Fall 2008

Break-up of the Year: Art and Art History

By Emily Devoe —

After more than fifty years of partnership, the Department of Art and Art History is no longer together. Separation was initiated by the Art History side of the department and presented first to the Committee on Educational Policies and Planning and then to the Skidmore faculty. The decision to split was unanimous. The Art History major was introduced to the college as part of the Art Department during the 1953-1954 school year. Art History was added to the Art Department with the intention that it would benefit the training of studio artists. From this point on, Art History remained under the auspices of the Art Department. The formal title “Department of Art and Art History” was a recent peace offering towards the field of study, but left an even stronger desire for freedom. As interest in the field was cultivated in students and the professional involvements of professors grew, Art History Faculty began to speak out about their desire for an individual identity as a department by way of separation.

When Skidmore relocated to its North Broadway campus in the 1970s, Art History received its first taste of independence. Physically the “department” separated from its maternal figure and moved into the Scribner Library. Art historians, with their heavy tomes laden with reproductions and text, slides, and Artstor images still reside there today. For years the Art History Professors’ offices consisted of little more than carrels in the library, surviving without a formal office or secretary.

Professor Penny Jolly took the initiative to become the first Director of the Art History Program in 1985. This position did not lend itself to much power within the greater Art Department but it did allow her to act in evaluating the Art History Faculty, arranging speakers, approving student requests, setting up art history courses, evaluating student credits, and running a separate budget. This improvement within the program allowed for greater and more influential changes. Real offices, an Art History prize, and a part-time secretary all participated in the legitimization of the department.

Reasons for the break-up stemmed from the professional and scholarly differences that exist between Art and Art History as academic fields. How student work is evaluated, how professors work with students, and expectations all differ greatly between the two subjects. Under the conglomerate department all professors had to collectively evaluate many decisions concerning tenure, hiring, promotion, and reappointment. With the increasing differences in practices and methodologies amongst studio artists and art historians, such influential decisions became increasingly difficult to make. For artists and art historians to evaluate each other in subject areas out of their academic domain was challenging and uncomfortable. Thus, breaking into separate departments became the apparent solution.

Seemingly, this change can only be positive. More focused attention in a smaller setting makes more sense both professionally and in creating stronger academic departments. Independently, the Art History Department may be small, but it certainly has gained recognition, especially with the upcoming Alfred Z. Solomon Residency at the Tang Museum which devotes a large sum of money to inviting speakers related to topics concerning art and art history. The residency is focused on uniting the museum with what faculty in the art and art history departments feel is most relevant to their courses by way of inviting artists and scholars to campus. The first Alfred Z. Solomon Residency is titled “The Future of Art History” and will be taking place Thursday November 20th, and Friday November 21st at 6:30pm at the Tang. Speakers include James Elkins of the Art Institute in Chicago and Robert Lehman of Yale University

While the initial impact may seem as minimal as a change in stationary, each department has a shot at securing a solid place within Skidmore’s academic departments. With regards to the future of the newly independent Art History Department, Professor Penny Jolly says, “let’s celebrate!”