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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Reflections from New York

Reflections from the College Art Association meeting

I recently attended the College Art Association (CAA) meeting in Midtown Manhattan, New York city. Four thousand art historians, museum professionals, studio artists – and me, the independent/unaffiliated/non-academic scholar/writer. The four-day meeting featured hundreds of sessions and an exhibitor trade show. The CAA is the meeting for art historians and I dreamed of going in graduate school, but it was not in the cards. So, why not see what it is all about.

Sign from the CAA - I couldn't agree more.

Protest sign.

Something for everyone

The session topics were diverse and with high academic research standards. The topics represented every genre, time period, culture, and media. I focused on the sessions pertaining to my interests in Italian art but there were many times I wished I could have been in two or three sessions concurrently. The sessions were very specialized, for example, “On the Dialectics of Procedural Violence in Post-World War II European Art” or “The Festive High Altar in Spain.”

Some topics were too intriguing to pass up: “Animation in Medieval Art.” That session explored how viewers would experience Byzantine sculpture and illusions of movement. Changing light from candles or sunlight caused a sculpture of St. Michael the Archangel to realistically appear as if the eyes were downcast or looking upwards, or cast a spotlight on only his hands or his face. The research emphasized how important it is to understand art in its original setting as it was intended to be experienced.

Another interesting session focused on Italian Renaissance female portraits which emphasized culturally accepted features of a high forehead, long neck, and small mouth. Portraits emphasized family status and wealth rather than individual features. Portraits were often used didactically to model ideal behavior and looks or to demonstrate the sitter's qualities for matrimonial prospects. As a result, many female portraits look remarkably alike while the male portraits have more individual features.

The Conference Atmosphere

Although the topics were diverse, I was struck by the overwhelming number of white female attendees and presenters. There were many young professionals attending and presenting, which was heartening. By rough guess of the sessions, I estimate about 60 percent of the conference were academic art historians and museum professionals and 40 percent studio artists.

Like most academic conferences, the presenters read their prepared papers at the podium – no freewheeling. And because there is art to look at, the rooms are darkened. It was a collegial environment, polite, and respectful. Not a lot of social interaction fostered by the conference via refreshments (no food or drink was provided) or mingling and I appeared to be the only one attempting to introduce myself to seat mates. No one looked askance at me as an independent scholar as it turns out there are more than the CAA would like to admit with academic positions so difficult to obtain.

Typical presentation: dark room with presenter reading his/her paper.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a wall of political protest complete with banners, posters, and signs. A map to Trump Tower and Senator Chuck Schumer’s office was posted and attendees were encouraged to visit/protest these offices. The Trump administration plans to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities which is very impactful and potentially devastating for artists, museums and historians. Plus there was general discontent with the administration’s immigration policies.

CAA protest signs.

Photo of the World War II Monuments Men that rescued and repatriated Nazi stolen art.

Eye Candy

What a trade show. Over one hundred publishers and studio art vendors displayed with all their paints, media, books and journals. And good swag too. I came home with six tubes of paint, a sketch book, drawing pencil, and many book catalogs. Publishers from Poland, the Vatican, and all the prestigious university presses were represented. What a joy to see so many lavishly illustrated art books displayed for browsing and discounted prices.

New York, New York

You can’t just sit in a darkened room looking at slides and listening to people read their papers. There is art to be seen in New York. I made a beeline to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and feasted on the excellent Renaissance art as well as the nineteenth century European collection. For a change of pace, I took in the impressive Assyrian, Greek and Roman art collection.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, newly restored, was so bright in its Neo-Gothic splendor. Gothic features include stained glass, ribbed vaulted arches, tall exterior spires and cluster columns. The Cathedral opened in 1879, paid for by the immigrant community and wealthy benefactors. It is difficult to imagine at that time the Cathedral was three miles outside of the main city and largely in undeveloped land. It cost about 4 million dollars to build and 175 million to restore by 2015.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York

Strolling in Midtown Manhattan is an architectural treat. There are many iconic Art Deco buildings in the city. Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall are standouts. Rockefeller Center soars like a monumental sculpture.

Rockefeller Center, New York

Rockefeller Center, New York

A visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was also in order. What an exceptional collection of American art, Cubist art, Impressionists, pop art, and the museum was packed with visitors. I heard so many languages spoken in the galleries with visitors from many continents. Art can be a great unifier.

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