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Monday, October 22, 2012

Update: Teaching the MA in American Fine and Decorative Arts Program

Let me first start with an admission: the blog, like many in the teaching world, likes to take its summers off to travel a bit, do some research, and plan for the academic year.  After some time in London, Tampa, and a trip to Cape Cod, however, the blog is back and has been quietly observing the travels of the new class as the first semester of study at Sotheby's Institute of Art unfolds.  

One bit of encouraging news is that we are on track to finish the Catalog of Paintings in the Redwood Library Collection by the end of this school year.  I am particularly grateful to have a cadre of students committed to the project and willing to donate extra time to help see its completion through.  My goal is to make this collection and the research undertaken on it accessible in as many platforms as possible; I will keep posting updates as needed in this regard.  At present, we have completed all of the artist biographies and are working our way through the editing process and finishing research on the paintings.  I remain committed to the idea that graduate programs should use the efforts of teachers and students to perform services that broaden knowledge, increase exposure, and perform a public service.  

While we have traveled quite a bit throughout this semester already, yet some (perhaps most) of it has been without a camera.  This makes for a great learning experience for the students, but not necessarily the most engaging blog posts.  It's a much different model of teaching and learning than I was exposed to during undergraduate and graduate school, however, and this distinction is worth noting.  My days at Rutgers and CUNY were essentially spent in darkened rooms, illuminated only by slides, with little exposure to the physicality of objects, whether in the context of museums, auction houses, or private collections.  While there are many advantages to a slide lecture--the ability to reach across collections and make connections, for instance--we did little to confront objects in their natural habitat.  Slides, I have come to realize, have their use but also their limits.  Once the scale of objects is lost, as inevitably it is in slides, one loses the connection to the object itself and becomes, in some ways, a disinterested observer, picking through the information the object yields and yet blind to the reality of the object, unaware (even unable) to understand it as a presence, a palpable entity that moves the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  I cannot imagine a day where I give up slide lectures, but I am also grateful to be in New York City and to travel so that my students can experience objects first-hand, to see how condition, context, and the object itself help to create and deliver meaning.  In addition to our regular coursework we travel on three regional trips a semester, and when we are not away I make it a point to get them out each Friday to view something.  

Our first big trip of the semester was Boston and Salem.  The students are incredibly fortunate to have Gerald W. R. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture teaching the decorative arts component this fall, and he has done an exceptional job preparing them for the collections we saw throughout the trip.  In the course of 2 1/2 days I took them to Trinity Church, The Boston Public Library, The Gardner Museum,  Harrison Grey Otis House, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Vose Galleries.  The highlight of the trip for me was a tour of the MFA in Boston where Gerry Ward led them through the collections, talked about the collections, and connected the materials they saw in class to larger issues of interpretation and installation.  

We are also fortunate to be in NYC, and I think this provides students with an access to materials and objects that is unparalleled.  Highlights of our Friday field study trips this year have taken them (or will take them) to: the NYHS to see the narrative painting exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum American Wing, the Brooklyn Museum's American Wing, the Merchant's House museum, the Yale furniture Study center, Ralph Harvard (for historic interiors and a lesson on Southern architecture and furniture), Christie's (for a preview of the September sale with alum and department head Andrew Holter), Doyle's Auction house for a collection visit with alum Peter Costanza, and the City Hall Portrait Collection. We also are looking forward to a number of visits to Sotheby's and the expertise of our colleagues there.  

These trips are undoubtedly enjoyable, and I am fortunate to find myself in a position that allows me to take students around and expose them to new places, people, and objects.  That being said, I am aware of the potential that posts like this have to be viewed merely as objects for shameless self-promotion, and certainly on some level they are: I am tasked with running a program and sustaining its viability through enrollment.  Yet, I also think that models of pedagogy are an important thing to share, to explore, to develop and that a blog entry like this can further that discussion and collaboration.  I remain committed to the primacy of the object and to creating a learning environment that stresses academic rigor and practical exposure to materials, objects, and interpretations.  I think that as the marketplace for objects continues to grow that we should seek new ways, as Americanists and art historians, to train the next generations to identify, interpret, and make relevant to new audiences the material we all hold dear.

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