In the Loop
Student Stories : Apr 9, 2024

UF Art History grad students co-curate ‘Surrealism at the Harn: A Centennial Celebration’

'Surrealism at the Harn: A Centennial Celebration' (December 9, 2023 – June 2, 2024) is co-curated by Rachel Silveri, (Assistant Professor, Art History) and a team of seven graduate students studying Modern Art at the University of Florida School of Art + Art History.

By Jessi Smith

Picture it: it’s spring 2023 and you’ve just accepted your admission to the Art History graduate program at the University of Florida. In May, an intriguing plot twist occurs before you’ve even started your first semester of coursework, when your faculty advisor invites you to co-curate an exhibition spanning a century of Surrealism at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
Say yes? Of course, you say yes—and hit the ground running on a team of seven doctoral and master's degree candidates at the UF School of Art and Art History (SAAH) getting hands-on experience at every stage of the curatorial process for a centerpiece exhibition at the Harn. 
Fast-forward one year to spring 2024. Your exhibition, Surrealism at the Harn: A Centennial Celebration, is listed in the New York Times alongside arts institutions across the globe celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Surrealist movement, from Paris to Munich to Shanghai.  
Harn Museum, SAAH prepare for Surrealism centennial 
Rachel Silveri, PhD joined UF College of the Arts in 2018 as an assistant professor of art history. Her research focuses on French modernism and the avant-garde, traversing the early 20th century art movements of Dada, Simultanism, and Surrealism. 
“One of the things that attracts me to Surrealism is that it is a movement that says ‘your desires matter and your imagination matters’ …  and even though the movement was founded by a group of heterosexual, white, European men, that initial promise of Surrealism attracted women to the movement. It attracted queer people to the movement. It attracted people of color and those working in oppressive colonial and post-colonial conditions,” Silveri says.  
“During my own PhD training, I had only been exposed to Surrealism in Paris, when, truly, there is so much exciting and new scholarship that has been tracking the spread of the Surrealist movement around the world. I knew that when I arrived at UF, I wanted to teach the transnational dialogues of this avant-garde—and so, I developed a class called Global Surrealisms.” 

Eric Segal, Harn Director of Education and Curator of Academic Programs, invited Silveri’s inaugural Global Surrealisms class to the museum in fall 2018. 
“The Harn has in its collection a suite of lithographs by Salvador Dalí—playing card designs—and in that first class that I brought to the Harn, the museum staff took out all eight of them for us to study,” Silveri recalls.   

“Seeing the students’ excitement in that viewing, learning how much Surrealist art was in the collection, having so much fun teaching that first Global Surrealisms class... That was when I knew that, eventually, in 2024, when there would be a global celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Surrealist movement, I wanted to go all out and organize something for us in Gainesville.” 
When Silveri prepared an exhibition proposal in 2023, she envisioned a small-scale show—“like, 12 works on two walls,” she says—in a satellite wing of the gallery. But when she submitted the proposal, Harn Director Lee Anne Chesterfield offered museum support for a full-scale exhibition that would ultimately span two galleries and include more than 40 works from the Harn’s collection. 
“That was a moment where it was like, ‘oh, this gets to be a real show and we get to make real curatorial decisions!’ That was exciting. But it also meant there was suddenly a lot of work to do,” Silveri says.  
“So, in May 2023, I brought together my seven graduate students. They’re within three years of each other at the master's and doctoral level—some currently working on their dissertation; others had just entered coursework. I said to them, ‘listen, I'm going to do this show. Do you want to work on it with me as co-curators? Not curatorial assistants, not assistant curators, but co-curators. We’ll build the checklist together. We’ll handle all aspects of the exhibition together—the planning, working with registration, designing the installation—all of it.’” 
Six months to develop an exhibition covering one hundred years of Surrealism? Silveri’s Modernist Art grad students Anna Dobbins, Laura Hodges, Leah Lester, Claude Mohr, Damon Reed, Savannah Tew and Allison Westerfield responded, “challenge accepted”—and then, they went bigger than she imagined.  
Silveri, Westerfield and Reed sat down with In the Loop to share the details. 
Exquisite exhibition planning: ‘Kill your darlings’ but kill them collaboratively 
Building on a parlour game called ‘consequences,’ the original Surrealist artists and poets developed a collaborative artmaking technique in the years following World War I, exquisite corpse, in which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled on folded paper; each collaborator seeing only their own contribution until the end when the paper was unfolded to reveal the full ‘exquisite corpse.’ 

Unlike participants playing a game of exquisite corpse, the eight collaborators (Silveri included) planning Surrealism at the Harn had the benefit of reviewing and critiquing their colleagues’ curatorial wish lists throughout the full planning process. But, just as each participant in the Surrealist parlour game adds their singular sui generis that will eventually come together in an exquisitely fantastical final product: each curator brought to the table their own vision for the exhibition, and the group was tasked to reconcile each vision into one, cohesive final product. 
In the case of Surrealism at the Harn, the SAAH curatorial team started with a list of approximately 170 artworks Silveri identified in the Harn collection that could fit into a Surrealist show. The list would need to be cut in half. Twice. 
“We knew the core Surrealists would be featured—including the suite of Dalí playing cards—but the fun of curating was deciding what mid-century and contemporary 21st century dialogues and resonances we could include,” says Silveri. 
Paring down the list to approximately 40 works was an undertaking first-year Art History PhD student and Surrealism at the Harn co-curator, Damon Reed, describes as a collaborative “kill your darlings” process. 
“We all visualized what the show could or couldn't be in different ways and we all have different critical stakes as scholars, but at the end of the day, there is only so much space to hang works on the wall,” Reed says.  
“I came into this project before I even began my PhD coursework, and I had never met my collaborators—so, at first, I asked myself, ‘should I share my opinions?’ But the way in which this group coalesced around the project and embraced one another, and their ideas, was beautiful. All the co-curators were so patient and dedicated to listening to one another's perspectives as well as critique and work through ideas in a productive and professional manner to make genuinely collective decisions. It was pretty amazing,” Reed notes. “Not to mention, it was very intellectually stimulating and engaging.” 
Artworks that made the cut include Surrealist staples by Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Max Ernst and their contemporaries working in or adjacent to Surrealism in geographies outside Europe and the U.S. such as Wifredo Lam, Rufino Tamayo, and Roberto Matta; 20th century artists who were in dialogue with the Surrealists despite not directly affiliating with the movement, like Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner and commercial photographer Horst P. Horst; as well as 21st century artists like Berlin-based South Korean artist, Haegue Yang, whose genre-defying works draw from or build upon the strategies of ‘capital S’ Surrealist movement predecessors. Works by UF College of Arts Professors Emeriti, sculptor Celeste Ann Roberge and photographer Jerry Uelsmann, are also featured in Surrealism at the Harn. 
After the selection was finalized and approved by Harn Chief Curator, Dulce Román, each SAAH co-curator wrote the text for the exhibition’s wall labels with editorial support from Silveri. The seven grad student co-curators also leaned into their individual areas of Modern Art scholarship to pen critical essays for an educational pamphlet that supplements the exhibition.  

“Dr. Silveri presented a wonderful opportunity for her graduate students,” says Allison Westerfield, third-year PhD candidate and Surrealism at the Harn co-curator, “and due to the large-scale nature of the exhibition we were each able to focus on a more limited selection of artworks and really dive in deep on the research for our respective pieces.” 
“Looking back on the process, I think that aligning our calendars may have actually been the biggest challenge because there are eight of us,” Westerfield says. “We worked through multiple semesters, starting in the summer and then through the fall—and everyone's schedules are constantly changing—so, there were many, many Zoom meetings, in-person meetings; we were always navigating what is the best ways to communicate.” 

Leveraging expertise and scaling up 

“There were instances where the students really did take control—and I needed them to, because I wouldn't have been able to do it without them,” Silveri says.  
She notes that the diversity of scholarly backgrounds and skill sets represented across the graduate student co-curatorial team were crucial to the project. By way of example, she references Westerfield’s professional background as an independent curator and as assistant director of Laney Contemporary in Savannah, Ga., prior to joining the PhD program at UF. 

“I've had a curatorial fellowship at MoMA and have written for various museum catalogues, and yet I don’t actually have the experience of hanging a work on a museum wall. But one of my students, Allison, does have that skill, and so I said to her, ‘I need you to be in the room with me when we're walking through and thinking about the installation,’ and it was really helpful to have her be a part of that process,” Silveri says.

Westerfield drafted the initial layout for the show using the 3D modeling program, Sketchup, and worked with fellow co-curator Claude Mohr to produce a Surrealist Film Night at the Hippodrome in February. Reed, who previously held a research-focused curatorial internship at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the project manager for the student-authored-and-published pamphlet. Other co-curators lent their skills to direct docent training for the exhibition, and two presented gallery talks at the Harn Art After Dark ‘Get (Sur)Real!’ Museum Night. 
“When I started thinking about all this in 2018, I knew that in 2024, for the 100-year anniversary of the Surrealism movement, I would reteach Global Surrealisms; hopefully do a small show at the Harn, and host a symposium dedicated to Surrealism,” Silveri says.  
“I had my own vision for the show, and I brought the students on, and we were in dialogue together throughout the entire process, but there were these amazing instances where we had an idea, and the students took it up themselves and made it happen—like with the Film Night. I did not speak to anyone at the Hippodrome Theater. Claude, who has a film background, selected all the Surrealist films and arranged the order in which they would be screened. Allison coordinated with the staff at the Hippodrome. I just showed up to a nearly standing-room-only screening.” 

“Throughout the process, she adds, “there have been all these moments of trust with this group—and some incredible outcomes.” 
Surrealism at 100: a moment of global resurgence? 
“There’s all sorts of new research coming out and, I think, a resurgence of interest in Surrealism is blossoming right now,” Westerfield notes.  
“I think it stems from wanting to challenge what Surrealism was in 1924, and to rethink the ways that we can take a movement that was, in many ways, very misogynist, and was led by a man who was homophobic—even though so many of the Surrealist artists were part of a queer community and making queer art … and, to ask: how can we, today, challenge the traditional tropes of Surrealism?  
The [Harn] exhibition tries to handle those themes. Electric Beauty [Horst P. Horst, 1939] really speaks to that. We also have women photographers who are looking at bodies in a queer way, and an ecologies section that I’m very interested in. Those are the things that really excite me about this exhibition,” Westerfield says. 
Surrealism at the Harn also seeks to highlight 20th century and present-day Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean artists, including Ethiopian-Armenian painter, Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian and Martiniquan Surrealist poet, Aimé Césaire. 

“For me,” Reed says, “it’s about striking a balance between the canonical, easily recognizable figures like Dalí and Magritte … while also thinking about geographic locations that are not always privileged in Western art museums, and asking: who are the figures people do not hear about as often but should be considered in dialogue with these other big players?”  
“I believe that everyone has their own unique set of experiences that are going to guide their interpretations of the works. But I hope that we've created an exhibition that captures their attention, makes them want to know more, and makes them feel empowered as museum visitors,” he adds.  

When she considers what it means to celebrate a full century of Surrealism, and even to look ahead into the next 100 years, Silveri says she consistently returns to the “promise that your desires matter; that the world you create matters” that has always drawn her to the movement. 
“In 2024, when people continue to find themselves in oppressive conditions, I wanted to share some of that energy and the initial promise of the movement—today, right now, in the Harn Museum galleries—for people to experience in this moment,” Silveri says. 
Surrealism at the Harn: A Centennial Celebration runs through June 2, 2024. Plan your visit today: