Monica Johnson is the curator of the annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Exhibition.
Close Caption
Photo by Butcher Walsh
Monica Johnson
Close Caption
Photo by Courtney Buckland
The team of art handlers unpacks hundreds of boxes of artworks.
Close Caption
Photo by Monica Johnson
Johnson says that the installation process is collaborative and immersive.
Close Caption
Photo by Monica Johnson
Designing an Exhibition
Monica Johnson talks about curating the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards’ annual national exhibition

Amanda DeNatale | for Scholastic Art

SCHOLASTIC ART: How would you describe your job?

MONICA JOHNSON: I’m the Director of Exhibitions for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.* This type of job varies depending on the organization, and I can safely say that there are no other organizations like the Art & Writing Awards. I can’t think of another program that presents an exhibition of this magnitude on an annual basis—600 works that effectively represent the best of teen artwork from across the country. We exhibit award-winning student artwork at New York City’s Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

SA: How do you go about curating the show?

MJ: I start by looking at tons of artworks. I pull jpegs of all the works and print them in color. Then I cut them out individually with scissors, lay them out all over the table, and begin to look for patterns. I do a significant portion of my design layout in front of a computer, but I do it knowing that when I get to the site, there are going to be things that don’t match up. Seeing artworks in the physical space changes your perception of them. I interpret the works and then make sure they’re presented in such a way that people can engage with them without feeling overwhelmed by the volume of the exhibition. My curatorial responsibilities involve understanding the works, understanding the connections between works, and then installing them.

SA: How do you curate an exhibition that includes such a wide range of media?

MJ: I think about patterning—how things work as patterns. Yes, the artworks are functionally different from one another—for example, I may need a dress form to display a jacket design, a table for a three-dimensional object, and a wall for a hung piece. But my role is to position artworks within a space so that there’s continuity among the media, which means I have to see them as equal to one another. As the viewer engages with the artworks throughout the exhibition, his or her brain shouldn’t have to reset to look at each individual piece. There needs to be enough of a relationship between the artworks that they begin to function like a chorus.

SA: Do you notice recurring subject matter or styles in students’ work from year to year?

MJ: The themes ebb and flow from year to year. Masking, or covering up faces, in portraiture is a particularly consistent theme—I guess, because for teenagers, there’s a lot of emphasis on identity, whether you’re developing your self-identity or reacting to the expectation to choose an identity. This year I saw the erasure of the face in more gestural ways than before. In many of the works, there’s a scratching away at the face or the figure. I’ve also seen a lot of presentations of body positivity.

SA: What's your favorite part of curating the exhibition?

MJ: The part I enjoy most is installing the exhibition. All the planning is done, and there’s no more time to worry—it actually just has to happen. It all comes down to a certain number of days with the eight or nine people I’m working alongside, and we have to make this show look amazing. We put the tools out, we look at the artworks, we have conversations about them, and we make final decisions about how we’ll exhibit them. It’s really immersive. Some of the crew is seeing the works for the first time, which gives those of us who are familiar with them a chance to see them with fresh eyes. It’s a lot of hard work. But everyone enjoys it, so it’s also very harmonious.

SA: Do you have any advice for aspiring young artists?

MJ: Keep your day job. A day job is not a signifier of a failed artist or writer. It’s a great way to support your creative life. But it depends on who you are and how you work. Everyone is different. The trick is to find balance.

*The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards identify students with exceptional artistic and literary talent. Through the Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. Students across America submitted 330,000 original works during the 2017 program year across 29 different categories of art and writing. The 2018 Scholastic Awards will open on September 13, 2017. For more information about how to participate, please visit