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Ethnic Art Falling Out of Favor?

You would have thought a celebrity had just come in the room the way Dr. Patricia Hills’ students clamored for photographs and autographs at the contemporary art fair Art Chicago last year. But no, the fervor was directed at American street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey, who became famous for his iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster during the 2008 presidential election.

“It seems very accessible and that’s why I think they are drawn to it,” says Hills, about the “Hope” poster. Hills, a Boston University professor of art history who specializes in African-American art, among other subjects, has been teaching art history for more than two decades. She adds: “I think young people got really interested in contemporary art with Andy Warhol.”

During the multiculturalist wave that started in the 1950s, traditional ethnic art flowed in from across the globe. Today, that wave has receded as contemporary art has gained momentum. About 80 percent of applicants to art history programs are choosing contemporary art as their major, according to a recent New York Times report. Meanwhile, it has been decades since the number of new graduate students in non-Western art fields has grown significantly. According to Hills, a dissertation on contemporary art would have been inconceivable 30 or 40 years ago. Now, such dissertations are commonplace.

“Undoubtedly, a higher number of applicants are going to modern, contemporary [art],” agrees Dr. Andrea Giunta, a professor of art history at the University of Texas who has worked on the admissions team for three years. “It’s the most represented area.”

Reframing the Past

Giunta says the trend toward contemporary art became more palpable in the 1990s. Baby Boomers had been exposed to ethnic art through programs like the Peace Corps. However, as interest in such programs has waned, later generations of art students have become less likely to interact with ethnic art and, consequently, more likely to gravitate toward contemporary studies.

In 2007, contemporary art reached a turning point, surpassing Impressionist and modern art in total sales at New York’s premier auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Specifically, Sotheby’s tallied up $344.6 million for contemporary works, exceeding the $337.2 million mark for Impressionist and modern works the week before. Christie’s raked in $477.8 million, establishing a new auction record. An Andy Warhol piece, “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I),” sold for a whopping $71.7 million, according to a report in the New Yorker magazine.

At the Met, recent exhibitions of Chinese art have only been possible by way of life-saving loans coming in at the last hour. With prices soaring for objects from Africa, and new protectionist policies being set in place by India, China and other countries, it’s getting harder for museums to pull anything together.

“It’s too expensive, too difficult. These objects coming from non-Western cultures are more difficult to acquire,” says Giunta.

From auction houses to art galleries to museums, the money is in contemporary art, meaning new graduates looking for employment must be conversant in that area.

“The academy has to create professionals able to get a job,” says Giunta.

Hills says colleges and universities are responding by requiring faculty to teach contemporary art. As a result, it has become more difficult to find courses emphasizing ethnic art.

At the University of Texas, Giunta is part of a diverse faculty that teaches a wide range of ethnic art, but it’s an anomaly, she says. Now that she has been assigned to teach a class on 19th Century Latin American art, she’s having trouble finding recent scholarship that has been translated. “All the recent research in Latin America, it’s completely unknown in the States,” she says.

She adds that the risk of only teaching students contemporary art is that students will graduate with an incomplete understanding of art history.

“It is a problem if you accept that they will be trained just in contemporary art because it could be very superficial,” she says.

However, Giunta adds, “There is great potential if you bring the past to the present.”

One of the benefits of contemporary art, Giunta says, is its transnational character. An artist can be from Latin America but producing art in the United States about an issue in the Middle East, for example. Giunta says this allows room to introduce the history of art from different parts of the world.

“Many contemporary artists are reframing the past and bringing the past to the present,” she says, adding that in the classroom,

“You have to be prepared to have an intervention. You need the past for understanding contemporaneity. The change in the market demands a change in strategy in the Academy.”

Hills says that she’s happy to use anything that gets students excited about art. “It’s a kind of bait and switch,” she says.

A newcomer to art history, Kennesaw State University will start offering a bachelor’s in the field in the fall. Students will be required to take classes in ancient-medieval art, Renaissance, modern art and non-Western art, according to Dr. Joe A. Thomas, chairman of the university’s Department of Visual Arts. Students will be required to take one foreign language course as well and will be encouraged to take two.

Despite the nods to ethnic and cultural exposure, Thomas says it is likely the overall trend will repeat itself at Kennesaw, with most students opting to study contemporary art.

Hills says the popularity of contemporary art can positively affect other, more marginalized art history fields. “Why not? If students are brought into art, then maybe they’d like to know what the background is,” she says. “I think whatever excites people’s curiosity is good.”

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