Monuments in Crisis: How Art Historians Can Help

dsc_6661.jpgThis afternoon, Evie Terrono and I co-presented a paper at the College Art Association’s annual meeting titled “Monuments in Crisis: Debates on the Confederate Landscape.” Focusing on the recent controversy regarding the future of Confederate monuments, we debated the monuments’ meaning and possible next steps for communities interested in recontextualizing or removing them. While I argued the iconoclast’s perspective, Evie counseled caution, noting the monuments’ value as works of art and as multivalent objections symbolizing the nation’s checkered past.

Our paper was part of Public Art Dialogue‘s session, “Teachable Monuments: Using Public Art to Spark Dialogue and Address Controversies, ” part of PAD’s larger Teachable Monuments initiative. With the idea of the “teachable” in mind, we decided to end our paper with a series of suggestions for art historians to intervene in community conversations surrounding the future of contested monuments. The following is based on the concluding section of our paper.

We are both in agreement that ongoing debates about the fate of the monumental landscape provide unique opportunities for art historians to intervene. Whether the ultimate goal is to remove problematic monuments from view or to preserve them in some way, there are several steps that you, the civically-minded art historian, can take right now to make your voice heard:Butts County Confederate Monument

  1. Document your local monuments: Record the monuments in the town where you live, whether they are Confederate monuments or otherwise, in order to preserve the record for the future. Photograph monuments from all angles, including details, inscriptions, and long views, and the surrounding landscape. Document vandalism, damage, or if the monuments are removed, the process of their removal. Research your local monuments in libraries or archives, and learn about their history. The memorial landscape may be changing, and we may not all be in agreement about how or whether to slow that process. But if we can document the landscape the way it appears now, at least we will be able to pass down that photographic record to future researchers.
  2. Get involved in discussions in your community: If a monument near you is challenged, make your voice heard as your community debates its fate. Go to town hall meetings, and share your expertise as art historians. If there are protests, go to them and talk to the protestors who show up. Collect their literature and ask to photograph their signs. Current civic engagement is part of a monument’s afterlife – ephemeral action around a seemingly permanent object – and all of it inscribes new meaning onto the work of art. If a protest is happening in your community, your expertise as a researcher and scholar is crucial both for your community’s decision-making process and for the future historical record.
  3. Get the word out: You have a voice – use it. If you don’t have a Twitter account yet, make one. Start a blog. Make a professional website listing your qualifications. Apply to be listed as an expert on public art in databases such as Expert Finder or SheSource. Talk to the media. Write op-eds, open letters, and petitions. Give public presentations to general audiences, not just at academic conferences. Contribute to crowdsourced syllabi gathering information on the history of public monuments. As an art historian or public scholar, your opinion is valuable to the public discourse.

At a time when government funding for the humanities is perpetually in jeopardy, and the future of the tenure track in academia is uncertain, the Confederate monument crisis is a clear illustration of why our discipline is culturally vital and necessary. It is important that we all take this opportunity to define ourselves as public scholars and to make our skills and knowledge available to our communities as they grapple with the future of problematic monuments.

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Iconoclasms: A Roman marble block and a tattered Confederate flag

20171104_163952Yesterday was “one of those days” in the life of a professor/parent/public historian: I took a rare Saturday trip down to Philadelphia to do some reconnaissance for a paper assignment for my students at the Penn Museum, and then headed across town to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for a performance of Sonya Clark’s Unraveling, in which participants work together to unmake a Confederate flag. Schedules get hectic at this point in the semester as obligations (and stacks of grading!) pile up. But in this case, these back-to-back events created some unexpected and welcome resonances.

This fall, I’m teaching two sections of the first half of the art history survey, covering mostly Western art (with some additions) from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. As a scholar currently steeped in issues of iconoclasm in art, I’ve been giving my students lots of time to ponder these issues in relation to the cultures we’ve been covering: ISIS-led destruction and looting of Middle Eastern antiquities; cultural theft and repatriation issues surrounding Egyptian and Greek treasures; the ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae; and the iconoclastic controversies of the Byzantine Empire. My students are quick to draw connections between these examples and the current furor surrounding Confederate monuments, and so far we’ve had a fruitful ongoing conversation about the reasons art can provoke violent reactions, the methods by which objects are destroyed, and the various ways in which these acts can be interpreted.

And so, it was was with great interest that I happened upon a Roman object with clear evidence of iconoclasm in the Penn Museum:

Puteoli Marble Block

The Puteoli marble block, relief from the Trajanic arch. Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli), Italy, 102 CE

This is the Puteoli marble block, taken from a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Trajan in the ancient city of Puteoli. The face that would have been visible on the arch is a relief panel depicting members of Trajan’s Praetorian Guard. But on the other side is an inscription that was deliberately obliterated: this marble block was once part of a monument praising the (hated) emperor Domitian for his role in constructing a new road. When Domitian was assassinated in 96 CE due to his tyrannical ways, the Roman Senate decided to invoke the process of damnatio memoriae, officially damning his memory and stipulating that all art created in his honor should be destroyed or repurposed. In constructing a new monument to Trajan, the artists reused Domitian’s dishonored plaque: why waste a perfectly good block of marble? But as we can see, even the destruction of art leaves traces, and while it is possible to rebuild and move on after a dark period in history, the scars remain.

Leaving the Penn Museum, I traveled over to PAFA to contemplate a different set of scars: those left on the American psyche from the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. In her performance piece Unraveling, Sonya Clark invites members of the audience to join her one by one in picking apart the warp and weft of a Confederate flag (Read more about the performance — and listen to a podcast with the artist — here). The piece is full of deep reverberations: the process of unraveling the tightly woven (cotton!) threads is tedious and slow, and each thread pulled is only a tiny fraction of the enormous work that must be done. In the same vein, the wounds caused by slavery run deep in every facet of American society, and the lie of Lost Cause mythology continues to stand in the way of healing. Picking apart the legacy of this ideology is slow going, and with each step forward comes the constant risk of regression. But we must fight on.


Sonya Clark’s Unraveling, performed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November 4, 2017 (with yours truly as a participating audience member)

When I heard that this performance was taking place at my school, I looked forward to participating with a sense of the anger that I always feel when confronting the legacy of the Confederacy and slavery (particularly strong in these troubled times). I imagined dismantling the flag as my own act of deliberate iconoclasm, attacking a symbol that has caused so much harm. But in practice, I found the performance much more healing and peaceful than I had expected. Waiting on line for over an hour for my turn with the flag, 20171104_165012I had a sense of the unraveling as a community effort to pull down barriers and restore peace. When my turn came, I found comfort in Clark’s warm and reassuring presence as she pointed out some tiny threads along one of the flag’s white stripes for me to pull. I have a feeling I will take that memory with me as I continue to play my part in dissolving the Confederate legacy. Not all revolutions are fought in the streets with weapons and shouting. They can also happen between individuals in a quiet gallery on a Saturday afternoon.

And on a personal note: Yesterday was my first time bringing my infant daughter out to an art museum, and I was proud that the institution where I work every week was one of her first. Her presence yesterday was a reminder that we do this work of unraveling the poisonous elements of our nation’s past in order to give her generation the best possible start.

Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg: NPS Makes the Right Call


Virginia Monument, Gettysburg (1917)

As the debate over the future of Confederate monuments has reached a fever pitch in the past two weeks following the events in Charlottesville, there have been calls to reconsider the placement of Confederate monuments in locations all over the country. From town squares to the halls of the U.S. Capitol, the continued presence of these monuments has been called into question. There have even been allusions to the Confederate monuments of Gettysburg, most of which were built in the early to mid-twentieth century, and questions as to whether these statues should be allowed to remain.

The National Park Service has weighed in on the issue, and for now, these statues will stay where they are. As Katie Lawhon, park spokeswoman, says:

Gettysburg National Military Park preserves, protects, and interprets one of the best marked battlefields in the world.

Over 1,325 monuments, markers, and plaques, commemorate and memorialize the men who fought and died during the battle of Gettysburg and continue to reflect how that battle has been remembered by different generations of Americans.

Many of these memorials honor southern states whose men served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. These memorials, erected predominantly in the early and mid-20th century, are an important part of the cultural landscape.

The National Park Service is committed to safe guarding these unique and site-specific memorials in perpetuity, while simultaneously interpreting holistically and objectively the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they commemorate.


Longstreet Monument, Gettysburg (1998)

I think this is basically the right call. A battlefield is not the same sort of space as a town square, and monuments on a battlefield do not have the same connotation as monuments in civic sites. On a battlefield, monuments are commemorations of the specific actions that happened there, and at a site like Gettysburg, which is so well-marked by monuments, they can serve as interpretive tools for visualizing the events of the past. Confederate monuments at Gettysburg definitely perform these functions.

But more importantly: as it stands, Gettysburg’s commemorative landscape is a huge middle finger pointed directly at the South.

Why? Back in the 1880s, when the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) was first working to preserve the battlefield, they knew they had to come up with a set of regulations for the type and placement of monuments that veterans’ groups were clamoring to install on the battlefield. One of the rules they devised was the “line of battle” rule, which stipulated that all units or states must place their monuments on the field at the location where they entered into battle, and not at any other spot. This had a huge impact on the eventual location of Confederate monuments.

As Thomas Desjardin explains:

The “line of battle” rule acquired great significance in the years to follow. Essentially, it required that veterans place monuments on the spot where they “entered the fight,” the definition of this to be ultimately determined by the GBMA. One benefit of this policy was that it squelched efforts by Confederate units to place monuments on parts of the field where key action occurred. Since the Union forces fought a largely defensive battle and allowed the Confederate forces to do the attacking, Southern battle lines were a great distance away from the ground on which they eventually met the Union forces and fought. Thus the Confederate units entered the fight as much as a half mile away from the areas of the battlefield where most of the fighting took place. Their monuments, in reflecting this, would not be located in the areas most sought after by those who would visit the fields in the decades to follow.


Click here for a larger version of the NPS Auto Tour map of Gettysburg.

In other words, the GBMA designed its regulations in order to prevent Confederate veterans’ groups from placing their monuments anywhere near the most important sites on the battlefield. Except for two small markers at the High Water Mark, the vast majority of Confederate monuments are sited along Seminary Ridge, where no major fighting took place. Meanwhile, the legendary sites along Cemetery Ridge that are the stuff of every Civil War buff’s dreams – Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Angle, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill – are largely Confederate-free. Thus, when visiting Gettysburg today, the visual landscape clearly shows the evidence of the GBMA’s efforts to stick it to the Confederacy in any way possible. The Confederate monuments may look impressive, but their placement on the field tells a different story.

So go ahead, Neo-Confederates, enjoy your participation trophies on Gettysburg’s second most important ridge. I’ll keep doing what I do every time I visit Gettysburg: I’ll drive down the Taneytown Road to the Union side, and avoid the Confederacy entirely.

After Durham: What’s Next for Confederate Monuments?


McNeel Marble Works, Confederate Monument, Graham, NC, 1914

Once again, I feel as if the news is happening more quickly than I can react or respond to it. I’m an academic, not a journalist, and a scholar of the nineteenth century at that, and so I’m used to having a lot of time to sit back and ponder my source material in order to craft perfect arguments. In the past few days, I’ve mentally written and rewritten this post several times, trying to keep ahead of new developments. But eventually, one must move forward.

The deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend are by this point well known. Protesting the planned removal of the city’s monument to Robert E. Lee, neo-Nazis and white supremacists sparked a violent clash that resulted in the deaths of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, and two police officers. It is hard to talk about the material circumstances of monuments when human lives are at stake and when it feels like the nation is ripping apart at the seams. But in just the past few days, the toppling of Durham’s Confederate statue and the removal of four monuments in Baltimore have shown that the need to grapple with the fate of Confederate monuments continues.

I’ve written before about the white supremacist origins of these monuments, and so I’m not going to reiterate all of that here. In the past few days, there have been several powerful articles laying out the case for removal, including this one by Yoni Applebaum in The Atlantic and this one by Nicholas Mirzoeff. The connection between Confederate monuments and the evils of slavery, the horrors of the post-Reconstruction era, and the attempted suppression of the Civil Rights Movement are all well-documented for anyone willing to listen to historians. None of that has changed.

But my own thinking on what to do next has shifted. In the past, I’ve argued for a measured approach to the removal of monuments. In both the North and the South, soldier monuments illustrate a tension between the local and the national: they respond to the Civil War, and they are connected to one another due to their standardized form. But each monument bears the names of local soldiers, was paid for by funds raised locally, and is governed by local laws. Because of this, it would be impossible to remove every monument at once through a single federal order, and I have suggested that letting the process work itself out locally would probably be the best course of action. For this reason, I am also opposed to actions by the states of North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee to take the agency away from local communities and to prohibit altering Confederate monuments at the state level. For a movement so concerned with issues of government overreach, this strikes me as an odd move.

But Durham changes everything.

I have watched this video several times on loop, partly out of professional curiosity. I have thought and written about vandalism and iconoclasm related to Civil War statues for years, and pictured the act in my head, but I hadn’t really thought about how it would actually look. The way the statue crumbles is fascinating. I don’t think, as several news outlets have suggested, that this is due to shoddy materials: for one thing, the statue doesn’t look like zinc to me, although I’d have to see it in person to be sure. What seems more likely to me is that the bronze bent at its weakest points due to the huge block of granite falling down with it. No way could a hollow-cast statue compete with that sort of weight.

But there’s something else that is even more important. The video from Durham makes iconoclasm look easy. A bit of rope, a ladder, one hefty tug, and suddenly it no longer mattered how many laws North Carolina had passed against altering monuments. And if I had that thought, I probably wasn’t the only one. That means this is going to happen again, and probably soon. And we don’t know where it will happen next.

So, my recommendation has changed. Communities, if you want to preserve your Confederate memorials, it would be best for you to start making a plan for them now. Move them out of town squares or into parks or cemeteries. Put up new text to present the true historical record of the Confederacy rather than Lost Cause mythology. Invite contemporary artists to engage with them and to set up temporary installations. Commission new monuments to individuals who deserve representation in our parks and civic spaces. But do it soon, because Durham is the crest of a wave that may soon be beyond your control.

VIDEO: “Time Traveling Objects,” A Salon at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Last December, just as a major snowstorm was beginning to pummel the Midwest, I jetted off to Milwaukee to present a salon at the Milwaukee Art Museum in a wonderful exhibition space called Mrs. M.—–’s Cabinet. Created by the Chipstone Foundation, this intimate gallery blends fact and fantasy with a special collection of objects curated by a time-traveling ghost (Learn more here!). In my talk, “Time Traveling Objects: Past, Future, Retrofuture, and Material Culture,” I mused about some of the ways that objects themselves can travel through time or bridge historical eras.

Here’s the blurb that I provided to MAM in advance of my talk:

In this talk, Dr. Sarah Beetham will peel back the layers of meaning that activate objects with historical significance. From a Revolutionary War soldier monument steeped in Civil War memory to a tintype photograph shot in 2013 with a camera that once captured the image of Jefferson Davis, she will explore significant things that seem to exist in more than one era, confounding viewers with their time traveling powers. With a sensibility that is one part scholarly, one part steampunk, Dr. Beetham will probe the often fluid and sometimes frustrating relationship between stuff and time.

And as of today, thanks to the folks at Chipstone, video is now available! Enjoy below:

New Article on #DigPed at #PAFA: “Activism in the Classroom: #Wikipedia and #AmericanArt”


Wikipedia userpage for Sbeetham

As I turn toward the reality of another semester that is rapidly circling the drain post-Thanksgiving, here’s a quick announcement of my new article on digital pedagogy in the latest issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. Titled “Activism in the Classroom: Wikipedia and American Art,” it summarizes an assignment that I developed for my students in “Women and American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Fall 2015, in which students formed groups to create or edit articles about American women artists for Wikipedia. I originally discussed this assignment at CAA earlier this year as part of a panel organized by Bob Cozzolino, which was titled “Claiming the Unknown, the Forgotten, the Fallen, the Lost, and the Dispossessed.” In spring 2016, Panorama invited us to turn our panel into a special issue of the journal, which we did over the summer, and the result is now in the fall issue. I’m very glad that this material is now available to other art historians, and I hope it will prove useful to college instructors looking to expand the scope of their course assignments.

A brief excerpt:

Working with Wikipedia is one way to get students involved in conversations about who is represented in American art surveys, and which artists deserve further attention. For my students at PAFA, it was an opportunity to make a real-world impact through class assignments, and several of the students expressed satisfaction with this aspect of the project after the semester ended. In increasing the coverage of underrepresented artists in online databases and encyclopedias, there is still much work to be done. Making this an explicit goal of classroom instruction can be rewarding for both students and educators.

In case you are considering adding a Wikipedia component to your classroom, I created a section on this site with all of the Wikipedia Resources that I used in my own assignment – feel free to adapt them as you see fit, and let me know the results!

For my full article, CLICK HERE. To access all of the articles from the “Claiming the Unknown” special issue, CLICK HERE. And to see the full table of contents for this season’s issue of Panorama, which includes many fine articles, CLICK HERE.

Art Historian At Large: #AHAA16, #SECAC2016, and a Southern Holy Site

20161022_170007October is always a busy month, both personally and professionally. The semester is in full swing, with fresh lesson planning every week, and grading usually begins to pile up. It’s the best month of fall and the season of my favorite holiday, Halloween, which means haunted houses and corn mazes on the weekend (this year, the Brighton Asylum and Happy Day Farm). And on top of all of that, I generally attend at least one and usually two out-of-town art history conferences. Since 2011, I haven’t missed a trip to the Southeastern College Art Conference, or SECAC. And this year, I was also selected to present a paper at the biennial Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA) symposium, one of my favorite events. AHAA took me to Fort Worth, Texas, from October 6-8, and I just got back from SECAC late last night (with one detour, which I’ll explain in a moment!). It has been an exhausting but stimulating month!

ahaa-slideOne of the best things about attending an academic conference is the way it can reinvigorate your commitment to your own work. Lately, I’ve been very consumed with teaching and lesson planning, and my research has been on something of a back burner. But in the leadup to AHAA, I pulled myself together to present “Monumental Crisis: The Civil War Citizen Soldier in 21st-Century American Life,” an overview of my current book project on the ways in which Civil War monuments are impacted by intentional vandalism or iconoclasm; deliberate revision or removal; accidental damage; and the effects of weather or neglect. I received a lot of helpful and encouraging feedback, and I feel a renewed sense of energy to continue developing this project. Hopefully I’ll have a lot more to report soon!

session-twitter-adFor this year’s iteration of SECAC, I applied to chair a session titled “The Afterlives of Objects: Impermanence in American Art.” The response to the call for papers was quite robust, and so I asked the SECAC organizers about the possibility of a double session, which they granted (thanks to Jennifer Van Horn for stepping up to chair the second session!). Over the course of two sessions on Friday morning, we discussed both mob-led and artist-directed iconoclasm, recontextualization of public monuments, removal and destruction of works of art, conservation, entropy, and neglect. The sessions were well attended and the conversation afterward was quite lively. I was very pleased at how well the speakers’ individual topics dovetailed with one another, and I left SECAC with several pages of notes and new ideas. I always find SECAC to be one of the friendliest art history conferences out there, and the organizers do a great job nurturing young scholars and providing space for first-time panel chairs proposing their new ideas for discussion. Looking forward to next year’s conference in Columbus, Ohio!

20161022_170116On the drive home from SECAC, I decided to make a stop at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to visit the Lee Chapel, burial site of Robert E. Lee. As I was driving down to Roanoke in total darkness last Thursday night, passing through the Shenandoah Valley on Route 81, I noticed that I was passing signs for one Civil War-themed site after another. Of course this makes sense, as the Shenandoah Valley was the site of fierce fighting throughout the war. But I don’t tend to find myself in this part of Virginia too often, and so I decided to use this trip to stop at one site that has been on my mind for some time. The Lee Chapel is the home of a recumbent sculpture of Robert E. Lee by Edward V. Valentine, unveiled in 1883. After Lee’s death in 1870, his wife, Mary Custis Lee, selected the Lee Chapel at the university where he had served as president as his final resting place. Eventually, the chapel became a burial vault for many members of the Lee and Custis families, and a pilgrimage site for Southern heritage tours.

I left SECAC at about 3:30 (needed to make time for some final schmoozing!) and rolled into Lexington about twenty minutes before the chapel was set to close at 5:00 PM. I walked inside to see Valentine’s sculpture of Lee right up at the front, in the location that the altar would be in most churches. And I found that I was not alone: one of the women who was in the audience during my SECAC panel (whose name I unfortunately do not know!) was also there with a friend. We chatted for a few moments about the conference, and then I turned to contemplate the sculpture.


Also known as a gisant, the recumbent sculpture of a prominent figure reposing in death atop a tomb is an old form, dating at least as far back as the medieval period in western art. It is also a form that greatly appeals to the more macabre side of my personality, and so I have a tendency to seek these sculptures out. One of the most arresting gisants by an American artist is the effigy made by Frank Duveneck for the tomb of his wife, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, whose untimely death left him devastated. Several copies of this sculpture were made and given to various American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

20161022_165214After knowing this statue from photographs and building it up in my head over so many years, I found the experience of it in person to be a bit of a letdown. Something about the marble seemed almost too clean, too starkly white, to the point that the more delicate details of the monument felt washed out. I’m not sure whether it was the lighting in the chapel, the disconnect between the sculpture and the surrounding space, or the “fish out of water” feeling that often comes over me when I visit a site that overtly reveres the Confederacy, but viewing this sculpture made me supremely uneasy. So, partly to soothe this uneasiness, and partly to let the old man know that not everyone who visits his grave approves of his legacy, I hummed a verse and chorus of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” under my breath:

We will welcome to our number the loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although they may be poor, not a man shall be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star.
While we rally ’round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.

20161022_165632Outside the Lee Chapel, I found another Civil War oddity that has long amused me: the grave of Lee’s horse, Traveller. After Traveller’s death in 1871, he was first buried on the grounds of Washington and Lee University, but then exhumed around 1875, and his bones were bleached and mounted for display. But during their time on display, they were often vandalized by students carving initials into them, and so finally Traveller was laid to rest beside the Lee Chapel in 1971. Visitors sometimes leave carrots at his grave; I was unable to find any before my impromptu visit to Lexington. This is not the only weird site associated with a Civil War horse, and someday I’d like to visit them all.

Now that my October travels are over, I look forward to settling down to finish out the semester over the next two months!

Video: Discussing Confederate Monuments and #BlackLivesMatter


Earlier this summer, I took a trip down to Philadelphia to the offices of Taylor & Francis to record a video abstract for my recent article in Public Art Dialogue, “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Monuments in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter.” I discussed that article previously here and the article itself will be available for free download until November, after which it will be accessible through university library subscription. As of today, that video has been released on Facebook, and the post is embedded below:

Thanks for checking it out!

On Life, Liberty, and a Visit to Philadelphia

20160705_103258Yesterday, I took a trip down to Philadelphia to film a video promotion for my recent article in Public Art Dialogue on Confederate monuments and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement (more on that in a future post!). While I was there, I decided to stop in at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to visit Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics, a new exhibition that just opened at PAFA to coincide with the arrival of the Democratic National Convention just down the street later this month. Co-curated by my friend Anna Marley and Jodi Throckmorton and installed in the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, the show features a wide array of works from PAFA’s permanent collection, all based around the theme, of politics, humor, and protest in American art. Juxtaposing historical works from the American art canon with more recent pieces by contemporary artists, Happiness, Liberty, Life? offers a fresh, inclusive perspective that will delight visitors to PAFA.

20160705_110916Walking into the show, the visitor immediately encounters a fun pairing of old and new: four colossal figures from Red Grooms’ 1982 Philadelphia Cornucopia, placed alongside wooden statues of Wisdom and Justice carved by William Rush c. 1824. Both of these artists created these pieces in a celebratory atmosphere: Rush carved his statues to adorn a Grand Civic Arch in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Philadelphia, while Grooms conceived his enormous Cornucopia, originally a much larger installation with myriad sculpted forms, for the city of Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary. In preparation for this exhibit at PAFA, the figures of George Washington, Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were painstakingly restored by a team of conservators.

20160705_104832That opening salvo paves the way for a series of gallery spaces that focus on political figures, satirical cartoons, civil rights, and protest. Many viewers will be familiar with the famous representations displayed along the “Wall of Washington,” which offers views of the first President in painting and print slyly interspersed with offerings by contemporary artist Kathy Aoki specifically commissioned for the show. (Look closely for famous faces currently on the minds of voters today!) But even more impressive is the exhibition’s commitment to displaying work by a diverse range of modern and contemporary artists, including many works by women and artists of


Betye Saar, Blackbird, 2002, double-sided mixed media assemblage and collage on vintage blackboard

color. These include Barbara Kruger, Faith Ringgold, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Horace Pippin and many more. Reflecting this diversity of perspectives is a wide array of artistic media, from traditional painting and sculpture to works on paper, fabric, and mixed media. The result is a vibrant cross-section of works by American artists commenting on American life.

Across the courtyard in the Historic Landmark Building, the exhibition continues with “Commanders in Chief: Portraits of Power in the Washington Foyer.” This installation places Grand Manner portraits of George Washington and George III from the PAFA collection in dialogue with a contemporary portrait bust of Washington by Brian Tolle, which renders the first President in beads and fiberglass. Also included in this installation is Elaine de Kooning’s 1963 portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which will be on display at PAFA through the summer.


Installation view of “Commanders in Chief: Portraits of Power in the Washington Foyer”

20160705_111833_001Happiness, Liberty, Life? will be on display at PAFA through September 18, and you should check it out if you’re anywhere near Philadelphia. And on the way out, don’t miss the photo opportunity to take on the role of George Washington in Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait!

After my visit to PAFA and the meeting that brought me to Philadelphia for the day, I made one more stop to Logan Square to visit a monument. Summer is the time for course prep, and I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my classes for the fall, “War and Art in America.” I’m teaching the class in conjuction with PAFA’s fall exhibition World War I and American Art, and I am planning several field trips to take advantage of collections in Philadelphia to give students an opportunity to work directly with objects. Of course, public monuments are often the most visible artistic reminders of war, and I plan to deal with them extensively with my students this fall. Only a 20160705_145234few blocks away from PAFA, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, designed by J. Otto Schweizer and dedicated in 1934, may end up on my list of field trips. Based on my brief visit yesterday (the temperatures were over 90 degrees and I was worn out by the hot sun!) the memorial appears to depict several African-American soldiers in World War I uniforms clustered around an allegorical figure holding two wreaths. As is common with soldiers’ and sailors’ monuments, the soldiers depicted appear to represent the various branches of the armed forces who participated in the war. Plaques on the sides of the monument recognize the soldiers of the American Revolution, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and World War I. There is definitely more to this story, and I look forward to figuring it out as I plan my fall syllabus. All in all, a stimulating trip to Philadelphia!



New Commentary on Teaching the American Art Survey


Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Source: Library of Congress)

It seems that summer is the season for new publications to appear! My most recent short essay,  “Teaching American Art to American Artists: Object-Based Learning at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” was published today in the Summer 2016 issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. The essay is part of a roundtable on pedagogy headed by an essay by Jules Prown reflecting on his decades of experience teaching American art and material culture. Alongside Prown’s essay are reflections by three of his students, Bryan J. Wolf, Margaretta M. Lovell, and Glenn Adamson, and five “reflections from the front lines” written by Jessica L. Horton, Kevin R. Muller, Sarah Anne Carter, Jason D. LaFountain, and yours truly. It was an honor to be invited to participate in this issue.

My essay reflects on my experiences teaching the American art survey to studio art students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I have been a lecturer in art history at PAFA since Spring 2015, and during that time I have developed teaching methods that take advantage of the institution’s rich collection of American art and my students’ natural abilities in visual learning. Specifically, I created the gallery talk, an assignment that requires students to research individual works in the PAFA collection and then to lead their classmates in a discussion of the formal qualities, subject matter, and relevance of the work within the narrative of American art. In writing this piece, I hope to encourage art history instructors to experiment with object-based learning.

A brief excerpt:

The gallery talk proved valuable in several key ways. First, it gave students the opportunity to conduct discussions in formal analysis in front of works from the PAFA collection. This had the added benefit of breaking up our long class sessions: at PAFA, all classes are scheduled in three-hour blocks to accommodate studio instruction. Second, students had a chance to practice public speaking in a museum setting, a skill that will be important in their future careers as professional artists. Lastly, the gallery talk fostered a sense of camaraderie among the students: because each student took a turn in leading discussion, they were highly motivated to participate in discussion during their classmates’ talks. Assigning the students to become the instructors also gave them insight into my role in fostering discussion each week, and class participation improved overall. This sense of belonging extended to include the school itself, as students made connections between their experiences today and to the training of American artists that is the legacy of PAFA.

To access my full essay, CLICK HERE. To read all the other essays included in the roundtable on pedagogy, CLICK HERE. For a full table of contents of the latest issue of Panorama, which includes many excellent essays, CLICK HERE.