Blaffer's Brouhaha

Angry UH art students overturn a Sultan's decree

When the ten students in the master's of fine arts program returned to the University of Houston after their winter break, they couldn't wait to complete their thesis projects. Sure, they were looking forward to getting their degrees. But more than that, they were eager to prepare their artwork for display in the university-affiliated Blaffer Gallery on campus.

After all, the Blaffer had an unofficial, 20-plus-year tradition of exhibiting works by master's students. Opening night of the grad-student show was always a big bash, with friends and family in attendance. It was the capstone of the students' academic careers.

"This show is what we do instead of going to graduation," says Jane Shaver, interior design master's candidate. "It is what we have worked toward for three years."

Shaver led the uprising to get students in on the ground floor.
Deron Neblett
Shaver led the uprising to get students in on the ground floor.

In mid-January, the students received notices in their mailboxes from their graduate student adviser and the director of graduate studies. Yes, they were told, new Blaffer gallery director Terrie Sultan had scheduled their works for the traditional May showing, but in the small second-level viewing area. For the first time in recent memory, students had been bumped from the main exhibition space on the first floor. Instead, Sultan would be showing off the works of Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn there.

The students were livid, according to Shaver, unofficial spokesperson for the group. "We are being marginalized and disenfranchised," she says. While the Blaffer regularly has exhibitions featuring outside artists, the on-campus gallery has long been considered the prime showplace for UH student talent.

The protesters fired off an impromptu petition asking that the grad students' exhibit be immediately reinstated "to its rightful, logical and promised location."

Shaver says the students, with the support of faculty, had several problems with the proposal. The space for the show would be cut nearly in half. The upstairs level has lower ceilings and fewer uninterrupted walls, making it inadequate for showing ten students' work. And Sultan had assumed she would select the pieces to be displayed. Students and faculty traditionally choose the art to be displayed, with the curator serving as an adviser on only its presentation.

But what troubled the students and faculty the most was that nobody told them until mid-January about the new plans.

"There was little to no communication," says Shaver, who believes Sultan made her decision months before the students were informed. "We have had no voice."

Sultan, former curator for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., says the trouble stemmed from good intentions that were misunderstood.

By scheduling an international artist such as Dittborn, Sultan could increase the attendance and scope of the gallery, something the Blaffer advisory board had hired her to do, she says. Also, by maintaining the thesis exhibition upstairs, Sultan could avoid having to close the gallery for several weeks while the Dittborn show was moved out and the graduate students' work was set up.

"I was just trying to find a solution based on my experience as a museum professional," she says.

Russell Duesterhoft, chair of the advisory board, argues that bringing in an artist like Dittborn can only increase attendance as well for the upstairs student show. "People look in the newspaper and see it is a student show or the master's show, and they may not consider coming," says Duesterhoft, who was one of those UH art students before his graduation.

Sultan admits to not being familiar with the academic calendar or the significance of the show's tradition.

"It's a great big jigsaw puzzle when you're trying to put together a schedule," says Sultan. "The students had already left [for winter break] by the time I was ready."

Surprised by the "vehemence" of the opposition, Sultan quickly proposed keeping their exhibition upstairs but allowing each student to have a weeklong solo show in a small classroom downstairs. The students rejected the offer the next day in a 9-1 vote.

"The power of the show is that we show together," says Shaver, adding that the classroom space would be too small. They also objected to having one curator for the diversity of artwork.

Last Wednesday, liberal arts and social sciences dean W. Andrew Achenbaum called a final meeting to try to force the sides together to break the impasse. While there were some pissed-off participants, "there were no refreshments, no potty breaks," he says. "There was some levity, some sarcasm. It wasn't the late '60s at all. These were really professionals."

After more than two hours of heated discussion, Sultan decided she would end the Dittborn exhibit two weeks early, freeing the main space for student exhibits beginning May 11.

Sultan "had been put through the wringer, and I hope the students and faculty understand it was a very tough call for her to make," says Duesterhoft, adding that he feels the new director was "brutalized" in the process.

Students accepted the plan, although no promises were made for future master's candidates.

"Almost immediately I began to think of my friends next year, and that's of grave concern," says Shaver. "We are satisfied. But there is a distinction between satisfied and happy. We find no deep glee over this."

 
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