May 10, 2024

A Member of the First Visions Class is Now SMoCA Curator

Lauren R. O’Connell, a member of Scottsdale Arts’ first Visions cohort twenty-five years ago, now works as curator of contemporary art at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), the institution that birthed the Visions program.

A new exhibition featuring art by students in Scottsdale Arts’ Visions program is now on view at the Center Space gallery in Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. This year’s exhibition is particularly noteworthy as the program celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. 

For a quarter-century now, Visions has brought together advanced art students from high schools around the Valley to visit Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) and participate in hands-on workshops with professional artists. The workshops are designed to cultivate youth artistic skills, collaboration, and civic engagement. 

This year, the program included forty-two students. But to date, more than 1,000 students who represent economically, ethically, and culturally diverse communities have graduated from the program. 

Among those in the first Visions cohort was Lauren R. O’Connell. At the time she was a student at Chaparral High School. Twenty-five years later, she’s curator of contemporary art at SMoCA, the museum that birthed the Visions program during its first year. 

Like the current cohort of students, O’Connell also created an artwork for a year-end exhibition. It was an acrylic painting she describes as a “surreal, angsty teenager painting talking about loss of innocence, eye of the beholder—all that type of stuff.” 

The program was not as formalized in O’Connell’s time as it is now, but, like the current students, she worked on a variety of art projects throughout the year. Now, Visions is operated by Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation, which—like SMoCA—is part of the nonprofit Scottsdale Arts. 

And now it’s about much more than just making art. Students in the program regularly attend workshops and studio visits with national and Arizona-based artists, visit college and university art departments, and collaborate on communication workshops and diversity discussions. 

Although O’Connell decided not to pursue a career as an artist after her time in the Visions program, the trajectory of her professional path eventually led her back to Visions in a different context. 

After graduating from high school in 2000, the future curator went to the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she studied journalism for a time, minored in theatre, considered a path with geology, and eventually, in 2004, received a degree in classics with a specialty in Etruscan civilizations. This led to an archeological dig in Italy, among other adventures. 

The visual arts were not absent from her undergrad studies, though. She minored in art history, and even her major studies had connections to cultural traditions tied to the arts. 

“I was really interested in cultural theory-making and interpreting visual materials,” O’Connell said. 

That interest led her to a job at Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, where she worked in the registrar’s office and later under the repository curator. Despite her love of the classics, O’Connell eventually felt a pull to live “in the present.” Plus, she missed art. 

After working briefly as a graphic designer, O’Connell landed her first job with SMoCA as an education assistant. The year was 2007—only eight years into the museum’s (and the Visions program’s) existence. 

“I realized how much I loved working with the art of today,” she said. 

At SMoCA, O’Connell became reacquainted with the Visions program. She had nearly forgotten about her own experience in the program, but then she saw its connections to the trajectory of her career in returning to the arts. 

During this first stint at SMoCA, O’Connell was soon promoted to the position of curatorial assistant. But her mentors encouraged her to consider grad school. In 2012, she left SMoCA to pursue a master’s degree in curatorial practice at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. 

“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” she says of grad school. “It was also the best thing I’d ever done.” 

After finishing her master’s degree, O’Connell worked at both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. She also curated independently throughout the Bay Area and Phoenix. 

Then, in May 2019, she returned to SMoCA as an assistant curator. In 2021, she was promoted to curator of contemporary art. 

“It’s a long road to get where you want to go,” O’Connell admits. 

But there was something that might have shortened that road for her: the opportunity for young people to talk with people like her. Now that she teaches curatorial practice at Arizona State University, she tries to provide that opportunity for potential future curators. 

O’Connell knows as well as anyone that the path to the art museum world isn’t always direct. Though her parents took her to museums when she was young, they were more along the lines of children’s science museums. She certainly wasn’t living in New York City and visiting the MET every weekend. 

Her goal is to help the art world feel more accessible. And she sees the Visions program playing a role in that effort.

Former Visions student Lauren R. O’Connell, curator of contemporary art at SMoCA, leads 2021–22 Visions students on a tour of the exhibition Forever Becoming: Young Phoenix Artists.
Photo: Betty L Hum Photography

“I think that the Visions program now is so solid in thinking through what it’s offering students and not only asking students to make an investment but also making an investment in the students,” O’Connell says. “Whether they become artists or not, those students are going to have a more expansive appreciation of art as they move forward.”

Part of that is the program’s focus on a variety of art forms, not just painting and sculpture but also photography and installation art. 

Part of it is the opportunity to tour art museums, experience a wide variety of exhibitions, and meet museum professionals. 

Part of it is just finding community with others who share their interests. 

“It gives them access to artists,” O’Connell says. “It gives them an opportunity to share their artwork and talk about it. The best way to learn is through practice.” 

Now, twenty-five years after she was a Visions student, O’Connell is among the curatorial staff at SMoCA who offer tours to current Visions students. Because she didn’t have many opportunities to talk with curators when she was their age, she makes sure to always offer more information to those with an interest. 

“Visions was one of the only art programs that was available to me … I took it for granted,” she admits. “I thought that the only way to art was through making art.” 

Now, as a curator, O’Connell understands the importance of her role in the art world. Through her work with a variety of visual artists, she not only supports their artistic vision but also expands upon her own.

The Visions ’24 exhibition, featuring art by students in the 2023–24 Visions cohort, is on view in the Center Space gallery at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts through September 22, 2024. Admission is free.


  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday – Saturday: 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
  • Sunday: noon–5 p.m.
  • Closed for special events

Exhibition information: call 480-499-TKTS (8587) (TDD: 711) or email [email protected] for assistance.

Back to Spark home.
CONNECTIONS Amplify |  Immerse | Inspire