and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861" at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art was one of New York's high-profile art exhibitions in the
fall 2000 season. In fact, "Empire City," which gathered together
310 objects, was the largest exhibition of American art at the Met
in the last 30 years, proving the art of blockbuster exhibition
is by no means dead.
Voorsanger with "The Genius of Mirth" (97.13.1), a
marble statue that was modeled and carved in 1843-44 by New
Yorker Thomas Crawford (1813-1857) while in Rome.
ranging from Frederick Law Olmsted's proposals for a new central
park in Manhattan, to Tiffany jewelry worn by Mary Todd Lincoln
at her husband's 1861 inaugural ball, to Frederic Edwin Church's
monumental and hugely popular painting The Heart of the Andes (it
made its New York debut in 1859), "Empire City" splendidly captured
the decades in which New York City became, finally and indisputably,
the nation's cultural capital.
of free Met admission to all 1.5 million of the city's school children
and their families transformed "Empire City" into a major educational
event, and this must have particularly pleased its project director,
Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, a student in the Ph.D. Program in Art
History at the City University's Graduate Center.
Such a CUNY
curatorial connection is by no means unusual. Students in the Art
History Program have regularly been summoned to help shape major
exhibitions on the New York art scene. Wherever one looks, it seems,
a Graduate Center doctoral student is planning and producing an
important art exhibition at a major cultural institution in New
To name just
a few recent examples, "Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented
since the 1960s" at the Bronx Museum of the Arts was curated by
Betti-Sue Hertz and Lydia Yee, while Nancy Spector curated "Postmedia:
Conceptual Photography at the Guggenheim Museum Collection." Teresa
Carbone curated "Eastman Johnson: Painting America" at the Brooklyn
Museum of Art, and Susan Chevlowe curated "Common Man, Mythic Visions:
The Paintings of Ben Shahn" at the Jewish Museum.
Some of these CUNY art historians-in-progress hold prominent staff
positions at major museums and galleries as well. Voorsanger, for
example, is Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the
Metropolitan, a position she has held since 1996. Yee is a Curator
at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Spector a Curator at the Guggenheim,
Carbone is Associate Curator at The Brooklyn Museum of Art, and
Chevlowe is Associate Curator at the Jewish Museum.
Mind you, we
are speaking only of current students. Art History's present Executive
Officer Patricia Mainardi ventures that "several hundred is by no
means an exaggeration" for the number of exhibitions that have been
curated by Program alumni here and around the nation. Mainardi-whose
specialty is another famous "empire city," Paris (she is the author
of Art and Politics of the Second Empire)-adds that about half of
CUNY's Art History graduates go into teaching, the other half into
museums and galleries (see sidebar).
makes CUNY's doctoral program in art history unique is that its
student body plays so active and influential role on the local art
scene, which is-would anyone dare to argue otherwise?--the most
important in the Western Hemisphere. "We are everywhere!" Mainardi
is happy to boast.
Why do so many Graduate Center students hold important staff and
curatorial positions at significant art institutions around the
city? Aside from the inherent quality of the program, which is currently
ranked 12th among the nation's doctoral art history programs, two
foresighted policies established in the early years distinguished
the CUNY program from others.
program's leaders targeted seasoned, working professionals as potential
students by encouraging part-time enrollment. The hope was to attract
curators, gallery managers, and exhibition planners who wanted to
earn a doctorate but simply could not study full time. "We attracted
a lot of the curators in New York" says Executive Officer Mainardi.
The Graduate Center prefers to admit students who have not only
been working in the field but who have a master's degree as well,
rather than solely recruiting art history grads right after commencement.
has thus proved adept at meeting the needs of working professionals
who are often well advanced making a name for themselves, not only
accommodating but abetting careers already in motion. Mainardi contends
that, in modern, American, and contemporary art, Graduate Center
students and alums lead the field in holding curatorial positions.
"We were pioneers in attracting older, more mature students who
in many cases were already professionally affiliated," she adds.
decision was made to focus from the start on areas that standard
art history programs typically neglected. The Art History Program
forged a curriculum that focused, for example, on American art,
especially that of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the
chief architects of the program's unique emphasis on American studies,
was the late Milton W. Brown, a leading pioneer in the emerging
field of American art history. He helped establish the Ph.D. Program
back in 1971 and served as its first Executive Officer until 1979.
who died in 1998 at the age of 86, was perhaps best known for his
book, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression.
"A ground- breaking study of American art and culture between the
world wars," it was called in the New York Times, the reviewer adding
that it appeared "when American art history was still in its infancy
as a field of study."
areas pioneered by the Program and now among its strengths are modern
and post-modern art, feminism in film,
contemporary installation, video art, and computer art, both as
individual art forms and as components of multi-media permutations.
appreciated the flexibility CUNY allowed," says the Met's Voorsanger,
whose current work focuses on furniture and decorative arts in New
York in the nineteenth century. "I am at the very exciting frontier
of my field," she ventures, adding that CUNY allowed her to arrive
at that enviable place. Voorsanger came to the Graduate Center with
a bachelor's in art history from Smith College and a seven-year
tenure at the California Historical Society. She says she chose
the Graduate Center for its strength in American art.
Several years later, Voorsanger was hired by the Metropolitan Museum
as a research associate, and the first of several major projects
she worked on was "In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic
Movement." The 1986 exhibition-which studied the design reform movement
of the 19th century and the impact in America of artists and theorists
such as Ruskin, Morris, and Eastlake-proved a perfect fit for a
doctoral student at the Graduate Center. "My grounding in 19th-century
subjects-not just painting but also architecture and the history
of design-made me feel completely prepared."
to her curatorial duties, Voorsanger, who has written or edited
a number of articles and catalogues, will now be completing her
doctoral dissertation. Its focus will be on the furniture trade
in New York City between 1825 and 1885. She is excited to be able
to expand a topic that will allow her to draw on the awesome resources
of her own workplace, as well as those of other nearby institutions.
Lydia Yee says she flourished under the Art History Program's flexible
regime, but she prefers to emphasize the Program's attention to
multidisciplinary and non-traditional approaches to the study of
art. Yee attended the University of Michigan, where she created
her own major that combined comparative art and literature. Subsequently,
she worked at such avant-garde institutions as the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in Manhattan and the Museum of Contemporary Art
in Los Angeles.
What initially attracted her to the Graduate Center was the emphasis
on close reading of artworks in addition to a focus on critical
theory. Only by combining both, Yee feels, can one develop the skills
necessary for her field. "I felt like I needed another space to
explore ideas," she says of the impetus that motivated her to pursue
And she was
impressed by the eclectic approaches to art she found in the "space"
provided by the Program. This habitat, Yee says, "nurtured" her
interest not only in painting and sculpture, but also film studies,
photography, and the analysis of other forms of representation.
She cites in particular, as a formative moment in her education,
Professor Anna Chase's courses on the intersection between the visual
arts and popular culture. Indeed, the Graduate Center's attention
to contemporary and cutting-edge art issues has appealed deeply
to Yee. "I felt an attraction to CUNY--a sense that it was open
to this," Yee says. "At other institutions, like NYU or Columbia,
you'd have to wait and wait for a course with a contemporary focus
to come along. Not at CUNY."
Speaking of contemporary focus, Yee, who has written a number of
articles, reviews, catalogues, and brochures, and is currently organizing
an exhibition dealing with Hip-Hop art and culture for the Bronx
Museum. And the dissertation she is now working on deals with "the
relationship between the artist and the museum in the 1960s," a
time, Yee points out, when conceptual artists were involved in a
thorough-going critique of art institutions.
The Art History
Program's influence on the arts scene, as noted above, stretches
far beyond its current students. Graduate Center alumni and faculty
can, of course, be found in major art museums throughout the city
and, in fact, throughout the world.
One of its
most illustrious alumni-who also earned her Ph.D. while occupying
a major curatorial post-is Lowery Stokes Sims, now the Director
of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Sims earned a B.A. in art history
from Queens College and a master's from Johns Hopkins University
before joining the ranks of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where
she eventually worked her way up to Curator of Modern Art. "I was
in a unique situation," she recalls. After eight years working in
the field, Sims says she was "really questioning" whether she wanted
a Ph.D. at all. "Then, one day, a colleague told me point-blank,
'You have to get your doctorate!'"
Sims said she
chose the CUNY because it allowed her to focus on 19th- and 20th-century
art "without having to wade through everything else." She also saw
how the Graduate Center evinced a "great respect for working professionals"
such as herself. And it also accommodated a dissertation topic that
might have been deemed "off-track" elsewhere, a study of the Afrocuban
artist Wifredo Lam (1902-82). That dissertation-Wifredo Lam and
the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1992-will be published soon
by the University of Texas Press.
At the Met, Sims helped mount a number of important shows on influential
20th-century artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Henry Moore, Richard
Pousette-Dart, and Stuart Davis. The Stuart Davis show grew out
of a Graduate Center seminar on art of the 1950s taught by Professor-now
Emeritus-Robert Pincus-Witten. "Going to grad school allowed me
to sit quietly and think about art. I loved it," recalls Sims. In
addition to her curatorial duties, Sims has found time to teach
new artists and scholars, giving courses at Queens College, the
School of Visual Arts, Bard College, and other academic institutions.
"If I can help another generation, that would be great."
Center's unique, consortial arrangement also gives the Art History
program an exceptionally rich and diverse faculty. Whereas another
school might have, say, two faculty members each in the areas of
Renaissance and Baroque art, the Graduate Center has six. In 20th-century
art, the Center boasts no fewer than fifteen professors. As already
noted, students interested in American art enjoy a particularly
wide professorial panorama. As a result, students in all these fields
are able to craft a cadre of mentors and advisors custom-tailored
to their research needs.
Not only is the Ph.D. Program in Art History internationally recognized
as on the forefront of United States art studies, the Program is
developing a pan-American approach that encompasses South American
art from the colonial period to the present (Professor Katherine
Manthorne) and pre-Colombian art (Professor Eloise Quiñones-Keber),
as well as modern U.S. art (Professors Gail Levin and Sally Webster),
and American architecture (Professor Kevin Murphy). Professor Rob
Storr, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Modern Art,
is also on the faculty and typically gives one course a year, usually
related to a projected MoMA exhibition.
Diaspora of Art Historians:
sampling of CUNY alumni in important museum positions
Carrie Rebora Barrett, Associate Curator of American
Paintings & Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gerald Bolas, Director, Ackland Art Museum, University
of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Beth Alberty, Curator, Children's Museum, Brooklyn*
Doreen Bolger, Director, Baltimore Museum of Art
Manuel Borja, Director, Antoni Tapies Foundation,
Laurene Buckley, Executive Director, Queens Museum
Margaret Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American
Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
David Dearinger, Chief Curator, National Academy of
Douglas Dreishspoon, Curator, Albright-Knox Museum,
Buffalo Stephen Edidin, Curator, Dahesh Museum
Susan Edwards, Executive Director, Katonah Museum of
Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator of American Art,
Mitchell D. Kahan, Director, Akron Art Museum
Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Daniel Cornell, Assistant Curator of American Art,
Fine Arts Museums and M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco
Deborah Cullen, Curator, Museo del Barrio Shomim M.
Momin, Curator, Whitney Museum at Philip Morris
Cynthia Roznoy, Branch Director & Curator, Whitney
Museum of American Art Thayer Tolles, Associate Curator, Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
William Gerdts has been a major force in art history at CUNY since
Milton Brown brought him into it at the very beginning in 1971.
He served for a period of time as Executive Officer and remains
active, continuing to teach and advise on dissertations. While the
focus has expanded since he arrived, Gerdts points out that the
strong relationship between the program and Gotham's art world is
rooted in the Program's ground-breaking emphasis on American and
modern art. "New York is the capital in those areas. It's the place
to be if that's what you want to study."
In addition to the unusually large number of students working in
the city's museums, the Program has been a cornucopia of art researchers.
The result, Gerdts points out, is that Graduate Center students
provide galleries with "an enhanced scholarly level of exhibitions."
He also points out that the Graduate Center is no cloistered environment.
"Students come here and put up with the dirt, the noise, the insecurity
of New York in order to be part of the vibrant life they are studying.
And we encourage them into alternative experiences in the art world."