‘Artists have a way of expressing the complexity of a situation’

A conversation with DVAC executive director Eva Buttacavoli about “Breathing Deeply, Pushing Back.”

Q: Generally describe what people will experience when they visit the gallery.

Buttacavoli: Well, the exhibition is in three parts, really. The first part was a series of hanging panels depicting graphic black-and-white silhouettes of what the STEM students learned from their studies of racial and gender inequities during their studies. Thirteen panels depict student interpretations of racial or gender situations and their response in essay form. The second part is three large installations by three nationally known artists who work in the social justice arena and the components of the installation either respond to or are inspired by the students' works and experiences. For the third component, the curator selected 20 works from submissions from the local community of artists also responding to the idea of the artist as activist, or art bringing to light social justice issues.

Q: What made you want to do this?

Buttacavoli: So, I believe that as a comtemporary arts center, we should always remain open and responsive to things happening in our community and around the world, and even though we schedule exhibitions sometimes two years out, we always leave open options to respond to current events in our community. When I found the student artwork was removed from the Convention Center due to some complaints, I immediately realized this would be the beginning of a great conversation about how art can open up a dialogue about controversy. I reached out to Jenny Montgomery, the art teacher at the STEM school, and said we would love to show the student work and invite other artists to respond.

Q: Any notable reactions?

Buttacavoli: Nothing controversial. Two things – I think we did a good job building support before the exhibition. We did an open house with the students, parents and faculty at the STEM school to explain why we thought this was important as part of a bigger issue, and we reached out to the organizations that work in social justice locally, such as the NAACP and the National Conference of Community and Justice. Interestingly, the most surprsing reactions were from the parents – they were equally excited about seeing their childrens' artwork in a contemporary gallery and it being the thing the other artists responded to — but in the larger arena, it also made them slightly anxious.

Q: Is that why you decided to not mention the specific names of the student artists anywhere in the exhibition or the gallery materials?

Buttacavoli: Along with the faculty and administration of the STEM school, we decided to identify the students by initials only – our foremost concern was not to exploit their experience, but point out that they were censored, after all.

Q: What would you like visitors to take away from the show?

Buttacavoli: I think that the arts can be an imiportant catalyst to conversation about hwat is happening in our world, whether it is pleasant or celebratory. Artists have a way of expressing the complexity of a situation in ways sometimes words fail.

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