Inspiring the next generation of art historians

A Yale professor and graduate student in the Department of the History of Art are part of a new Museum Research Consortium created by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A pilot program that launched in early September, the consortium brings together students in the graduate art history programs at five universities to work alongside museum staff at MoMA. The partner institutions are Yale, Princeton, and Columbia universities; the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University; and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. One of the program’s main goals is to create a framework for training and educating the next generation of art historians and museum curators.

“The program is an excellent way to get people to think more creatively about how to link art history and museum studies,” says David Joselit, the Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale, who also serves on the consortium’s steering committee. “Yale is a natural partner given its own history of using the university’s rich collections in teaching practice.”

The first class of pre-doctoral fellows from the five partner institutions includes Kirsty Dootson, a graduate student at Yale. Dootson is spending the next 12 months working with Anne Umland, a curator of paintings and sculpture at MoMA, on a retrospective of the work of artist Francis Picabia (who is also in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery and Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library). This is Dootson’s first experience working in a museum setting, which she says will help her become a more rounded scholar and curator.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see first-hand the internal workings of the museum and how they operate. Until now, it’s been a mystery,” says Dootson.

In addition to researching key works of art at MoMA, Dootson is learning about insuring shows, indemnities, loan agreements, and permissions. “It feels like every day I’m taking in an immense amount of information that is incredibly useful,” she noted.

Dootson spends four days a week working on the Picabia retrospective and one day a week meeting with her fellow consortium members, working towards a year-end project. The fellows are collaborating on an online forum focused on the French artist Jean Dubuffet (also in the art gallery and Beinecke collections). The final project will be a website to which scholars and curators from across the consortium can contribute information about the artist and his works. In addition, semi-annual study days supported by the Mellon grant allow opportunities for further conversation.

“For the final product we want an online forum to which scholars and curators can contribute information. For example, a curator will be able to share a certain type of information about a painting, and a historian can chime in and add new details,” notes Dootson, adding that she has been impressed with the rigor of her MoMA colleagues. “It would be incredible if every graduate could work as efficiently!”

“One the Museum Research Consortium's main goals,” said Leah Dickerman, a curator at MoMA and the director of the initiative, “is to bring academic and museum colleagues together in training and mentoring the next generation of art historians and curators. Working alongside someone on a common project is a particularly effective way to teach.”

According to Joselit, Yale has also been very progressive about making links between its museums and academic programs, citing the study rooms at the newly renovated Yale University Art Gallery as an example. He noted that teaching from the collections extends beyond the history of art program and includes history, English, and comparative literature studies, among others. “It’s been an enormous success,” he added.