MFA Coordinators Bringing Diverse Conversations through Visiting Artists Program

For the two years, Claudia Valenti (MFA ’20) is studying at PAFA for her MFA, she is making the most of her time.

“I was working in a grocery store before this so when I got here so I wanted to take advantage of everything here.”

Valenti moved to Philadelphia from Seattle to study at the Academy and dove headfirst into PAFA’s offerings. She’s taken a clay relief workshop with Kyle Staver, recently completed a two-week residency in Washington with Jan Baltzell, and taught in the After School Studio Arts Program for High School Students.

“I took the students straight to Cast Hall; it is amazing for 17 year olds to be able to see these things,” Valenti said. “Cast Hall is part of the reason why I came to PAFA. I came from a super traditional background and I saw pictures of Cast Hall and knew I had to be here.”

With a background in traditional figurative painting, Valenti has been able to use her technical expertise to tell stories in her now more contemporary work. She focuses on the idea of personal myths, memory, and emotional exploration.

The work is deeply personal to her but painting professor Scott Noel provided some perspective during a studio critique.

“I told Scott I was working from problems with my family and the best thing he said to me was, ‘Join the club’.”

Critiques with PAFA professors and visiting artists like Mark Thomas Gibson and Haley Josephs pushed Valenti to get even more involved with PAFA. Valenti, along with fellow MFA students Autumn Casey and Sarah Treharne are coordinating the 2019-2020 Visiting Artist Program.

The student-run program brings an outstanding roster of local, national and international artists to PAFA each semester for lectures, critiques, and workshops. The program exposes students and the public to a range of artistic approaches and fosters discussion about contemporary art and ideas.

Previous visiting artist speakers include Amy Sherald, Paul Anthony Smith, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

“Visiting artists like Haley Josephs have come into my studio and I lost my mind. It was such an incredible experience; you get a total random chance to meet an artist you’ve been following for years,” Valenti said. “Usually these programs are not run by students, so it’s really exciting to be able to have that agency in school.”

Visiting Artist Program Coordinators ask students each year who they’d like to have visit and then they coordinate with artists to set up more than a dozen lectures each year. Visiting artists give a free lecture open to the public in the Rhoden Arts Center and spend the day giving one-on-one studio critiques with students.

As a coordinator, Valenti meets with all of the Visiting Artists, but she also goes out of her way to make sure her fellow students are taking advantage of the program too. She tells students that being busy isn’t an excuse for missing artist talks and not signing up for critiques.

“We are bringing in newcomers who are just starting their stride and are now becoming well-known and then you have that connection with this artist who’s going to be someone like Kara Walker in 5 years,” she said.

The artists who participate in the Visiting Artist Program might become the next big thing in the art world, but Valenti is more focused on the impact the visiting artists have on students today.

She and the other coordinators aim to bring in artists that reflect PAFA’s diverse student body and various media and techniques being used. This year’s Visiting Artist Program roster includes Kay Healy, Tammy Nguyen, Danny Ferrell, and Alex Da Corte.

“I am a very fortunate person. I am a white woman who is a technical painter. I get to see myself in many of the artists at PAFA and I benefit from that,” Valenti said. “You have people of color, a huge diverse group of people here, who are diverse in their technique as well, and I wanted to make sure that we had at least one artist that somebody could see themselves in.”

Claudia Valenti (MFA '20) works in her studio
Claudia Valenti (MFA '20) works in her studio

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the United States’ first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers a world-class collection of American art, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and educational opportunities in the fine arts. The PAFA Museum aims to tell America's diverse story through art, expanding who has been included in the canon of art history through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, while classes educate artists and appreciators with a deep understanding of traditions and the ability to challenge conventions. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.