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    A woman walking from right to left through a gallery of the National Gallery's East Building. Three abstract paintings are hanging on the wall in the background.

    Dean’s Report

    Center 41

    Steven Nelson
    May 2021

    On March 6, 2020, when my appointment as the third dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts was announced, none of us could have predicted the unprecedented events that would soon follow. To protect visitors and staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Gallery of Art closed its doors on Friday, March 13. Most operations not essential to the maintenance and protection of the collection and facilities shifted to telework. The Center community immediately became virtual. Our four programs—fellowships, meetings, publications, and research—utilized the museum’s existing IT framework as well as new software in order to continue our mission. In the face of uncertainty, responsiveness and adaptability were essential, and Center staff and fellows had those qualities in abundance.  


    Conservator Maggie Welling (left) leads a virtual tour of the photography conservation lab for the Center with the assistance of Caroline Marsh, regular meetings coordinator, October 2020

    I began my tenure as dean in July 2020, and I feel fortunate to take the helm of a research center with a celebrated, decades-long tradition of scholarship and programming. Having been a member of the Center community in various capacities over the last several years, I knew from firsthand experience the environment of productivity, creativity, and dedication that I would join. My colleagues at the Center and the National Gallery have warmly welcomed me and have responded to the challenges and opportunities of transition with enthusiasm and aplomb. This has been a year of extremes as we endure not only a global pandemic, but cultural and political upheavals and unrest—from deep sadness to joy, from isolation to community building, from stagnation to evolution. The strength and resilience of the Center and National Gallery staff as well as the institution itself have been impressive. I have joined the National Gallery’s leadership team as an executive officer at a remarkable moment of introspection, as the institution reflects on its role as a cultural leader and on how it must evolve to better represent the present as well as meet the future. I believe my role as dean is to support the Center both in maintaining its continued excellence and in creating a more welcoming, inclusive hub of innovation that holds people at its core. The dean’s role is also to partner with other parts of the National Gallery in the interest of fulfilling its vision, mission, and values. 

    This year the Center welcomed fellows in residence affiliated with institutions in the United States and United Kingdom. Fellowships were virtual, with members offered the option to either safely relocate to housing provided in Washington, DC, or remain remote, whichever benefited their research. The fellows joined us virtually from across the United States, Europe, and Asia. While limited access to archives, libraries, and collections affected us all, Center fellows advanced their scholarship in creative ways with support from the extraordinary staff of the National Gallery of Art Library. Their research topics ranged from life drawing in Latin American academies of art in the 19th century to the intersections of classical French painting and imperial Ottoman aesthetics; from early modern Portuguese tomb sculpture to the role and relationship of sacred geographies in Mughal temple architecture and politics; from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala and the changing conceptualizations of the history of Mexico through its copied image to the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a pivotal patron of art and architecture from the Reconstruction era into the 20th century.  

    Dell Upton of the University of California, Los Angeles, this year’s Kress-Beinecke Professor, presented the inaugural colloquium of the academic year on a timely topic: “Graven Images: Monuments beyond the Confederacy.” An avid photographer, he combined scholarly and artistic craft on regular site visits to Virginia churches and cemeteries, as well as walking tours with other fellows in residence. Upton also acted as an advisor to the predoctoral fellows. This was an especially vital role during a year of exceptional challenges, as all the predoctoral fellows were remote for at least part of the year as they navigated completing dissertations and preparing for job interviews. Upton facilitated a seminar with the predoctoral fellows on the topic of “Historical Thinking,” in which the group explored issues such as the nature of evidence, the idea of cause, processes of change, and the act of writing history. In the first year of his two-year appointment, Huey Copeland, Andrew W. Mellon Professor, made progress in his own research and acted as mentor to the postdoctoral fellows and research associates. He advanced his second book project, In the Shadow of the Negress, as well as refining a collection of edited essays titled “Touched by the Mother”: On Black Men, the Aesthetic Field, and Other Feminist Horizons. Copeland is also coediting the Center’s forthcoming publication, Black Modernisms

    In October, the Center announced the creation of the Beinecke Postdoctoral Fellowship made possible through the generosity of Frederick W. Beinecke, the National Gallery’s trustee emeritus, and his family. This is a biennial two-year appointment with residency in Washington, DC. During the first year, the Beinecke Postdoctoral Fellow will advance their scholarship as a member of the Center community while engaging with the larger museum. In the second year, they will continue their research while teaching one course at a nearby academic institution. This fellowship provides necessary research and teaching opportunities for recent PhDs as well as forging and strengthening links between the Center and the local academic community. 


    Jennifer L. Roberts prepares for the 70th A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Art Study Center at the Harvard Art Museums, February 2020. Photo: Stephen Creane

    All meetings were held virtually this year and from these circumstances came the opportunity to reconfigure and reimagine programming with the aid of new technologies. The creativity and collaboration of Center and National Gallery staff were truly impressive. They explored new formats to best achieve the intention of each program. Interinstitutional and interdepartmental teamwork was indispensable to execute the vision. With all of these programs in place and unbound by the capacity and locality of the museum, the Center expanded its reach and audiences. Moreover, live closed-captioning was a boon for accessibility. Though virtual, the Center remained as dynamic as ever. 

    Regular meetings, such as colloquia and shoptalks, as well as community-building activities like departmental tours and social hours, were held over Zoom. Megan Holmes of the University of Michigan delivered the 24th Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art, entitled “Telling the Past Differently: Italian Renaissance Art in the Hands of the Beholder.” This prerecorded lecture premiered on the National Gallery’s website in October and was followed by an incontro with the Center community titled “Reading Italian Panel Paintings against the Grain.” This event provided an opportunity for Center fellows and National Gallery staff to engage with the lecturer and her research.  

    In the program of special meetings, the Center cosponsored, with the University of Maryland, the 51st Middle Atlantic Symposium in the History of Art. In May, Penelope Curtis, Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, led a virtual colloquy for an invited group of international curators, who together thought about strategies for working with museum collections. Curtis also gave a lecture titled “Space and Time in the Museum.” Two new audio and video recordings of past Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professors David Bomford (2018) and Thomas Kren (2016) were added to the series Reflections on the Collection: The Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professors at the National Gallery of Art. Jennifer L. Roberts of Harvard University delivered the 70th A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts on the topic Contact: Art and the Pull of Print. The lecture series premiered on the National Gallery’s website in April with support from the National Gallery’s Department of Digital Experiences, and Roberts also met with the Center community to discuss her research. The lectures will be published in Bollingen Series XXXV by Princeton University Press. Hal Foster’s Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg, based on his 2018 lectures, was published in the series last fall. Coming from her 2016 lectures, Vidya Dehejia’s The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 appeared in May. 


    The panel discussion of “Feminism in American Art History,” the Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, was held with live closed-captioning and chat via Zoom, December 11, 2021

    This year’s biennial Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, “Feminism in American Art History,” was held in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Linda Nochlin’s landmark essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The two-part symposium, consisting of eight prerecorded lectures and a live panel discussion, was supported by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Presentations and discussions from distinguished, innovative scholars revealed the latest thinking in the history and historiography of feminism and gender in American art and its intersections with other disciplines. In April, the Center cosponsored Howard University’s 31st Annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora. This year’s program, titled “Defining Diaspora: 21st-Century Developments in Art of the African Diaspora,” celebrated the centennial of Howard’s Department of Art and brought together artists and art historians to explore some of the aesthetic practices, critical issues, and interpretations pertaining to art of the African Diaspora. 


    Association of Research Institutes in Art History intern Mikala Jones presents her project to Center staff, November 2020

    It has been gratifying to watch the Center continue to excel at what it does best, as well as move in new and exciting directions. Recently developed initiatives and partnerships have bolstered research, programming, and engagement. Developing communications strategies and alumni-driven programming has strengthened the existing Center community, while research and program collaborations expand our outreach and impact in varying directions and to new audiences. Of these new constituencies, the Center has begun to prioritize undergraduate students. In addition to forming an undergraduate engagement committee charged with designing new events, the Center joined seven partner institutions from the Association of Research Institutes in Art History to create the Careers in Art History Internships. During the week of November 16, 10 interns from around the United States joined us to learn about how a research center works. During their time with us, Center staff discussed their professional duties and the myriad paths that brought them to the National Gallery. The interns also worked with research associates Valeria Federici and Matthew J. Westerby on the Center’s ongoing projects. From exploring guidebooks and drawings to editing images and working with data sets, the interns received a hands-on introduction to digital art history.  


    Howard University students discussing Pansies in Washington (1969) by Alma Thomas at the National Gallery during a class visit. Photo by Melanee C. Harvey, spring 2019

    Through a new partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center, Dominic Cervantes, a student at East Los Angeles College, spent the month of January as a remote intern with the Center. During this time, Dominic worked with Afro-Atlantic Histories team members, research associate Lauren Taylor, National Gallery exhibition designer Lee Weaver, and me on object research and exhibition design. 

    In March, the Center announced a multiyear undergraduate paid internship program in partnership with Howard University and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This four-year pilot program aims to create pathways to careers in museums and arts-related organizations for students attending historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions that serve populations underrepresented in museums and academia. This initiative builds on the Center’s long tradition of supporting students and aligns with the National Gallery’s strategic plan to address diversity and accessibility in the museum field. We begin our planning phase in August 2021 and the first cohort of students will be welcomed to the Center in fall 2022. I look forward to sharing with you the progress of this initiative as well as all Center activities in the years to come.

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