Mary Thomas, Visual Studies Graduate Student, Traveling Art Historian

Thomas' fellowship took her on a five-week journey in search of publicly-engaged art.

May 11, 2015

Mary Thomas
In March 2014, I was notified of my selection as a finalist for the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Pre-Doctoral Fellowship for Historians of American Art to Travel Abroad. The following September, I departed for a five-week long trip to visit sites related to publicly-engaged art and architecture in Berlin, Hanover, Muenster, Venice, Amsterdam, and Paris. In each city, I visited major museums and private collections, sculpture gardens, temporary public art installations, as well as the architecture bienniale.
Despite frustrated attempts to cohesively arrange the experiences accumulated over five weeks traveling through Western Europe, the most accurate term I have found to describe the trip as a series of arrivals. What makes arrival a compelling notion is that it hangs between anticipations and navigation, marking the crossing of a threshold, a liminal moment. Anticipation and experience meet in the moment of arrival, demanding compromise, negotiation, and careful recalibrations in order to determine the next steps. Arrival hovers between journey and destination, marking a moment of recognition when something familiar or sought-after comes into view. Entryways, gates, triumphal arches and marquees call attention to the moment of arrival in alternately ceremonious and mundane ways.

Sammlung Boros, Berlin, Germany. Mary Thomas, 2015.

Arrivals have been the most memorable and least documented of my experiences on this trip. After the moment of arrival passed, my purpose shifts to begin viewing and evaluating what lies before me. At times, I have been struck by an irrational fear that nothing would strike me as compelling, or that I would overlook a significant aspect of it. The moment of arrival, however, is absent of these concerns and offers a surface upon which the most vivid sensory remembrances of the trip are imprinted.
Throughout my movements afforded by plane, rail, subway, tram, ferry, taxi, bike, and foot, the most gratifying experience was the mere act of arriving at a selected destination, regardless of the ease or difficulty of the journey. I began to consider these small victories against a broader set of symbolic arrivals that took shape, becoming increasingly prominent throughout the trip and the subsequent months following its conclusion.

Subway Platform, Hanover, Germany. Mary Thomas, 2015.

I had begun studying art history as a high school student when my mother and I traveled to Spain to visit my sister, who was there as part a study abroad program. I eagerly applied my rudimentary knowledge during our travels. We spent the majority of our time moving between museums and cathedrals, and the gratification that came from recognizing and discussing stylistic motifs, symbols, and architectural features informed my desire to pursue a career that would allow me to travel and look at art. A long-term return to Europe and a career in the art world became brass rings I pursued as a college student. However, Europe was decentered as I studied Latin American and African-Diaspora art. I became increasingly interested in the role of art in communicating alternative histories of place. I began to examine how artists within marginalized communities in the United States engaged these issues and abruptly shifted my focus from studying abroad to conduct research in San Diego, where I grew up. My interest in community-based artistic practices and my emphasis on ethnic minority communities generated an uncertainty with regard to where my work was located in relation to traditional art historical scholarship, and I have found my work to stray beyond my perceived boundaries of the discipline.
The fellowship, however, names me as an art historian, marking my own arrival and a moment of recognition within the discipline. The premise of the fellowship is to spend time abroad viewing art unrelated to my dissertation research. Enthusiastic recommendations from colleagues and friends, combined with a desire to feel confident navigating an unfamiliar landscape independently shaped my decision to visit several major European cities throughout the course of the trip. Because the fellowship’s function is to expand the recipients’ breadth of knowledge, the trip felt reminiscent of the Grand Tour: a rite of passage initially designed for wealthy young British men during the 17th and 18th centuries to travel to major cultural centers in Europe to acquire a more cosmopolitan sensibility. Although the itinerary I developed bore little resemblance to its predecessor, I felt uneasy that the underlying premise of my itinerary revealed an internalized bias that elevated European culture. As a result, it was at times reassuring when I encountered a resistance within myself when attempting to consider an artwork or exhibition. The process of articulating a nameless intellectual friction into a coherent objection was at times as gratifying as those in which I found myself profoundly moved by an artwork or an architectural space.

Grotto by Niki de Sainte Phalle, Herrenhauser Gardens, Germany. Mary Thomas, 2015.

After spending five weeks traveling and another several months mulling over catalogues, brochures, and photographs fastidiously collected, it has occurred to me that the challenge in discussing this trip with friends and colleagues was rooted in the difficulty in naming its function. Unable to recognize it as an arrival preempted my ability to make sense of the documentation that I relied on to speak for what I gathered (both materially and intellectually) from my travels. What I gathered in each country that I visited was a distinct sense of art’s accessibility and a broad investment in its function as a tool for public engagement that does not have a parallel in the United States. While traveling, I spoke with art historians, artists, musicians, baristas, and bartenders who resided in the cities I visited, and inevitably, art entered all of our conversations. These individuals, while appreciative of comparably extensive funding offered for artistic initiatives, expressed skepticism over the quality of the work it produced, and a reluctance to give voice to criticisms in public forums. As a result, the moment of arrival this trip represents has grown more complex, opening out into questions regarding the role of art in public life in the United States as well as the problems inherent in a return to expanded funding for the arts. Most significantly, I am curious about what these conditions imply for public face of art history and the role of art historians as interlocutors for a broader audience.

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