In the 1920s, Margaret Sutton was a small-town art student at Mary Washington, poised to graduate and move to New York City to pursue her dreams of being an artist. Ninety years later, her nearly 3,000 pieces of artwork make up almost half of UMW’s permanent collection.
Donated to the university following her death in 1990, Sutton’s expansive collection had only ever been publicly exhibited once before. Then this spring, a collaboration between the UMW Galleries and Department of Art and Art History provided the setting for the first-ever fully student-curated art exhibit – and Sutton’s return to the spotlight.
Open through June 29 in the Ridderhof Martin Gallery, Margaret Sutton: Life + Works introduces 30 student-selected pieces featuring a range of penciled cathedral drawings, bold watercolors and flowing musical interpretations. Researched, designed and planned by those in the Laboratory in Museum Studies course, the exhibit represents a unique approach that puts today’s students front and center as curators.
Part of the museum studies minor, the laboratory course provides a hands-on approach to the theoretical aspects of exhibit curation, including preparation, installation design and marketing. Each student was responsible for selecting and researching three of Sutton’s works and creating complimentary art labels, then they designed the physical layout of the exhibit and assisted with promotion.
Sutton, who majored in studio art at Mary Washington, moved after graduation to the big city, where she met fellow artist Alfred Levitt and his wife, Gertrude. The three lived together in a Greenwich Village apartment until Gertrude’s 1983 death. Sutton continued to live with Levitt until her own death.
“Margaret Sutton is a bit of a mystery,” said Elizabeth O’Meara, a sophomore and historic preservation major. “She kept many of her paintings under her bed and unlabeled, so we’ve had to research and put facts together to learn about the pieces.”
Leading the way through the intensive creative process was Professor of Art and Art History Marjorie Och. After a full semester of research, it was up to the class to fit their selected works together into the gallery and bring the Sutton exhibit to life.
“We have an empty space and we need to fill in the gaps,” said Och, referencing the bare gallery walls surrounding her class one week before the opening reception. “What will our audience see first? How can we draw people into her life and work?”
The class eagerly jumped in, voicing their ideas on the design and layout of the exhibit. As the student co-curators made decisions, Associate Professor of Studio Art and Gallery Specialist Rosemary Jesionowski guided them through the process of arranging the works. Two students donning blue latex gloves worked with precision, holding artwork from the side to provide support and always securing a new space for each piece before picking it up.
Melding together all the aspects of curation – research, storytelling, design, installation and promotion – was important, said sophomore studio art major Amber Tranter.
“Being able to have this kind of hands-on experience solidified my decision to pursue museum studies.”
Margaret Sutton: Life + Work will be on display in UMW’s Ridderhof Martin Gallery through Thursday, June 29. The gallery is located on College Avenue at the Fredericksburg Campus and is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. The gallery is closed during University holidays and breaks. Free parking for gallery visitors is designated in the lot on College Avenue at Thornton Street. For directions and gallery information, call 540-654-1013 or visit http://www.umwgalleries.org.