Students curate exhibit for Spanish School’s centennial

With a freshly painted yellow wall and mounted artworks, Middlebury College’s Center Gallery, likely more commonly seen as a hallway, has been transformed into an elegant art exhibition curated by student interns at the College Museum of Art. On Aug. 3, the space was filled with lively Spanish music and animated conversations, as the exhibit “From Madrid to Midd: Zarzuelas at the Spanish School” officially opened.
In celebration of the centennial of Middlebury’s summer Spanish School, the exhibit tells the significance of theater productions at the school, showcasing paintings by Alfredo Ramón, who taught at Spanish School between 1972 and 2001. The Spanish professional artist spent almost 30 summers at the college, creating numerous posters, set and costume designs for the theatrical performances while teaching art history.
All of the pieces presented were painted for zarzuelas, which are “short, lighthearted musicals that originated in a palace near Madrid,” according to the bilingual exhibit labels. Dating back to the 17th century, zarzuelas made their way to Middlebury in 1921, when students and faculty put on La revoltosa (The Troublemaker). The popular production was staged again in 1977 and 1997, and Ramón’s painted posters for them now hang on the yellow wall, which resonates and highlights Ramón’s vibrant use of colors.
The seven student interns of the MuseumWorks program collaborated on the entire curatorial process of the exhibit.
“We were trying to show how zarzuelas affect active learning in the Spanish School, and how they are part of the culture at the summer language school,” said rising junior of the Feb class Elaine Velie, an art history and Russian double major and one of the interns. “We also really wanted to showcase the artist, because he had a big impact on the zarzuelas.”
On each of the other two opposite walls are not only posters, but also Ramón’s set and costume designs for the two particular productions. The beautiful watercolors offer a glimpse into the professionality of the zarzuelas carried out at the Spanish School, and Ramón’s dedication to them, along other members of the school.
For rising junior Cindy Xu, an art history and math double major, zarzuela is something “very Spanish” that has set in and taken another role in Middlebury. As a former Spanish School student and a participant in last summer’s Spanish theater production, Xu finds the story of zarzuelas in the pre-digital times fascinating, perhaps more so than her personal experience.
From doing archival research, she learned that the school’s theater productions before around 2000 were very important and professional, but things changed a little with the older professors gone. “The zarzuelas used to be a lot fancier,” she said. “Now we tend to do one theater production each summer, with a lot of singing and dancing in them, but they are not exactly zarzuelas.”
At the center of the exhibition is a life-size painted stage background used for Spanish School’s theater productions, depicting the street view of Madrid. The curatorial team borrowed the piece from the theater department for the exhibit opening, because the artwork needs storage conditions not available at the gallery space. The piece is also unique as it shows what Ramón was especially known for — paintings of landscapes and streets — besides the other more character-oriented designs.
Part of the interns’ research was an interview with Professor Roberto Véguez, Associate Director for Non-Academic Affairs at the Spanish School. Having also spent many summers here, Véguez had worked closely with Ramón on the productions, and offered valuable personal memories.
During the opening remarks, Véguez showed a photo of Ramón, naked above the waist, painting a set design. “He would be painting … and of course sipping from his gin, and just having a great time,” Véguez said.
Given Ramón’s deep influence on the Spanish School theater scene, the idea of the exhibit was brought to the College Museum by faculty of the Language Schools. According to Jason Vrooman, curator of education and academics outreach, the show was created “as much for Spanish School as for the museum.”
As a former intern himself at the College Museum of Art in 2001, Vrooman sees great value in MuseumWorks, which was started in 2015 when the College “wanted to have an enhanced internship program that would offer professional development and practical experience.”
The interns met every Monday to curate the exhibit, and worked on their own projects for the rest of the week, either at the College Museum or at a local institution, including the Henry Sheldon Museum and Vermont Folklife Center.
“We are all small institutions,” Vrooman said. “So it’s a really wonderful benefit to have additional help from motivated students, and we are helping them think about next steps.” An important part of the program was also to learn about how to connect people in the community.
The exhibition will stay on at least through at least part of the fall 2017 semester at Middlebury College, when students of academic years can learn about what goes on at the College during the summers.
“It’s a different culture here altogether,” said Emmie Donadio, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum. Donadio, like all other participants, is pleased with how the exhibit turned out. She noted that the space has not been a gallery for too long, and although it is now dedicated to exhibits, “it doesn’t usually look like a gallery.”
Yvette Shi is a rising junior at Middlebury College and an intern at The Addison Independent.

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