College of DuPage Architecture Alumnus Returns to Alma Mater for Prominent Design Project for ‘Frida Kahlo 2020’

By: Angela Mennecke

COD alumnus Carmine Calabria stands in front of the construction for the Cleve Carney Museum of Art

Beginning June 1, the largest private collection of Frida Kahlo works, valued at more than $200 million, will be on display at College of DuPage’s McAninch Arts Center. To prepare for the three-month exhibition, the College’s Cleve Carney Museum of Art underwent a $3 million expansion to transition from a gallery into a museum complete with museum-grade LED lighting system, security system and climate control system to maintain the standards of the American Alliance of Museums.

COD Architecture alumnus Carmine Calabria had the unique opportunity to work on the design team for the expansion as an architectural designer at Wight & Company where he works full-time.

“It felt as if yesterday I was walking by the McAninch Arts Center while construction on the gallery started,” Calabria said. “Now I’m a part of the team helping bring life to the new addition. It’s serendipitous to experience a place, like the MAC, at different points in my life and use that as a measure of self-awareness and growth.”

Designing a space to house such iconic artwork is an experience Calabria said he will never forget. The 26 pieces of Kahlo’s work, on loan from the Museo Dolores Olmedo, features an array of sketches and paintings spanning Kahlo’s storied career.

“I am humbled to be working on a design that is linked to the story of Frida Kahlo and her works,” he said. “It’s not very often you get the opportunity to work on these types of projects outside of school, let alone for Frida Kahlo’s work. It is an honor to be a part of helping create architecture that will be used as a backdrop to her story.”

The design project allowed Calabria to utilize the diverse skills he learned while enrolled in COD’s Architecture program.   

“Whether a project is high profile or not the same care and attention needs to be achieved and this is something that the COD Architecture program really reinforces,” he said. “The strong structure and clear focus of the program really caters to building a strong foundation of concepts and skills that students can take with them throughout their careers. The two main concepts that have stayed with me from my time at COD are process and iteration. I’ve found that they are most powerful when put together. Something extraordinary doesn’t come from trying something once and being satisfied with the results.”

After earning his Pre-Architecture Associate in Applied Science degree at COD, Calabria transferred to the Illinois Institute of Technology. Throughout college, Calabria worked at a UPS Store, and during his final year at IIT, he met the HR director of Wight & Company there. With a line of customers out the door, he handed her his resume and portfolio in hopes of securing a possible position after graduation. Instead, he was called for an interview the next day and hired as a part-time intern.

“What I didn't know when I was first hired was that Wight & Company designed a number of COD’s beautiful buildings,” he said. “It’s funny to think that I will have the opportunity to pay it forward by designing spaces that could make a difference in another student’s life.”

In reflection of where his life is today and how he got here, Calabria believes that patience is the most important virtue to practice in his work.

“Being patient and capitalizing on each project’s unique set of challenges will ultimately make you a better designer,” he said. “You have to be relentless in your efforts to achieve what you imagine because only you know what the end result will become. To be something extraordinary you don’t need to be the fastest, smartest, or the best at anything; your ability to adapt and iterate is the most valuable set of skills you can attain to get you there. It’s a valuable asset in the industry of architecture, in your studies as a student, and in life as a whole.”

“Frida Kahlo 2020” will run from June 1 to Aug. 31. Tickets are currently on sale online, by phone at (630) 942-4000 or in person at the McAninch Arts Center Box Office, 425 Fawell Blvd. Learn more about “Frida Kahlo 2020.”