Maggie Bell

In 2009, I entered graduate school in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at UC Santa Barbara, seemingly when the budget crisis was at its worst. The departmental mood was grim, due largely to financial anxiety, but also to the perception that the world had forgotten about us. My colleagues and I felt overlooked and undervalued, not only at an administrative level, but also within our classrooms. Students registered for Art History classes under a variety of assumptions—that they would earn an easy A, or that they would never “get” art, or that art was too subjective, too wishy-washy, to merit serious study.

Faced with low student morale and frightening statistics about dissolving humanities departments, I decided that I would save Art History at UCSB by explaining the value of my discipline in a moving, essay-like open letter to administrators. In proposing this to our then-graduate advisor, however, I immediately received the response: “Everyone writes letters. What else can you do?”

It occurred to me that the disconnect I sometimes encountered with my undergraduate students seemed to stem from their own sense that they were outsiders to thinking and talking about art, a position that has been exacerbated by years of budget cuts enforced on K-12 arts education.   In an attempt to rectify this in some small way, in 2011 I founded the Art History Education Outreach Program (still in need of a better title), designed to bring elementary school students to the campus museum, and art history lessons to their classrooms. My own outreach lessons, especially in the beginning, were often wildly off base. At the height of my cluelessness I found myself sitting at an outdoor picnic table trying to teach a group of second-graders about the ins and outs of Counter-Reformatory policies on religious images. Between the scattered soccer balls and the Council of Trent, you can guess which they found more interesting.

After several years of trial and error, the offerings of the Outreach Program have improved, but like any humanistic endeavor this project has raised more questions than it has answered, some of which I hope to address as a Humanities Public Scholar. I wonder now, for instance, what the desired outcome is for the Outreach Program. Is it to “save” Art History as I originally thought–to produce an army of future art historians? Or is it to introduce students to skills that the discipline of art history can offer? If so, what exactly are those skills, and how should we teach them? And while I am a true believer in the study of the faraway and very old, is there a way to make art history work for students in an immediate way, in their own familiar environment? What are there merits and downsides to doing this? And on a broader level, could the Outreach Program shape the Art History department’s relationship with the community of Santa Barbara, in what way, and why would it matter?

 

-Maggie Bell