Spring 2001

A Remarkable Gallery of Exhibitionists: CUNY's Doctoral Students in Art History



rt 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.

Catherine Voorsanger
Catherine 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.

With items 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.

The distribution 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 York City.

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.

A Distant Muse

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).

Still, what 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.

Imaging African Art

First, the 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.

The Program 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.

Second, the 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.

Guggenheim Museum Collegction A to Z

Professor Brown, 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."

Other 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.

"I've always 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."

COMMON MAN MYTHIC VISION - The Paintings of Ben Shahn

In addition 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.

Similarly, 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 a doctorate.

Art and the Empire City

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.

Eastman Johnson

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."

Urban Mythologies

The Graduate 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.

A Diaspora of Art Historians:
A 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 of Art
Margaret Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
David Dearinger, Chief Curator, National Academy of Design
Douglas Dreishspoon, Curator, Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo Stephen Edidin, Curator, Dahesh Museum
Susan Edwards, Executive Director, Katonah Museum of Art
Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator of American Art,
Brooklyn Museum
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.

Professor Emeritus 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."