With in-person exhibitions canceled, a few students were determined to provide a virtual stage for art school grads
Getting through art school is a big deal. Before COVID-19, graduates from BFA and MFA programs around the country celebrated the accomplishment with a big end-of-year show.
This year, it looked like things might just fizzle out for arts grads — until a rock star artist and her talented students saved the day.
At the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, artist and adjunct photography professor Laurel Nakadate and two graduating BFA students channeled disappointment into the monster showcase site Thesis Shows 2020.
The website and companion Instagram account spotlight work from more than 70 BFA and MFA programs across North America. And while it doesn’t necessarily offer the closure of an in-person show, organizers say the project has been an education in itself — with unexpected perks.
An online stage for art school grads
Rhode Island School of Design hired Nakadate, a high-profile photographer, video artist and filmmaker, to help photo students navigate their senior year and knock out their final theses. She came up with the idea for an online platform as she watched any hope of the traditional showcases evaporate.
“They were not going to get to have their big senior end-of-year stuff. My first thought was with my RISD students but also the students who weren’t going to get shows across the country,” said Nakdate. “We needed something that would work as far as being able to find a lot of information quickly and that would be an inclusive place for any school that wanted to participate.”
Working with RISD photography department head Brian Ulrich, Nakadate recruited two BFA seniors to build and manage the site. Students Yueying Erin Wang and Travis Morehead took on designing and developing the site while their professors networked to get the word out to art departments around the country.
“I feel like it was a beautiful collaboration…The goal was to be supportive of as many people as we possibly could be,” Nakadate said. “These two worked with no egos, very quickly, under a lot of pressure while finishing their degrees.”
Wang and Morehead were the only two students from RISD’s photo BFA program who had a chance to mount their thesis shows in person before the shutdown. They built the site to help classmates and grads from around the country get their work up in the virtual sphere. Wang’s coding skills drove development, while Morehead tackled design elements.
“I had my most important thing done, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” Wang said. “And I jumped in to help others to let them show (their work) on the stage,”
‘A big silver lining’
The result is an impressive online platform for graduate and undergraduate students in the arts to connect and share their work virtually. It also has meant wide spread exposure — in many cases more than students could dream of from a traditional exhibition. Morehead’s spare, sculptural shots and Wang’s lush, eclectic work are getting plenty of attention.
“It’s a big silver lining because this has worked as a catalyst towards finding a way to still reach an audience. But in doing so, it’s a much larger audience than it would have been otherwise just doing physical shows,” Morehead said.
Wang says she’s also gotten commissions as a direct result of the site. ”After the website was up, more people noticed me and my work,” she said.
And while there’s still a sense of loss for those missed final months, both graduates are moving forward with plenty to celebrate. Morehead is headed to the photography MFA program at Northwestern University. Wang is pursuing a career in the fashion industry.
“These things wouldn’t have happened necessarily with just having the regular shows on the wall…What we can make of this is what we can make of it. And that’s endless and amazing,” Nakadate said. “The process of the students working on this was so much a part of what made it magical.”
From just a stand-in to a lasting resource
With curated Instagram teasers and a site that offers a deeper dive into dozens of BFA and MFA programs, the platform is a jumping off point for hundreds of young artists. And for Wang and Morehead, it’s meant taking more than their art with them as they move from college into the world.
“I feel like the main takeaway is a general sense of urgency,” Morehead said “It takes some work, but it’s easier than you think to make something happen. Somebody has to take that step. That’s something I’m definitely taking away from this: do the things that you want to see and they can happen.”
As COVID shutdowns move into a third month, artists and performers around the country are finding new virtual outlets and audiences. And Nakadate says she’s found a model worth preserving in a platform that started as a stand-in. She says she’ll keep the current site up for at least a year and plans to continue the project for future classes.
“I’ve had a lot of people from other institutions reach out to me and thank me and say, ‘We should have done this years ago.’” Nakadate said. “What this platform has allowed us is connection among arts programs in America and Canada…It’s especially meaningful during a pandemic, of course. But the feelings we have of supporting one another are real, and I can’t imagine that they’ll disappear when the pandemic ends.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.