As Student Curator of the Artists in Residence program, Katie Aretakis is making art accessible to everyone
Zoe Nicholson, Honors multimedia journalism ‘19
Honors junior Katie Aretakis never set out to be an art curator. She did, however, set out to be a history major with a concentration in Jewish Studies. She’s known ever since the fifth grade, when she first read the Holocaust memoir “Night” by Elie Wiesel, that Jewish Studies was her calling.
“I didn’t sleep for three days because I was so horrified,” the Long Island native recalls of the first time she read Wiesel’s book about his time in concentration camps as a child during World War II. “I didn’t understand how you go through something like that and still come out on the other side.”
Aretakis expresses the same empathy in her role as Student Curator for the Honors College’s Artists in Residence Program. She is interested in more than just the final product, she is invested in the journey.
“We want them to grow as artists,” she says, “not just create pieces for a show.”
The student curator also wants to broaden the AIR Program’s horizons. Stated simply, she wants the entire Honors student body to embrace their artistic sides.
Waking up to art history
When Aretakis was approached about the AIR Student Curator position last spring, she wasn’t even sure what that meant, let alone how she would approach her tenure.
She did know she loved art history. Her interests were ignited in her senior year of high school, when a passionate teacher introduced her to the worlds of Botticelli and Surrealism.
So, when Ali Mathwig, the program’s new co-coordinator and Honors academic advisor, asked her if she’d consider applying for the position of student curator, Aretakis agreed.
A new direction
This year marks a “fresh start” for the program, Aretakis says. She is seeking a broader focus, wanting to “make art a part of the Honors College in a way that it hasn’t been before.”
The AIR Program is expanding to reach the entire Honors College student body, not just the nine artists in the program. The expansion will provide an equity Aretakis believes will not only be conducive to the skills liberal arts majors develop, but enhance the Honors student body’s entire collegiate experience as well.
“We want to focus on things that are conducive to creating a good academic environment and not just studying all the time,” she says.
How to do that? By re-engineering the program. Instead of focusing on the artists, all non-arts majors, and their exhibition projects, the AIR program has been restructured with a longer-lasting goal in mind, says Anna Redwine, Honors adviser and AIR co-coordinator. Redwine, Mathwig, and Aretakis want the artists to develop skills traditionally taught in a liberal arts curriculum.
“We’re losing some of the traditional opportunities for students to learn how to be associative thinkers, empathetic problem-solvers and natural innovators,” Redwine says.
As Aretakis puts it, “we all have a vested interest in pushing the boundaries of what the artists consider safe.”
The changes were “touch and go” at first, Aretakis reports, but the feedback and interest from other honors students is heartening.
Aretakis wants to expand the idea of artistic expression, especially when it comes to creating an outlet for the stresses brought on by rigorous course loads and hefty finals.
New initiatives include ticket giveaways to USC and Columbia-area cultural events, like Longstreet Theatre’s Shakespeare in Love fall production. During finals week, Aretakis plans to bring a few resident artists to help with artistic study breaks, like experimenting with materials and discussing the creative process.
Curating relationships, coming South
The artists, who will help lead a few of the activities Aretakis is planning for the Honors student body, are reaping the benefits of their curator’s thoughtful guidance. Redwine credits Aretakis with providing insightful feedback in a way that’s typical of her ability to connect. Redwine, an artist, says Aretakis’ close involvement will help her succeed as a leader and counselor in the program.
Aretakis applies the same work ethic as a student and researcher. But it was something a little less scholarly that drew the New Yorker to Columbia:
“Honestly, the weather,” she admits.
Aretakis wanted to attend a college somewhere in the South to escape winters, but it was the Honors College that drew her to USC. “It’s an incredible way to have the small school environment that is so conducive to great academic programs ... within the larger realm of this big public university.”
One thing she’d change about the Honors College is the many hours of work. She wants the AIR program to offer a respite while connecting Honors students with the art she loves.
Aretakis knows all about that work. A founding member of USC’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta—a historical society and fraternity—she also belongs to the Carolina Film and TV Club, College Democrats and the USC Women’s Choir.
How about a break?
Aretakis bursts into laughter, and then admits: “I’d combust.”