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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 43

Steven Nelson
Summer 2023

This year, the Center’s residential community is affiliated with institutions in the United States, Canada, and Italy, with representation across 18 states and the District of Columbia. From 17th-century Dutch and Chinese art exchanges to ancient narratives of madness, to Latin American video art, to the performance of Indigenous feminist futures in Native American art, this year’s cohort is broadening our understanding in myriad art-historical and architectural fields. I hope you will explore the close to 50 research reports that provide an excellent summary of their time at the Center.

Tour of the photograph conservation lab, October 2022

In addition to Center-led exhibition tours and gallery talks, we continue to expand access to our members’ research for the greater academic community and the general public. For the first time, colloquia—talks given by senior professors and fellows of the Center—were promoted as public hybrid events on the National Gallery’s calendar. Over the course of the academic year, colloquia averaged 200 attendees across in-person and virtual platforms. In September, H. Perry Chapman, this year’s Kress-Beinecke Professor, presented the inaugural colloquium, “Rembrandt’s Art History: Rivaling Rubens.” She also served as advisor to the predoctoral fellows, from hosting workshops on dissertation introductions and chapter formulation to providing mock interviews and organizing sessions with early-career National Gallery curators.

The interdisciplinary and collaborative practice of Andrew W. Mellon Professor Adriana Zavala is inspiring and a model for us all. I cannot wait to see how her research on feminist AfroLatinx and Latinx artists continues to develop. This spring, Zavala teamed up with postdoctoral research associate Angélica Becerra and David E. Finley Predoctoral Fellow Davida Fernández-Barkan on a gallery talk for the Center community about Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, temporarily on display at the National Gallery courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gail Feigenbaum, Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, hit the ground running upon her arrival in January. With Center support, she organized a colloquy around the social practices of catalogues raisonnés, which included a keynote lecture by Antoinette Friedenthal of Potsdam, Germany, titled “Oeuvromania in the Age of Reason.” The colloquy welcomed over 35 participants from ten institutions, including significant representation from our National Gallery colleagues.

Howard University undergraduate interns visit the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, December 2022

We welcomed our first cohort of Howard University undergraduate interns this year. Keauna Brantley, Amaya Charley, Dana Goodridge, Kennedy Martin, Sacha Reid, and Munyang Tengen participated in weekly seminars that introduced topics in art history, museum studies, and related fields along with a focus on professional exploration and skill-building. They interacted with National Gallery colleagues and staff from various museums and cultural institutions through exhibition tours, department and institutional visits, research-in-progress and career spotlights, and hands-on activities. One highlight was their visit to New Haven, where they met staff from the Yale Center for British Art and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Another was their April rendezvous at the National Gallery with the AUC Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, which comprises students from Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. The interns’ capstone project was constructing and leading thematic tours of the National Gallery collection for museum staff and the public. We’re excited to see them flourish as members of various National Gallery departments this summer as we anticipate our second cohort in September.

The Center produced numerous programs, ranging from public symposia to invitational study days. In the fall, we cohosted the virtual series Celebrating Conservation: A Series of Conversations on Its Past, Present, and Future with the National Gallery’s conservation division. The program, which took place over four Mondays, consisted of 12 recorded presentations from conservators, administrators, curators, and professors based in the United States and United Kingdom, followed by moderated discussions among groups of speakers. With over 750 attendees across the four live events, along with 5,400 views of the recorded lectures over four months, Celebrating Conservation shows the promise and possibilities of virtual programming.

Cammy Brothers presents the the 26th Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art, “Michelangelo, Raphael, and the Genius Paradox,” November 2022. Photo: Jen Rokoski

The Center also organized several annual lectures. In November, Cammy Brothers of Northeastern University delivered the 26th Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art, “Michelangelo, Raphael, and the Genius Paradox.” In the spring, Stephen D. Houston of Brown University presented the 72nd A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, titled Vital Signs: The Visual Cultures of Maya Writing. Houston’s discussions explored the complex system of Maya writing (“glyphs”) of ancient Mexico and Central America, enabling us to understand more fully the relationship of language and image. All six lectures were streamed on YouTube Live and, for the first time in Mellon Lecture history, were immediately available to watch and share. Both Brothers and Houston participated in dialogues with the Center community, allowing us to further engage with their work.

Three Center programs were organized around National Gallery exhibitions. In June 2022, we hosted a study day on Afro-Atlantic Histories in collaboration with the Department of Performance Studies at New York University (NYU). With Ford Foundation support, this program brought together artists, curators, critics, and scholars from Brazil and the United States. Part of the program included a public conversation with the Brazilian and American curatorial teams. After two days of events at the National Gallery, the group continued to NYU for three days of meetings, called Afro-Atlantic Futures, focused on themes raised by the exhibition and how they might help us to imagine Afro-Atlantic futures of our own making.

Held in October and co-organized with James Meyer, curator of modern art and creator of the exhibition The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900, “Double Vision: Identity and Difference in Modern and Contemporary Art” featured presentations exploring the exhibition’s themes of doubling in visual practice, followed by moderated discussions. During the symposium, local dance troupe Deviated Theatre activated Josiah McElheny’s Two Walking Mirrors in the East Building Concourse, followed by a presentation by the artist about his practice.

Lonnie Holley performing at “The Work in the World: Thinking through Called to Create,” March 2023

In March we celebrated the exhibition Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South with a study day and public program, “The Work in the World: Thinking through Called to Create.” Organized in close collaboration with Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of the department of modern and contemporary art; Kanitra Fletcher, associate curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic art; and Jennifer Riddell, interpretation manager, this two-part program combined intimate conversations in the galleries among study day participants with a public program that included artists and academics. Presenters explored how the exhibition’s themes as well as the artists and their practices have entered various new worlds—from galleries to museums, to artists’ studios, to academia—and to what extent they have transformed one another. All of these programs were organized with the goal of bringing together visual art, academic inquiry, curatorial and conservation expertise, storytelling, and musical performance to explore topics in new and surprising ways.

The Center’s initiative in Latinx art made its debut with the 2023 Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, “Staking Claim: Latinx Art and US American Experiences.” Participants explored Latinx art and empire as well as intersections between Latinx art and artists and the broader US American art scene. We welcomed hundreds of audience members in the East Building Auditorium and online. Virtual attendees hailed from seven countries: Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including Puerto Rico. None of this could have happened without the dedication and generous collaboration of E. Carmen Ramos, chief curatorial and conservation officer, and Adriana Zavala. We’re looking forward to furthering this initiative.

The Center continues to collaborate with local institutions. Cosponsored with the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, the 53rd annual Middle Atlantic Symposium in the History of Art featured a day of presentations by eight graduate students from the mid-Atlantic region. In addition to planning and building the Howard University Undergraduate Internship program, in April the Center partnered with Howard to cohost the James A. Porter Colloquium. The East Building Auditorium was the setting for an inspiring day of artist conversations, lectures, panel discussions, and film screenings, all supporting African American and African Diasporic art and architecture. 

Juan Sánchez and Adriana Zavala in discussion during  the 2023 Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, “Staking Claim: Latinx Art and US American Experiences,” January 2023

The Center’s publications team had a banner year, stewarding three new volumes to shelves along with a new Mellon Lectures volume in partnership with Princeton University Press. We released two new volumes in the Center’s series Studies in the History of Art. Boundary Trouble in American Vanguard Art, 1920–2020, edited by National Gallery of Art senior curator Lynne Cooke, defies binaries between “self-taught” and “professional” artists. The volume’s 16 interdisciplinary essays challenge established narratives of American and modernist art and expand how we can engage with works historically marginalized within mainstream visual culture. Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington emanates from the 2017 Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, “The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, DC.” Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the book’s 15 essays, grounded by voices from the symposium’s artist panel, attend to the people and institutions that created and sustained a complex ecosystem of Black art in Washington. Published this spring, Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World, edited by Huey Copeland of the University of Pennsylvania and me, is the fourth installment of our Seminar Papers series. This text insists on a remaking of the boundaries of modernist art through a changed set of imperatives, ethics, and boundaries. By doing so, the volume seeks to redefine the past and present of modernist art and modernism. In March we welcomed Alexander Nemerov for a book discussion and signing of The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s. Nemerov and Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post discussed the book and its formation in relation to Nemerov’s 2017 Mellon Lectures. 

The Center hosted the third meeting of the seminar “Art Academies: Europe and the Americas, c. 1600–1900” in the fall. Organized by Center associate dean Peter M. Lukehart, Ulrich Pfisterer of Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, and Oscar E. Vázquez of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the participants’ presentations will form the basis for our next Seminar Papers publication.

This year saw several appointments to Center staff. Kaira M. Cabañas began her tenure as associate dean for academic programs and publications in March. In this role, she manages our symposia, lectures, meetings, and other academic gatherings as well as oversees our publications. This spring, Matthew J. Westerby was appointed as the Center’s digital research officer. This new role is dedicated to the planning and implementation of the Center’s scholarly initiatives in digital research and the production of knowledge in the humanities and art history. Sarah Battle became the Center’s coordinator of academic programs and publications last fall, and Gary Calcagno is the Center’s newest gallery support specialist. Most recently, Thomas Edwards joined our staff as fellowship officer. Our new colleagues have energized the Center, helping to fulfill our vision, mission, and values with increased vigor.