Dissertation Work, January Update

As promised in last week’s post, here’s my first update on my dissertation work for 2021. Since we’re covering what I’ve been up to since finishing comps, today’s post will be a bit longer.

Since starting this prospectus process I’ve been journaling my thoughts for future reference.

At this point, I’ve been doing more thinking than finished writing. While I do have a growing repository of free-write sessions and mock prospectus samples in my dissertation folder, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out what my core research interests actually are beyond whatever I find interesting within the context of a specific seminar or exhibition.

As I’ve mentioned since starting this blog, what I want to write about are federal community art centers, but what I’ve been trying to figure out since finishing comps is the context in which to write about them. After all, what’s the point in having a great research topic if you don’t have any engaging questions for it? So for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what my framework actually is, and ultimately, what my core research interests are beyond any specific topic like the CACP.

I know I want to write about federal community art centers, but what questions do I want to ask about them? And in which overarching framework do I want to situate them?

This means that I’ve been reading about various subjects and discussing potential theoretical frameworks with the dissertation writing group I joined last fall. Given the connection between museums and art centers, I’ve been reading a lot of museum theory in terms of power relations and the way museums maintain the status quo through their collecting, exhibition, and labor practices. This has included classics such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum, which draws heavily on Foucault, as well as more recent publications such as Joan Baldwin’s and Anne W. Ackerson’s Women in the Museum, which considers how museums both empower and constrict women through their professional cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post on SECAC, I’ve also been interested in cataloging and archival practices and how they shape the art canon, particularly through a lack of documentation or visibility.

From an archival standpoint, I also finally went through and organized some research I did on the Mildred Holzhauer Baker papers at the Archives of American Art, which I visited in the fall of 2019. Baker was the director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section and assembled all of the traveling exhibitions for the CACP (which, considering that the total was over 500 shows, is impressive at the very least), so she played a major role in the program’s educational trajectory. Since the CACP was a Depression-era project, I’ve also been perusing works that explore the material and visual culture of that time. Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps has been a particularly engaging read, given its somewhat personal approach to the archive, and its geographic variety in terms of case studies offers a model for my own work, as the CACP was not restricted to one specific state or region.

The other subject I’ve been reading into is art amateurism. Not necessarily folk art or outsider art, per se, but art made by nonprofessionals or people who didn’t get their training from the academy. So I’ve been reading about forums such as Etsy where people share or sell their work, celebrity art teachers such as Bob Ross and other icons of art populism, the paint-by-number fad of the 1950s, and even the emergence of chain art supply stores or mail-order suppliers like Michaels or Blick. What I’ve been focusing on is not so much what people actually make, but how they access the education and supplies needed to create this stuff.

Not to sound cynical, but any book that has a chapter on someone as beloved as Bob Ross is likely to attract more readers and get my ideas out to a greater number of people.

What I’ve been learning from all this is that as a scholar, I’m interested in questions of art access, particularly for nonprofessional art practitioners. What engages me aren’t so much the careers and works of professional artists, the people associated with the art world as defined by curators, gallerists, and collectors, but rather than millions of people who make art without ever being recognized in a formal capacity. I’m not even talking about so-called outsider artists or folk artists, people who have been identified by specialists as being worthy of the canon due to what they consider their untainted creativity. I’m talking about the millions of people who, like me, make art but not professionally. Maybe they’ve taken a few classes; maybe they learned to draw from a book or watching tutorials. Maybe they even manage to make a living outside of the gallery circuit, whether through selling on Etsy or by the roadside. Or maybe they make pieces for their family and no one else.

This brings me back to the CACP. Initially, I became interested in this program because of its national travel infrastructures and the mobility underpinning its operations. As a curator who often transported exhibition materials myself, either in my own car or in a rented Uhaul, the idea of a national traveling exhibition program that brought art materials to different places by train really intrigued me. This still interests me, but it also ties back into the question of access, because what made this program unusual (to me at least) was that it catered to nonprofessionals. Unlike the workshops, murals, and other projects associated with the FAP, which hired professional artists, community art centers were designed with amateurs in mind. Sure, the staff who taught at them might be professionally-trained artists, but the students they imagined taking their classes, both adults and children, were not. Indeed, FAP administrators continually stressed that community art centers were not intended as professional schools, but as places where people could learn to appreciate the arts through looking and doing. And I think that’s worth exploring more deeply.

Student with artwork made in a class offered through the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center. The FAP anticipated that the majority of students who took art center classes would not become professional artists. Instead, the intent was to create art appreciators, people who understood art as an important part of daily life.

Why? First off, by focusing exclusively on artists who have been deemed worthy of the canon, we’re ignoring a lot of creative output. Maybe it’s not the most original or innovative material out there, or maybe it is, but so long as we only focus on the artists who show their works in museums or galleries, we’re always going to have a limited understanding of what people make when they envision themselves as artists. Second, taking a closer look at how people working outside of public schools or academies access art resources could help us better understand the state of art accessibility in the United States. We tend to lean on the narrative of art access being dismal in this country, but what if we’re using the wrongs metrics to gauge it? I’m not saying that formal art enrichment programs aren’t necessary or important, but they might be more effective if we study how different communities or individuals learn to make art without the benefit of a school or similar organization. This, in turn, leads to my third point: how museums can better engage their audiences. As ongoing critiques have pointed out, museums often uphold rather than challenge inequality and other social norms through the art they collect, the artists they show, and the classes they offer. What would happen if museums shifted their emphasis away from defining canonical art and instead focused on art-making as a creative practice performed by all members of a society, community, or culture? What would that look like?

These are all huge questions that go way beyond what any dissertation can cover, but thinking about these big-picture inquiries has helped me get a better understanding of what interests me as a scholar beyond the specificity of the CACP itself. The next step is to narrow this down to something manageable.

Admittedly, this has been a new experience for me. When you take classes in the semester format, you usually have to figure out your paper or project topics fairly early on so that you finish on time. Especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time revising my writing, this means going with the first or second idea. Similarly, when I was curating full-time, the logistical demands of the exhibition schedule meant that I had to pull together concepts fairly quickly so that there would be enough time to print labels, check artworks for conservation needs, prep galleries for installation, and so on. Even my undergraduate thesis had to be written within a year, so I only had a couple of months to nail down what I was going to write about. All of this is to say that my projects have generally emphasized results over ideas, so I’ve tended to spend little time in the conceptual phase.

In some ways, it’s been liberating. Over the last few months, I’ve had to start reframing my understanding of progress and to recognize that not every accomplishment can be measured by the number of words written or edited. Some days I write a lot; other days I go for long walks and talk out different ideas or scenarios with myself. Some days I research; other times I completely switch gears and work on my art. I’ll admit, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for all this thinking. Yet by giving myself the space to think through different ideas or scenarios, I’m ultimately coming up with a more innovative dissertation while discovering new topics and questions that will fuel my research for years to come.

At the same time, it’s been overwhelming. Over the past few months, I’ve probably imagined at least half a dozen potential iterations of the dissertation. Some versions concentrate solely on the New Deal era. Some versions are more focused on exhibition practices. Others look away from museums altogether and explore the commercial side of art accessibility through the expansion of chain supply stores. With so many different ways to approach the question of art access, it’s admittedly been a bit overwhelming to realize just how many ways I can go about answering it.

Remember, if you can’t put it in the dissertation, save it for your next book project.

But the key is to remember that I don’t have to pursue all of these directions. On the contrary, I can’t, because the resulting tome would be far too long for anyone to want to read, let alone write. Not all of these potential directions interest me equally, so the next task is to figure out my focus. After all, the best dissertation is the finished one, the one that gets me my degree, and in that respect, the one that works for my needs is the one that I’ll actually want to write.

Besides, all these other ideas mean future book projects, right?

So What Exactly is a Dissertation Prospectus, Anyway?

At the beginning of this year, a time that feels like a million years ago now, I wrote a post called “So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?” In that post, I described the basic steps you go through to get a degree in American Studies at William & Mary. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at step three on that list, the prospectus.

What is a prospectus? Essentially it’s a roadmap for a larger project such as a book, or in the case of a Ph.D. program, a dissertation. Over the course of 15-20 or so pages, you discuss what you want to write about, what chapters or organizing themes you plan to draft, which authors or methodologies you intend to use, which archival sources you’ll rely on, if applicable, and most importantly, the argument or intervention you want to make in your fields of choice. While it’s understood that the dissertation will change and evolve as you get a better grasp on the subject, the prospectus is there to demonstrate to your committee that you’re not delving into the process completely clueless about what you’re doing.

This is where I’m at right now. Over the next few months, I’ll put together my own prospectus, and plan on having my colloquium next semester.

So how do you go about writing a prospectus? On the advice of several of my more advanced cohorts, the first thing I did was get myself a dissertation journal, a place where I can write down any questions, organizing ideas, and other thoughts relating to this project. Admittedly I’ve never been a consistent journal-keeper outside of special trips, but then again I’ve never written a dissertation, so this seemed like as good a time as any to start a new habit. I ordered my journal online from Jenni Bick, a locally-owned stationer based in Washington, DC.

My new dissertation journal. I got the Leutturm 1917 Master Notebook (A4+) in red, basically the biggest journal in the boldest color for big, bold ideas. The pen is a Lamy fountain pen, as I’d read they require less pressure for writing than a ballpoint, which I figured would be good for long-term hand health. So far, so good.

Journaling aside, I’ve been doing more reading.

More reading? Didn’t you just read 200 books for exams? Yes, but those readings were primarily intended to get a broad understanding of the academic fields that engage my interests and work. With prospectus readings, your aims are a bit more focused. Rather than aim for a broad understanding of a field, you’re seeking out the authors whose methods or areas of research closely engage your own work, and decide how their work could inform yours. All scholarship is inspired by other scholarship, after all, and a big part of the dissertation is demonstrating that you’re familiar with current research and can dialogue with other authors. So I’ve been reading about museums, New Deal art, and current events, as they all engage my interests in art access, public education, and the role of the state in culture.

Just as I moved 2,000 miles away from Roswell to seek out new intellectual opportunities at William & Mary, my goal with the prospectus is to craft an outline for a project that goes well beyond the Roswell Museum to address other places, time periods, and subjects.

Two issues in particular have been preoccupying me since I started this process, based on feedback from both my exam committee and personal reflection. First, I want to take my dissertation beyond the Roswell Museum. RMAC has been a recurrent case study in a lot of my term papers and projects because I was already familiar with the materials, but I’ve never envisioned the dissertation being a New Mexico-centric project. At most, I see Roswell forming a chapter, but moving forward, I don’t see it being my primary focus.

The second idea is to link my interests in the Community Art Center Project, and more broadly museums, to the cultural crises of the present moment. As many scholars have observed, there are a lot of uncanny, often uncomfortable parallels between the current moment and the Great Depression in terms of economic difficulties and social unrest. Yet the way in which the current administration has approached culture is markedly different from the New Deal era, with museums and other cultural institutions struggling to remain financially solvent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, museums have also been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy, colonialism, and other infrastructures of inequality, with many people asking whether museums are equipped to encourage radical social change. Given my own experience working in museums, I’m familiar with how daily operations, donor relations, and institutional policies, can often detract museum workers from addressing social change, and the dissertation could be a good opportunity to discuss some of these systemic issues.

In short, my goal over the next few months is to take my various interests and coalesce them in a bigger project that can sustain my interests for the next few years. Whether it focuses solely on the Community Art Center Project and its descendants, or more broadly looks at museums, public education, state culture, or something else, whatever I write should be multifaceted, engaging, and beneficial to those who read it.

The journal is a place to write down ideas, questions, and anything else that comes to mind as I make my way toward the prospectus.

It’s a tall order, but then again, that’s why I got myself a big journal.