Art History Department Explores Diversity, Accessibility

Abby Collier, Staff Writer

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In light of the student-created “Petition for Arts of Africa and African Diaspora Professor” released on March 5, the Art History department hosted a lunch on March 14 to discuss diversity in the study of art history at Oberlin. The meeting covered how the department is responding to issues of staffing and curricular exclusivity.

The creator of the petition, College junior Vicky Costikyan, said the March 4 teach-in led by the Africana Studies department and the ensuing Day of Solidarity events gave her confidence to voice her feelings regarding diversity within the department. “I’ve always felt that a lot of methodological problems with art history and cultural biases were reflected in the department, but didn’t feel I could express them until [March 4. After that] I felt empowered to contact Professor Cheng with problems that I felt were in the department,” said Costikyan.

In the 24 hours it was open for online signatures, the petition was signed by 400 alumni, faculty and students. The petition stated, “Many Oberlin Art students, through lack of access, are unaware of the Western biases and subjugation of minorities that occurs in Art academia,” and called for the support of a new tenure-track position in African Art.

Thirty Art History majors and faculty members attended the mid-March luncheon. The faculty present emphasized the students’ role in the event, and encouraged students to lead discussion. Ideas introduced include: hosting visiting lectures and paying extra to have them stay and train faculty; being aware of potential Western art emphasis in textbooks; taking advantage of cross-listing opportunities; having thematic, rather than geographically or chronologically focused courses; and increasing awareness of art history events by actively advertising outside of the Art History building.

Among large-scale institutional changes, the discussion also included smaller, more manageable changes to make the opportunity to study art history more inclusive. Sarah Konowitz, a senior Art History major, brought up the mindful choosing of readings and recognition of the biases that certain publishers or authors may carry. Bonnie Cheng, Art History department chair and Professor of East Asian Art, does not require students to purchase books, to ensure that no one is excluded for financial reasons. Other ideas included encouraging more cross-listing between different fields of study, and leading discussions of readings on diverse topics outside regular coursework.

But the faculty, though receptive, responded with an emphasis on issues of practicality regarding obstacles of time, resources and students’ academic interests. They noted that curriculum is crafted in response to student demands and non-Western-specific courses are often less popular. More diverse classes may only be offered in place of Western-centric courses. “If there is a course called Christian Art and a course called Approaches to Western Art, which one would you choose?” said Erik Inglis, Professor of Medieval Art History. “It’s not a matter of an addition, it’s a matter of trade,” he reminded the students.

Furthermore, a professor must be up for retirement in order to establish a new tenure-track position; otherwise, the administration must grant the department a higher budget in order to pay for the position. Both options are currently under consideration.

But many feel that the school has come a long way. Art History department co-chair and Professor of Studio Art and African American Studies Johnny Coleman said, “For a long time, I thought that the curriculum was exceedingly narrow of the cultures of this planet, focused on nuance and beauty and multiple countries on the continent of Europe but almost nonexistent in cultural experience and artistic histories of the rest of the world. … We’ve come a long way.”

Coleman works with students outside of class through private readings, Honors studies and individual majors to assist them in exploring art from different cultures. He was also heavily supported in his introduction of African-American Art History courses such as Blues Aesthetic and Something from Something. Furthermore, he said that the College administration is receptive to faculty communication, mentioning over five occasions on which he had met with administrators. 

At the end of the day, most can agree that these issues are in the hands of the students. “[The students] create the space in which the College has to respond and support,” said Coleman. Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Art History Esra Akin also sees promise in the student body, saying, “In a class of 23 students, I have nine or 10 Art History majors. I think that shows desire and demand from Oberlin students to open up in the world.”

As for the proposed tenure-track position, the rest is in the hands of the administration and the budget, but Cheng is confident. “The administration has been very receptive, and the student petition helped a lot,” she said.

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