Block Museum Student Associates impact Northwestern’s art community with expanded roles and responsibilities


Photo courtesy of The Block Museum and Sean Su

Block Museum Student Associates receiving training in early October. This year’s cohort consists of 20 students, the largest number the program has ever seen.

Cassandra Ratkevich, Reporter

Before the last academic year, the Block Museum Student Associates, then known as student docents, had few responsibilities and roles at the museum. 

Now, the associates lead tours, facilitate public conversations, act as student advisors to museum staff and participate in a year-long acquisition project. 

Erin Northington, the Susan and Stephen Wilson associate director of campus and community education and engagement at the Block, helped revamp the role of student associates. She said the current cohort of 20 students is the largest the museum has ever had. 

“When I arrived at the Block in 2020, I had the great fortune of having such a strong foundation to build on,” Northington said. “I wanted to think about how we could take the strengths of the current docents program and build on that.”

In 2020, the docents’ main tasks were to facilitate museum learning experiences and lead tours. Northington said the program has had about a 75% increase in applications since expanding the responsibilities.

Weinberg senior Katy Kim was one of these new applicants, joining the program last year. 

Kim now serves as the program and tour coordinator at the Block, scheduling all tours for outside groups and acting as a peer leader for the student associates. 

“I love the study of art,” Kim said. “I also am a practicing artist, and art has always been the biggest part of my life. I know professionally I want to continue to work in the art world, so that’s why it seemed like a natural progression of things.”

She said the group now undertakes personal and professional development related to learning about museum careers and also supports public tours, programs and events.

Although Kim herself is an art history major, she said most students come from different majors that might not be related to art at all.

Weinberg junior and student associate Bobby Yalam is studying comparative literary studies and economics. 

He said he applied to the associate program on a whim his freshman year after seeing it was a humanities-related opportunity.

“I went in with not many expectations,” Yalam said. “But it has been a great experience that’s kept me going.” 

Yalam said his favorite memory at the Block was when he and the 2021-2022 student associate cohort became the subjects of Chicago-based photographer Leonard Suryajaya’s artwork. 

Even though it was cold, he said he fondly remembers the day they shot the photo — even in cold weather. 

“We were out there for maybe 5 hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon,” Yalam said. “It was good bonding time.”

The artwork, a large-scale photograph titled “Perennial Blossom,” showcases 13 student associates, one Block staff member and Suryajaya’s sister and mother — who are all covered in flowers. The art is now part of the Block’s permanent collection. 

Northington said the student associates formed a connection with Suryajaya after choosing his photograph “Quarantine Blues” as their yearly student acquisition project.

“Our students follow exactly the same process (for acquiring an artwork) that our curators do,” Northington said. 

The acquisition begins with a team of student associates who first research artists and narrow them down to one. The associates then select a piece from the chosen artist and write an acquisition justification — a written formal report discussing the chosen artwork and its potential impact. 

They present the justification to an acquisition committee of Block staff members, which then must approve the work. The artwork that the cohort decides on is then displayed at Block beginning the following fall.

“As an academic art museum, really core to all of our acquisitions is thinking about how it would support Northwestern teaching and learning,” Northington said. 

Each year, the student associates focus on a different theme for their acquisition. Last year’s cohort chose a work by artist Michael Koerner to support the Earth theme.  

This year, Yalam, Kim and the other student associates are working to acquire a work with a theme of gender. Northington said she is excited to watch the associates take on this new acquisition and is confident in their collaborative abilities. 

“The students are a community that cares deeply about each other, that can engage respectfully and meaningfully across lines of difference,” Northington said. 

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Twitter: @cassandraratke1

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