Where are all of the Millenial Art Historians?

In the “Call to Action” delivered at the College Art Association’s 2016 Annual Conference, Dewitt Godfrey characterized CAA as an organization in crisis due to diminished institutional support for the arts and a shrinking membership base. Many of Godfrey’s points resonated with me: I agree that arts professionals and scholars must advocate for our fields and defend their ongoing relevance and significance in the midst of the large-scale restructuring of funding and labor in academia. This wave of solidarity, however, was short-lived. Godfrey appealed to the organization’s more established members to maintain their affiliation and to continue to serve the organization under the premise that “studies show millennials aren’t joiners.”

The data is there to support Godfrey’s statement: studies performed by the Pew Research Center show that members of this generation are less likely to align themselves with traditional political parties, organized religions, and civil institutions such as marriage. (Ironically, millennials are also reluctant to self-identify as millennials) While I agree that these trends warrant some level of concern, the College Art Association will need to appeal to this generation in order to ensure its viability.

Admittedly, as I listened to Godfrey’s remarks, they stung. Even with discounted membership fees and registration rates for students, the College Art Association can be expensive to maintain membership within, and his statement felt like an implicit admission that the organization does not seek to serve me. On the other hand, looking around the room, I didn’t see many others who could contradict his point.

As I considered it further, the question of the millennial art historian began to intersect with questions over the discipline’s future and its struggles to acknowledge the dynamic range of aesthetic traditions that exist beyond the Western canon and those which are favored by the art market. An important detail to consider is that Millenials are the most diverse generation in American history. Moreover, this is a generation that largely embraces the complexity of its identities, making interdisciplinary fields an inviting escape from comparatively strict categorical alliances in Art History.

For example, among college-educated millennials who pursued majors in the humanities, underrepresented students may seek out departments that have courses and faculty that resonate with their experience.  Given recent commentary by Steven Nelson and Adriana Zavala, it appears that many art history departments might struggle to meet this demand (possibly without recognizing that it exists). Similarly, for students who wish to pursue graduate degrees researching art and visual cultural traditions that do not fit within traditional art historical frameworks, interdisciplinary programs in fields such as American, Ethnic, Gender, and Performance Studies may exist as a unique intellectual space that can support their interests.

All of this is not to suggest that art historians are on the verge of extinction, but rather to suggest that there may be a lost generation among us. Speaking from my experience researching and writing about Chicanx art, many of the foundational texts on Chicanx art history were written by scholars who were not trained in the discipline. It is necessary, then, to not only consider those working within the discipline, but to seek out the scholars whose work falls under a different subject heading but aligns with our own. This practice is familiar to those of us working in the margins of art history, but this typically happens on a granular scale, and our meeting places are frequently in interdisciplinary associations.

What would the field, and CAA’s constituency look like if we made a case for an “expanded field” of art historical practice? In one case, it might resemble the U.S. Latina/o Art Forum, a recently-established organization that seeks to bring together a wide range of scholars and professionals whose work addresses Latina/o art. Alternately, it could also look like Art History That or the Material Collective, which seek to foster publicly and socially-engaged disciplinary work.

Other questions still remain: How can we make an effective case for naming oneself as a “historian of art/visual culture” within one’s multidisciplinary scholarly identities? How could the conference schedule accommodate cross-disciplinary conversations on art and visual culture? These questions are relevant to pose in light of Godfreys call for advocacy. We have to ask what vision of the College Art Association we’re advocating for and who its inheritors will be.

Before any of these questions can begin to be answered, we have to start with something a little more straightforward: fellow millenial art historians, are you out there? If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll join me in starting a conversation regarding our place in the field.

2 Comments

  1. The call to interdisciplinary work resonates with me as a reason why traditional institutions are having trouble capturing millennials as members and colleagues. The traditional mode of art history isn’t appealing enough to many potential scholars, we need more room and different avenues to explore, research, and create projects. Despite having degrees in Art History and Curatorial Practice, as well as an interest and skills in art research and writing, I’ve found that many traditional institutions (museums, universities, etc) are intrigued by my interdisiplinary background but ultimately don’t want to take a risk on employing and working with a non-traditional art historian and curator–they still want pedigreed, siloed experts in German art and abstract expressionism. Thank you for writing this article, I haven’t been able to name why I (and many of my peers) don’t fit into and can’t find a place for ourselves in these traditional fields, despite feeling like we are unsuccessful if we are not working inside these institutions…things are shifting and we will either create our own models like those you linked to, or museums and art history departments will need to start taking chances for their betterment and growth.

    • admin

      February 22, 2016 at 8:24 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for reading my post and for sharing your experience. I have never worked in museums, and, as a result, have been unaware of the unique challenges that interdisciplinary scholars face when pursuing full-time positions. Some conversations with friends and periodic glimpses have given me the impression that interdisciplinarity is seen as exciting to incorporate on a freelance basis, but that it rarely gets incorporated into the institution’s infrastructure.

      I’m glad that the push to create new models resonated with you! Something that I’ve been thinking about since my initial post is how to articulate the value and the relevance of these new models to institutional stakeholders, especially those that rely on high-profile donors and corporate funders that have conservative ideals of what museums/exhibitions are and should be. Does this align with your perception of the obstacles to entering the museum?

      In any case, your work looks really interesting. I hope that you’ll keep pushing to find new venues to do it. Keep me updated along the way!

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