A Conversation: Art, Art History, the Phillips…

Last October, the University of Maryland and the Phillips Collection announced a formal partnership.  The Faculty Voice invited Meredith Gill, the Chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, and  W.C. “Chip” Richardson, the Chair of the Department of Art, to discuss the implications of the affiliation for their departments, and the broader role of the arts at the University.  The conversation was recorded and has been edited for length and clarity.

FV What does the affiliation with the Phillips Collection mean to your departments?  What effect does it have?

MG Well, I think the first thing to say is that this is not simply a partnership that will have ramifications and very positive impact on the Department of Art History and Archaeology and the Department of Art but also on the campus more broadly.

CR Meredith and I were both on the Corcoran task force that examined possibilities there.   One of the driving factors there was that we I think are the only big 10 institution without a museum, and so the desire to have a relationship with a museum made a lot of sense.  Having a “front porch” in the District of Columbia made a lot of sense.  As I understand it from [Provost] Mary Ann Rankin, the Phillips reached out to us after the thing with the Corcoran sort of evaporated.  The Phillips had a previous arrangement or agreement with George Washington University, and with the University of Illinois before that.  You know, there are a number of universities—national universities—that have offices and/or homes in the District.   So I think this was a mutually positive option here because the Phillips is a much smaller and more manageable institution.  The Phillips is a more natural fit, primarily—and I don’t mean to speak for you, Meredith—the direct fit is with Art History, because it is a museum, but they also have good program of visiting artists, visiting lecturers, visiting scholars that they’ve engaged in.

FV It is really a top-flight museum.

CR Absolutely.

FV [Duncan] Phillips was an astounding collector.

CR It’s one of my favorite museums in the entire country.  So as long as our department, which is very impoverished, didn’t have to pay for this, I was very happy to join in.

MG I will say, too, that we had the experience of working with a wide—how to say it—an inclusive group of people from Maryland on the Corcoran task force—people from Computer Engineering, people from the School of Architecture, people from English, as well as Student Life and so on—it was a wonderfully diverse task force divided into subcommittees, but there was a lot of energy generated among that group.  We tabled a document under the leadership of Mary Ann Rankin that I think served us very well, but also generated a lot enthusiasm for the idea of the University partnering with an area institution or art museum, and I think what happened with the Phillips Collection is that we’ve been able to fairly swiftly see the many real advantages for Maryland students and faculty, but also to connect with one really interesting institution within the Phillips which is their renamed University of Maryland-Phillips Collection Institute for Art and Knowledge, which is an entity within the Phillips which is quintessentially multidisciplinary in its ambition, but of course engages the arts, the visual arts, visual culture in a larger sense.  The collection, too, offers tremendous potential and transdisciplinary resources but this Center for Art and Knowledge now has two post-docs sponsored by Maryland—they had one before, but they’ve now extended that so that one is an art history post-doc and one is a post-doc in virtual culture—and again, not simply with an art historical orientation in either case—one probably more than the other—but really seeking to bring together these and other fields and the arts and humanities.  So that’s a valuable opportunity.

FV You mentioned the task force that worked on the Corcoran.  I assume this carried over to the Phillips.

CR Same task force.

MG Essentially.

FV Does this portend an extension of art and STEM is some way that is more than what it was?

CR Yes.

I hope so.

CR One thing that we felt: there has been a general ascension of the arts in the administrative rhetoric of this university, and there’s the Corcoran task force which turned into the Phillips task force—it’s basically a task force on the arts—there’s representatives from Clarice [Smith Performing Arts Center], from Music, from Architecture, from Computer Science, and other units.  The task force structure has definitely enhanced these interchanges. I think Mary Ann and [President] Wallace [Loh] recognized that from the start and that’s why they kept the task force together.   Amitabh Varshney, from UMIACS was also at the initial reception at the Phillips and David Cronrath, the current Dean of Architecture, will probably head up the whole thing from this end.  You know, you can talk about interdisciplinarity, but until you actually get people together in the same room, nothing much really happens.  From my end, I feel that this conversation has been very positive.

And I think with us being such a big institution, a benefit was simply sharing knowledge in these meetings about what was happening in our departments.

CR Right

MG The digital realm is something to which the libraries are committed, and to which we are committed upstairs in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture, which hosts a number of different kinds of meetings.

What I wanted to ask is: you are happy to participate in this interdisciplinary task force.  Do you feel you have participated enough?  Were you consulted in the different parts of it?

CR There is the language of initiatives and there’s the money of initiatives.  We’ve seen a lot on language.  I have to say that I believe that came from the discussion of about the Corcoran.  I think at the beginning Wallace Loh was asking us to educate him about the arts and the university and the region.  It makes perfect sense.  I do believe that moving to the Big 10 had something to do with all of this because probably 80% of the top 20 public university art schools and/or departments are in the Big 10.  So suddenly we have a much stronger peer group than when we were in the ACC.  As I had said before, we looked and I think we had the smallest collection and/or museum in the Big 10.  But if your question is—I sense a secondary reason for your question—are you asking was this a top-down decision or was this arrived at collegially?

MG I will say that I think the news was a little slow to reach us that these discussions were underway.  I understand that there was commitment to discretion, to confidentiality.  I think that’s normal when large institutions are negotiating with one another.

FV Especially when the predecessor had failed.

MG Exactly.  So I think we understood that when we were brought in.

CR It succeeded.  I was the chief skeptic on that task force all the way along with the Corcoran.  That would have been a horrible mistake.  We’re lucky we dodged that bullet.  I mean economically alone it would have been a bad mistake.  But that’s water under the bridge.  As far as your question goes: we were in on this pretty early.  We were in on this before the understanding was finalized.  I feel that I can call Mary Ann Rankin up and talk to her directly, and I could probably call Wallace Loh up, as well.  The mechanism of it was a little bit difficult, and felt rushed and crunched, primarily because it happened late in the fall semester with the winter ahead of us, but I don’t feel it’s been mistakenly rushed in any way.  I think that there’s great potential here for moving the arts forward at Maryland.  I will say that it is far better than the last 20 years of my experience here, when they said “the arts,” and they only meant the performing arts.

I think there’s a real opportunity for President Loh and his administration, who are relatively newly arrived, to learn about the longer history of the accomplishments of our departments.  There are longstanding ties with the Corcoran and the arts community.  We know that community, whether from an art historical or artistic practice point of view.  By the same token, we have many existing ties with the Phillips.  There are current faculty and alumni who have curated shows at the Phillips, who work at the Phillips, who have very close ties, and did, before this was announced.  So I think it is useful on a mutual educational level.  It’s like, “Well we didn’t realize one of your alums was this high up in the museum,” and had such close ties to Maryland.

FV Could you say a few words concerning initiatives and money.

Um, let me see how to say this politically…we are very, very poor.  What can I say?   This is not the forum to whine about money, but the arts are expensive.  And the arts have been neglected, visual arts, and particularly studio arts—I’m not speaking for Art History at all—have been very neglected over the years.

FV What exactly do you get out of this affiliation beyond issues of prestige, etc?  What does it mean for a student or faculty member in your two realms.

CR On the studio side, it’s rather simple, because this is a secondary connection to what we do.  From our perspective, it means better visiting programs that enhance what we do, but for what we teach, there will be no art classes at the Phillips.  Most important in some regards is its proximity to the Metro and our students will all have free admission.  Students are much more likely to go to a free museum, and I understand it—I am more likely to go to a free museum.  So the contemporary programming of the arts, whether it’s music or lectures, will be great for our students, because we’ll have a channel of disseminating information, of advertising, of directness, and our name’s going to be attached.  Another element which I and many of my colleagues are excited about is that they asked us to join in the programming of the visiting artists—the conversations with artists program.  They have over the last decade become more a contemporary-facing museum.  They have a contemporary program they did not have for many years.  So, that’s good.   I think Art History has a much more direct…
MG I think that’s absolutely true, and there is a group of subcommittees working on aspects of the partnership.  One will be devoted to education, which will have to do with curricula developed for undergraduates, but also graduates.   There is a fellowship committee; there’s a committee that deals with the musical partnership because they have a distinguished program in music, with the people at the Clarice as a very natural intersection.  There’s the planned offsite storage facility in Prince Georges County.  And there will be hands-on encounters for students across the campus with real objects in the collection…

CR Now that would be fantastic.

MG Conservation, storage, exhibition practice will come up there, but also I think potentially down at the Phillips.  There’s the artists’ conversation series—there’s a committee on it.

CR They want input from both faculty and graduates in our program, which is exciting for our graduate students.  This will be an attractor.  When we’re recruiting graduate students, this is absolutely a plus, and I assume even more so in your case, because it gives them a really excellent museum to interact with directly.  Not that you didn’t have those connections already, but this really enhances it.

MG I should say this is all extremely early on in the process.  It’s a work in progress.  I think what excites me is the idea of bringing students into the museum, even an existing class that I teach, and having some kind of focused projects, not just on the historical perspective — say, the research behind a painting — or the history of the provenance of the work, a collector, whatever, but things to do with conservation science, things to do with the digital initiatives that are now going on in the worlds of the arts and humanities.  The Phillips is, for example, working with us on digitizing their own archival collection, using Maryland’s knowhow.

CR I believe that’s one of the major attractors for the Phillips.  It is Maryland’s expertise in all things digital.

And I mean archival, as well as visual culture.

What Quint is doing with augmented reality.

MG He is the Director of our Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture upstairs.  Quint Gregory.

There’s no denying that the world is considerably more visual than it was a decade ago.  The technologies at our fingertips, with computers, iPads, phones—you know, it’s right here all the time.   And universities have been faster to engage in that than museums, so museums do benefit from that and, for lack of better term, we benefit from museum formatting.  The museums have a lot of really interesting raw material to work with and can benefit greatly from our digital know-how—the Collaboratory is a great example of this—because the application of digital technology to historical maps, archaeological elements, etc, has just exploded up there.  It’s another opportunity to expand research in the arts, both from a maker’s point of view as well, because our students spend many hours in the studio but they need to get out there and see the real things, and this is a great opportunity for them.

MG [Issues of financial support for the affiliation] have come up in a very open way, in fact, with a meeting with our two partner departments and the Provost, which she graciously hosted, and we talked about how exciting all this was, and promising, but we—I’ll speak for myself because I think I raised it—would be glad for some consideration of the resources that will necessarily have to be engaged, both administrative and material, and speaking as a chair, of course I am deeply concerned about faculty time and the very complex issues, for example, of scheduling.  I’m very keen that we have a shuttle bus between campus and the Phillips so that our students will feel that it’s easier to get downtown than otherwise.  Other people think maybe the Metro is the better option, but I think that’s a perception issue.  This is a way to articulate strategically, but in a very positive way, and for the benefit of our students, what we need.  Do you think so, Chip?

Yes, I think that says it very well.

FV Are there any joint appointments now between you and the Phillips?

MG We have now launched the new kind of post-docs hosted by the University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge.  There used to be only one post-doc at the Phillips, in Art History, and now there are two under the aegis of both institutions and those post-docs will also teach as part of their obligation. It is still on the drawing board.

That could grow.  And evolve.  This is a five-year agreement with hopes for extension.  If Wallace Loh and [Prince Georges County Executive] Rushern Baker, who’s very excited about this, are successful in whatever financial magic they need to do, to have a storage and interactive archive storage space for the Phillips out here in College Park, I would assume that there’s great potential for moving the University of Maryland Art Gallery there, or merging.  We don’t really know how that would work out.  I’m going to be involved with that part of it, so I’m excited about that piece.  We’re hoping that if and when it comes, it is right next to the College Park Metro, because it’s not going to be viable as a museum bringing people from DC out here unless it’s right there.  It can’t be a shuttle bus.  This is mistaken thinking.  We made a mistake not having a stop right on campus.  The Brooklyn Museum is a great example of a museum with open, interactive storage.  You go to the Brooklyn Museum and you can go right into their storage.  It’s all behind chain link, but there are computer work stations everywhere, and you can look up the item, and read about the historical context, whatever, right there, and so it’s not just for researchers.  It’s for real people.  Most museums can only show a fraction of what they have and it’s the job of curators and organizers to rotate and make selections according to projects they are working on, but just to see it in the racks, I found really invigorating.  I spent more time back in the racks of the Brooklyn Museum than I did going through their exhibitions.   From my perspective as chair of the Art Department, we are in need of space.  We could double our graphic design program and fill every seat and still have people knocking at the door.  We don’t have the faculty; we don’t have the space at this point, so from my point of view, there’s a certain leveragable positive value to this relationship with the Phillips because it is a sign of the University making those commitments I was talking about.  It’s the beginning, not the end.  And I’m very hopeful that it will continue to keep the light on us.

MG And I have to say the staff of the Phillips has been very accommodating and flexible.  We have a couple of graduate students who had very important responsibilities at the Phillips before they came to Maryland.  Again, we’re at the early stages and we’re at the point of asking ourselves what are the strategic initiatives that we want to get going—what are the concepts and specific projects that we want to focus on?  What are the classes that we can teach first, perhaps more easily?   What are the more ambitious initiatives we might dream about perhaps in year 3 or 4?  It’s still very early.

CR I have a number of friends who are in the sciences at this university, and they asked, “Why are they doing this?”  More with the Corcoran than the Phillips, I think, but the same question.  “You know, this money could be for labs.”  But a very tangible positive of this is that we’re in the same room together.   We’ve been talking with folks from computer science for a year about Wallace Loh’s strong support for the digital design initiative.  Well, that’s a conversation, not an initiative.  And that was really more to my point.  There’s a lot of initiatives.  But it’s the dollars and cents that make initiatives happen.  It’s not the words and it’s not the ideas.  There has to be the economic will behind it, because it will be a change of culture at this university, which has been so STEM dominated for so long.  And it’s true that STEM is where this university competes most strongly on a national level.  I think that, beginning with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the administration recognized the positive value that strong arts units provided to the university as a whole, not just for the arts themselves.  They realized we’re all in this together, and we share in this endeavor, and the idea of a university is all these parts fitting together.  It’s not a trade school; it’s not a tech school; it’s a university.

MG And I think it gives us an opportunity to articulate the relationship between the arts and the humanities, too.

CR That’s an important thing.

MG And I have to speak very locally right now, of course, as the chair of the Department of Art History.  I think that we’re beautifully placed in looking in both directions: with respect to visual culture, material and visual culture, but also with respect to the humanities and the way that humanists undertake their research—textually based, archivally based, philosophically inflected, whatever.  Art History has a wonderful pluralistic kind of self understanding.

CR You’re the fulcrum.

And I think what’s really wonderful here is —I mean perhaps the title Art History does a disservice, because it’s opaque — but, in truth, art historians have been considering scientific evidence, textual evidence, archival evidence, visual evidence, historical evidence of all kinds since the beginning of our discipline. And I think what’s really exciting here is opening up that conversation in an inclusive way to scientists as well as artists, and that’s where these collaborations may yield the most exciting results.

CR Absolutely right.

There are more shared interests than I think that at first sight one might realize.

It is an interesting alignment, arts and humanities together, and when I say interesting, I mean unique.  Most universities, it’s arts and sciences.  Visual arts are either in arts schools or colleges, or in Arts and Sciences.   I’ve often felt there were strong connections to laboratory sciences and visual arts.  It’s a “making” discipline; it’s a lab discipline; it’s trial and error.  You’re experimenting; you’re throwing out and your including things.  We’re less connected to the scholarly disciplines.  What’s interesting about art history is it is really the pivot point in this relationship, but you have many more artists now who are not traditional studio practitioners.  They’re really research artists.  Their work is much broader than just going into the studio and working away in the traditional disciplines.  Since 1999, every single faculty member that we have hired has had a digital engagement in their practice.  We hired a hybrid print maker, a digital artist who works with sound.  Our next hire will likely be a sculptor who is involved with digital fabrication, because increasingly you’re using computers to run equipment and machinery.  That’s the way the arts have moved, and that’s the way the university needs to move with the arts.  And we’re an art department, not an art school, so we’re not a conservatory.  The chair of Music, a very wise man named Bob Gibson, always talks about maintaining the connection with the liberal arts, not becoming just a conservatory.  The conservatory might not be the best model for a 21st century education in the arts.  So a university has much to gain if it recognizes that value, and that’s why we’re very positive about this stronger attention.  And I hope that reality follows the language.  I mean, it often does.  You change the words, you change the law, reality shifts to catch up with it.  And I think the Phillips is a very strong symbolic piece in that move.

FV How do you keep this in the center of the university’s attention?

I don’t think it’s realistic to hope to be in the center.  This is a state school with a strong STEM orientation.  The arts and humanities have been neglected at this university—since 1978 when I came here—compared to many other state schools.   I went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  It is very strong in the humanities and links them to pre-professional education in medicine, law, dentistry, etc.  NC State is very strong in design, architecture, in engineering, animal sciences, and computer science—things like that.   While there are overlaps and connections, there is a division.  Maryland is trying to do both.   And I think that this can potentially help both the arts and the humanities, and indeed, the STEM disciplines.  In the Renaissance—I mean, was Leonardo an artist or a scientist?

MG That’s just the thing.  Take my Honors course on Leonardo and the science of art, which I’ve taught for several years now.  And I have a wonderful colleague who teaches a course on color and it’s drawn a completely different constituency from among the students.  These are just two examples of things that are already on the books.  But you see I think our faculty and students will have the ideas that are going to draw the attention.  UMD is positioned to connect strengths across traditional divides.

FV Thank you.   There is certainly a lot here to think about.

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