specific medium and according to their specific point of view. They each have something very important to say," Thüring said. "The work on view was a testament to the great quality we were able to find among the students at SMFA at Tufts." 

Showing at a World-Renowned Institution
Wildman came to SMFA in 2017 to pursue her master of fine arts, five years after graduating with a BFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Painting remains central to her practice, along with printmaking and drawing. 

The museum exhibition included Wildman's installation of handmade objects exploring the intersection between desire and pleasure. Initially, she said, she felt a self-imposed pressure to conform with what she perceived to be a conservative mindset at the museum. DeVos and Thüring helped her stay true to her vision. 

"The first day of installation was tricky because as much as you try to resist the language of the museum, actively rebelling against that takes a lot of consciousness and effort," Wildman said. "I liked that if Dakota or Reto saw I was installing something too straight or differently than I would have outside of the museum, they would remind me to take up space with the language I wanted to install with and keep that as my backbone. I was surprised by how encouraging they were of a young artist to just [mess things] up." 

Manalo, whose work in the exhibition explored his Filipino heritage by evoking the food and furniture of a family gathering, holds a BFA in sculpture and installation from OCAD University. He appreciates the real-world aspects of this experience, particularly the chance to work with the curators as well as others involved in designing and setting up the exhibition. 

"I'd never shown in a museum before or had my work talked about or treated this way," said Manalo, who, at the time, was a post-graduate teaching fellow at SMFA. "At SMFA, we're connected to this museum with such a long and prominent history. Showing there really beefed up my experience as an artist. I was very lucky to be part of it." 

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5 alumni smiling in front of artwork at the MFA
Left to Right: Perla Mabel, Louis Meola, Juan Omar Rodriguez, Tim Manalo, and Kate Wildman

"Getting the chance to deal with curators and understand what goes into installing an exhibit is pretty rare and pretty awesome," added Wildman, who is currently focusing on two- and three-dimensional fabric work in her studio. "It was a wonderful opportunity, and I really loved working with everyone." 

In her artist statement, Mabel writes that her work featured in the exhibition, "Platano Girls," aims "to empower all women (specifically Black Femme identifying people) to live unapologetically, freely, and righteously. My oil paint and mixed media portraits express the beauty and strength in [the Afro-Caribbean religion] Santeria as a method of survival that has been passed on through generations in order to cope with the racism and discrimination people of color face every day."

Mabel attributes much of her works’ inspiration to a quote by James Baldwin, adding that it speaks to how she relates to the world and art institutions, as well as her thinking about what it means to be a part of a place that has “excluded and exploited [her] people since it was created”.

“For a very long time America prospered; this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even those who are the most spectacular beneficiaries of this prosperity, are able to endure these benefits. They can neither enjoy, nor do without these benefits. Above all, imagine the price paid the victims or subjects for this way of life and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.” – James Baldwin

A New Biannual Tradition
Going forward, the SMFA student exhibition will take place every two years. The artists will continue to be selected while they are still matriculated students at SMFA, even though they may graduate before the show commences. In alternating years, the museum will display the work of SMFA alumni through the SMFA Traveling Fellows program, which was established in 1899. 

Thüring looks forward to making the student exhibition a biannual tradition at the museum. 

"We're super proud to be able to carve out this space and dedicate it to the next generation," he said. "Showing these works by young artists is a great way to infuse new energy into the museum. It's an energy we need and that resonates throughout the collection."

That sense of energy goes both ways, as Meola noted. "Having my prints and work displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts has just pushed me that much more," he said. "I want to keep striving to have my work over there." 

* Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was ended a month early and the museum temporarily closed.

Photos: SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020, copyright MFA