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My part in this story begins in January 2019. That is when I first met the folks from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County. Hugh McLean, vice president of operations, and Pepe Caudillo, Brentwood Club director, met with our team here at the Museum. They told us about their annual art competitions around the nation that culminate in their National Fine Arts Exhibit and ImageMakers National Photography Contest. During our conversation, we knew a great partnership was in the works, and we committed to installing the Southeast Regional winning artworks at the Museum. There was going to be the exhibition, events were planned around the exhibition, and we were all excited. Then came March 2020 and the coronavirus. Everything stopped … everything except our excitement about a partnership.
Fast forward to July 2020. I received an email from the Boys and Girls Club. It was a call for judges for the regional competition. This was great news in that life was still moving forward, if just a little differently.
I grabbed my mask and hand sanitizer and hit the road. In the gymnasium of The Club Teen Center, a Boys and Girls Club facility in Raleigh, were rows of artwork filling the entire basketball court. Some 650 pieces were laid out on rows of black plastic on the floor. Also, on the floor were blue taped arrows directing us down one row and around to the next like grocery store aisles.
The artworks, grouped by age and categories, included watercolor, pastels, oil and acrylic paint, printmaking, collage, mixed media, colored pencil, monochromatic and group project, as well as photography. The sizes ranged from 5 x 7 to as large as 22 x 28 inches. “Wow, this is a lot of art,” I thought. “I’m going to be here awhile.” This sea of artwork represented the efforts of so many young people and so many Boys and Girls Club programs.
The judging process was well organized. Each of us received a sheet with the groupings listed and blocks to check with a first, second and third selection. Each artwork was coded with a colored dot and number. No artist names or neighborhood affiliations were seen.
When I judge artwork, I try to include concepts beyond the “I just love it” impulse. Subject matter, technical proficiency, and composition are parts of my thought process. Still, I am sure we all came away with a favorite in mind. I spent about two hours walking back and forth through the rows, looking, thinking, wondering which artwork belonged to the next Rembrandt.
After the Boys and Girls Club staff tallied the results, the winners were transported to the Museum, where each work was photographed by our in-house photographers. We can still have an exhibition! It is online. Not only does our partnership live on, but also the celebration of these young artists.
It is so important for young people to have access to art and art making. Without young artists there would be no midcareer artists—or Old Masters, even. Often, I work with midcareer artists. They have been around the commercial gallery scene, and when they arrive here, it is their first museum exhibition. It’s part of a continuum; these young artists are on their way.
When I design student exhibitions to be installed in our Education gallery, part of my design is to give the students’ artwork the same look and feel and graphics treatment as any other gallery installation. Young or old, from commercial galleries, other museums or community organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, working with artists and creating exhibitions is what I do, and I like it.
Kathryn Briggs is an exhibition designer at the NCMA.