Dissertation Work, October Update

The last time we checked in with the dissertation, I was making my way through the Holger Cahill papers and sharing some of the things I’d learned. Today, we’ll see how I’ve been shifting from researching to the writing process.

After I finished going through the Cahill papers, I still had some additional research that I wanted to do. Based on my previous experiences with the Roswell Museum archive, as well as ongoing references in the Cahill correspondence, I knew that newspapers can be a good place to find references to individual art centers, so I spent a few days going through different databases. Through William & Mary, I can access databases like Newspapers.com for free, where I was able to find stories relating to the Sioux City Art Center in Iowa, the Melrose Art Center in New Mexico, and other sites. By going through databases like African American newspapers and Black Life in America, I was also able to learn about some of the segregated sites in North Carolina, including their locations, the exhibitions they showed, and their relationships within the Black communities they served. All of this newspaper perusing offered a more nuanced perspective on the community art centers as organizations.

Once I did this, it was time to go back through the archival documents and take stock of what I’d learned over the past few months. I went into Tropy, looked up the projects I’d created relating to the art centers, and spent some time reading through all the notes I had taken on the various documents. From there, I did some reflective writing by drawing out some idea webs, taking note of the following:

  • What I knew
  • What I didn’t know
  • What I could potentially write about based on what I knew
  • How that would fit into the overall dissertation

After I did these exercises, I organized my ideas into two preliminary outlines, one for Chapter 3, and one for Chapter 4. As I did this, I made a point of emphasizing two things: how institutional and personal relationships within the Community Art Center Project potentially shaped art access, and how community art centers engaged in larger dialogues about museums as institutions. From there, I went through each outline and added every potential reference I was thinking of using. As I fleshed out these extended outlines, I simultaneously added those same archival references into Zotero. Taking this extra step means that once I start adding prose, I’ll be able to cite with minimal interruption.

Over the course of this outlining I had to order a new dissertation journal after completely filling the first one. Image: multiple images of a closed and open journal showing handwritten pages.

As of now, I have two 20-page, double-spaced outlines complete with references, one for each chapter relating to the CACP. Starting next week, I’ll start rewriting the outline for Chapter 3 by taking the skeletal text that’s there now and replacing it with prose. Chances are the organization will change as I start writing in earnest, but with these outlines, I’ll have a clear guide to get me started.

In some ways, planning out these chapters has been the easiest of the dissertation so far. I’d already done a lot of research on the art centers through my previous work on the Roswell Museum, so I had a good idea of the material available. Additionally, thanks to conference talks, term papers, the Scalar book, and other sources, I already have quite a bit of writing that I can adapt for these two chapters. So whereas with the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions I needed to first go through the archive and then figure out what kind of story I could potentially tell from that, I’ve gone into these two chapters with a pretty good sense of what I could do, and have some material available to adapt.

At the same time, the qualities that have made these chapters easier to plan have also made them uniquely challenging precisely because I already know as much as I do about the program. I know, as least in basic form, the institutional biographies of several art center sites and the staff that worked at them. I know about the interpersonal dramas that afflicted individual art centers, from disagreements over the use of gallery space, to debates over political and cultural beliefs. I’ve managed to identify over 100 of the 600 or so shows the Exhibition Section circulated through these art centers, and I’ve managed to pin down the locations and dates for a few of them thanks to extant copies of exhibition schedules. I can even identify some of the works that appeared in these shows, and can partially trace their journeys around the country. To be fair, all of this knowledge is incomplete, but it isn’t insubstantial either.

In short, these chapters could go in a variety of directions, and that can make it challenging to narrow things down. I’ve spent so much time with the CACP at this point that I want to tell the reader everything I know about it, and do all of the things I can with it. I want to map out the travel routes of all the exhibitions, I want to write about all the interpersonal squabbles, I want to describe all of the art and the artists who created them.

But this isn’t a dissertation about the Community Art Center Project. It’s a dissertation about outreach exhibitions that happens to include the CACP as one of its case studies, and that makes a big difference in how much attention this program gets. As interesting as I find it, the truth is, it’s only one of several case studies I’m considering, and whatever I choose to write about needs to fit in with the dissertation as a whole, not overshadow it.

In some ways, that’s made it easier to let go of some of the research and be realistic about my expectations. As much as I’d love to trace the travel route of every exhibition, for instance, or identify every single show and the artworks that appeared in them, that’s not feasible on a dissertation timeline. That kind of work would take years to complete, more years than I’d like to spend on this project. Rather than try to do that, then, I’m focusing on what I already know with the understanding that I can always revisit these questions on a future project. I can save the Exhibition Section mapping for a future digital humanities project, for example, or write a book on the history of the CACP itself.

At the same time, I have to remember to not be so rigid in my dissertation plans that I don’t accommodate changes in research interest or direction. When I first proposed Chapters 3 and 4 in my prospectus, I suggested that Chapter 3 would focus on federal expectations of the program while Chapter 4 would consider how those expectations played out on the local level of sponsorship and audience. While that focus is still there, over the course of my research I’ve also become interested in how outreach exhibitions and collections access enables museums to assess themselves as institutions, both through their own policies and in their relationships with the communities and organizations that host these interventions. While the Community Art Center Project fashioned itself as an alternative to museums, the truth is these organizations still engaged the museum model through their practices, and in the case of the Roswell Museum, even their names. As such, in outlining these chapters, I’ve shifted my focus somewhat to put community art centers in dialogue with museums. I still talk about federal and local expectations, but those conversations are now part of a larger consideration of museums as models for enabling art access, and why that precedent persists even as we seek out alternatives. Undoubtedly the chapters, as well as the overall dissertation, will continue to change as I continue writing it, but being open to change while still having a guiding outline to follow has been key to me being able to work consistently without feeling overwhelmed by the amorphous nature of the project.

In short, it’s been a productive few weeks, and with some planning and commitment, this productivity will hopefully continue into next month.

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