Organization Spotlight | Visual Arts

The Next Level: Student Run Youth Gallery Receives Sorenson Award

Salt Lake City artist Chauncey Secrist with students in the ARTcetera gallery

For most K-12 art students, having your school project proudly displayed on the kitchen fridge is the modern equivalent of the French Salon. However, thanks to the combined efforts of local art students, a community of generous organizations, and one very ambitious art educator there is an exhibition space solely dedicated to the work of Utah’s young artists that rivals your mother’s Frigidaire.

Established in 2017, ARTcetera — a gallery located on the upper level of the Provo Towne Centre — is now being recognized as one of the best models of artistic learning in the country. It is a student-run, student-focused organization primarily committed to representing K-12 student artists and facilitating collaborative educational experiences. Recently rewarded the prestigious Sorenson Legacy Award for Excellence in Arts Education, the space has hosted a myriad shows and implemented programs over the past two years of its existence.

James Rees, Vice President for the National Art Education Association (Pacific Region) and art educator at Provo High School, has always tried to give his students opportunities to exhibit in the local community. Prior to the gallery’s formation, Rees put together exhibitions in all types of venues throughout Provo City, which did not go unnoticed. The owners of Provo Towne Centre approached him in 2017 and extended an invitation for a permanent display space for his student’s work. “They’ve been extremely supportive of this project and it’s been a wonderful partnership,” James said. “They’d seen a number of exhibits by my students in the community at the Enlitened Cafe, Covey Center for the Arts, The Woodbury Museum of Art, and felt that my students and I could take things to the next level.”

And this is exactly what they have done. The gallery cycles through a rotation of five to six main exhibits each year and hosts artist lectures on a monthly basis. The space has also expanded its function to include in house workshops, Art21 screenings, and performances by WHoop Dee Do — a local group specializing in performance art and installation. Beyond just being a place to display the works of students and Utah school alumni, ARTcetera’s mission encourages students to participate at each phase of the exhibition process. This is something that Rees has felt strongly about from the beginning:

“Something I’ve always been committed to is the need for students to learn how to present their artwork and display it. Having students learn to curate exhibits is also something of interest to me. Students are engaged in various ways and stages of each exhibit. Some students work in teams to propose exhibit ideas, others participate in the framing, curation and hanging of shows. It really depends on the students, the timing and opportunities presented. We’ve worked with other schools, of all age groups, and also professional artists in coming up with ideas. Some of the staff from the Springville Museum of art have directed and guided my students in learning how to curate and present exhibits. I’ve seen how they are critically engaged in looking at the shows that we visit, often with the curator of the museum and they are asking really relevant questions about decisions that the museum made in the artworks presentation — lighting, juxtaposition, and even wall color.”

This is part of a larger vision that Rees has for his students. In addition to mentoring youth about how to do art, he seeks to further help young artists appreciate the significance of what art can do:

“An important part of my role as a teacher is to help students see the relevance of what we do in class and how it ties to their lives outside of the classroom. Making significant connections is important, and seeing one’s relevance within the vast array of the visual culture in which we live is essential. While I instruct students about the histories, theories, aesthetics, and techniques of art, I provide students with something equally valuable; how to think and become critically engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. It is often too easy to get entangled in the technique, the how, instead of the why and what of art. I want to engage students on a personal level and have them confront their own thinking through art.”

The holistic art education experience that Rees and others involved with ARTcetera provide is not only unique to Utah; it is the only one of its kind in the United States. According to Jean Tokuda Irwin, arts education program manager and accessibility coordinator for the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts, it is completely original in its philosophy and opportunity. Irwin endorsed the gallery as “an exceptional model for Utah school districts and in the area of arts education,” and knows of “no other such model in the west or even elsewhere in the country.”

This is quite an achievement, especially considering that the gallery is without precedent. However, it has not been without its challenges. For Rees personally, it has been difficult to find the time to keep things running while balancing a full-time teaching load and maintaining his own studio practice. As far as the gallery is concerned, there have also been challenges with communicating to the public the mission and what the ARTcetera team is trying to accomplish with the space. Thankfully there has been a tremendous amount of support for the initiative from the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, Provo Towne Centre, BYU Art Partnership, and the Provo School District.

With the continued support of local organizations, it is likely that the gallery could last and the concept could catch on in other communities. According to Rees, the project runs on a one-year-at-a-time approach. “We’re continually looking for extended partnerships with arts organizations in the community, state and beyond,” he says. “Where it will go is largely dependent upon continued support and adding additional people who want to collaborate, contribute, or even just use the space for their arts events.” With the continued efforts of dedicated educators, passionate students, and the generosity of the community, ARTcetera will hopefully remain an important site of creativity, discussion, and exploration for years to come.

A video created by James Rees in 2017 about the project

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