Auburn art students take the lead in museum’s “A Little Art Talk” programs

Student-led “A Little Art Talks” are on the Third Thursday of each month at 5 p.m.

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A program at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art provides an experience for Auburn’s art students that can translate to their professional careers. The program is "A Little Art Talk," held at 5 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month during the academic year, and is led by students in Kathryn Floyd’s "20th-century Art from 1945 to the Present" class.

Little Art Talks have also been staffed by students in Assistant Professor Emily Burns’ upper level art history classes. Enrolled in classes as myriad as 19th-century art, American Art, Constructing Race in Visual Culture or the Arts of Asia, Burns’ students have found an array of objects to analyze in the collections. At the beginning of the semester, the students have a class meeting to visit the museum to view objects relevant to the class; each student picks a piece to research and to present as an art talk to museum patrons.

"Working on Little Art Talks presentations gives students the experience of scholarly art history research by allowing them to work directly with works of art," Burns said. "They can consider aesthetics questions of style, materiality and scale that are difficult to convey from slides in the classroom. The experience allows students to take ownership over their project by picking an object, independently developing research and developing a presentation that combines visual analysis and research findings," Burns said.

By sharing their research project in an oral presentation not only with other students, but also with the community, Burns’ students participate in the museum mission of researching and interpreting its collections.

Shannon Bewley, scheduled to graduate in May is pursuing a double-bachelor’s degree in art history and fine art in studio art. In her presentation of William Wegman’s "Untitled (Puppies on the Rocks)" this semester for Floyd’s class, she said she hoped the audience walked away with a deeper understanding of the conceptual developments behind the six precious puppies.

"I almost walked past [the work]," she said. "From a distance the work first appears to be an abstract painting of dappled brown and grays. When I moved closer, the puppies materialized in a sea of stones." Bewley said the Weimaraners and artist’s trick charmed her and set off her research.

Working with Auburn Libraries InterLibrary Loan service, Bewley said she had the opportunity to study Wegmen books from across the nation—reading essays covering Wegman’s early conceptual videos and photographs and Polaroid pictures of Weimaraners posed in costumes. "‘Untitled (Puppies on the Rocks)’ stands outside the artist’s usual oeuvre, so examining the work against the standard Wegman essays was a difficult yet rewarding task," Bewley said. "His eclectic practice has produced fairly compartmentalized scholarship, so first I compiled every detail which could be possibly useful and then spent several days developing a logical chain before writing."

Madeline Burkhardt, a recent graduate from the Department of Art and Art History at Auburn University, is now adult education coordinator at the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University Montgomery while pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University. Burkhardt delivered three Little Art Talks during her time at Auburn and said she was grateful she had the opportunity.

"The talks helped me prepare for my future career in museums. Because of this opportunity, I had the chance to better explore the museum’s collection, get ‘up close and personal’ with my selected objects and make an impact in the community," Burkhardt said.

"The public presentations gave me the confidence to present my research papers at Auburn’s This is Research symposium and in front of 40 docents at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Also, Little Art Talks strengthened my CV and came up in both my professional and academic interviews."

Upcoming presentations on March 23 and April 20 include discussions of artists Diane Arbus, Roger Brown, Mose Tolliver, William Walmsley and Andrew Wyeth, among others. Live music, poetry readings and cafe service follow the presentations.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Selections from the permanent collection are on view, along with the traveling exhibition of Korean multimedia artist entitled "Jiha Moon: Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here." Admission is free; a five-dollar donation is suggested. For more information, call 334-844-1484 or visit

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“Little Art Talks strengthened my CV and came up in both my professional and academic interviews.”
—Madeline Burkhardt, Auburn alumna

“The experience allows students to take ownership over their project by picking an object, independently developing research and developing a presentation that combines visual analysis and research findings.”
—Emily Burns, assistant professor

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.