By Miguel de Baca, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, 2017-18
The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford enable a respected scholar of American art to spend a year in Oxford teaching and carrying out their own personal research. It is also an opportunity to make connections throughout the University and the wider academic community.
The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorship in American Art at Oxford has been a wonderfully enriching experience and a milestone in my professional life. Oxford is uniquely influential within higher education, and I feel privileged to have come to know it as a teacher and a colleague within the History of Art Department.
My Masters’ course, “Transnational Memory in American Art History,” taught over the 16 weeks of Michaelmas and Hilary terms, was an exciting opportunity. I teach a similar course at my home institution, but without the transnational focus, so I retooled the syllabus to allow for new conversations to emerge. Fortunately, the composition of the seminar, which included students from Britain, America, France, Australia, and Israel, ensured that we would enjoy a diverse dialogue over the course. These students were a joy to work with, bringing energy and life to historical and theoretical texts from week to week. Interestingly, I have noticed that, in any class, the first readings are the ones that stick with students and come up again and again in their papers. Some of our first texts in “Transnational Memory” included seminal works in the fields of memory studies and American studies, and it was instructive to me to observe students relate them in rich and unexpected ways to a range of artists and artworks within and beyond the United States.
History of Art Research Seminar © Department of History of Art
I learned so much pedagogically from the advantages of the Oxford tutorial system. In essence, a tutorial is something like a personalized seminar in which students discuss ideas and essay drafts in a one-on-one (or very small group) setting with the professor—and this comes in addition to classroom-based learning. I come from a strong ‘liberal arts college’ context in the United States, so I am to some extent familiar with this type of teaching. However, the Oxford tutorial is a philosophy that foregrounds each student as an individual with their own capabilities, energies, and strengths. Thus, my approach to teaching the tutorial was less scripted than it might otherwise be; I outlined various suggested topics in advance, but generally allowed students to follow their interests in the space of the tutorial hour.
In addition to spending time in the Department, it was a great pleasure to be a Visiting Fellow of Worcester College. Colleges are the soul of university life at Oxford. You never know who might be sitting next to you at lunch or dinner in the dining hall, or with whom you might strike up a conversation in the Senior Common Room for a postprandial coffee (despite British peer pressure, I still won’t drink tea). I met a wonderful range of scholars from diverse fields, each contributing to the whole picture of collegiality. In this way, I would describe Oxford as a consummately hospitable place, where knowledge is nurtured generously by good conversation, food, and drink.
Miguel de Baca with Terra Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Glassman, Worcester College Main Quad © Department of History of Art
A home base in Europe allowed frequent chances to study artworks and collections I would not have such occasion to see at home. Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and Tate Liverpool all had excellent openings during my time. The Irish Museum of Modern Art had an unusual show on the Aspen 5+6 group, which was packed with really interesting information about Irish, continental, and American connections in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not to mention the contemporary art fairs I was able to visit—Frieze, the Venice Biennale, and the Berlin Biennale—in order to sharpen my focus on modern curatorial practices as well as American artists’ place within the exponential growth of biennial culture worldwide. I am absolutely confident that these experiences will lead to more engaging and effective teaching of contemporary art to my students back in the United States.
Lastly, as the Terra Professor I was able to share my own research and interests with communities of scholars in the form of many talks and lectures. I tested out a new project on video art with the History of Art Department in the research seminar series, a paper on Washington Color School at the conference In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940-1980 at the University of St. Andrews, an in-depth conversation about the influential curator Walter Hopps with the author Deborah Treisman at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, and a conversation with the inimitable art historian Jo Applin on the multiple expressions of feminism in modernist sculpture at the Terra Foundation campus in Paris. I shared the edited-out portions of my book, Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture (2015), with an audience at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which was a great occasion to revisit and advance my thinking on an earlier project.
Terra Foundation Lecture at Worcester College © Department of History of Art
This spring, I delivered the Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art at the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester College: four lectures, one per week in May, on different topics under the heading “The Body of a Nation”. I also shared some thoughts on the painter Ed Ruscha at History of Art colleague Craig Clunas’s retirement celebration, and a lecture on 1970s Polaroids at the Maison Française d’Oxford. It was a very full and rewarding agenda, to be sure! Many of these kernels have led to publishing opportunities that will keep me occupied for the months and, indeed, years to come.
The capstone to this wonderful academic work was a study day on video art at LUX, the premier European video and film arts agency, based in London. I assembled an international group of scholars at LUX to discuss the subject of video art and activism, and learned a great deal from our conversation. This collaboration was the first of its kind between Oxford and LUX, which I hope will continue to grow as scholarship on moving image practices of the late 20th and 21st centuries expands both at Oxford and in the field at large. There is so much more to know!
LUX study day © Miguel de Baca
In short, I cannot imagine a more fruitful or rewarding year. Oxford is an institution I can now think of as a home and a habit of mind—a place of collective purpose and shared belief in the real potential for research and knowledge to train future leaders. And my colleagues and students in the History of Art have refreshed my belief in the vitality, even the centrality, of visual culture to a circumspect and well-examined life.
Miguel de Baca was the Terra Visiting Professor of American Art 2017-18. He is the chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Lake Forest College. The 2018-19 Terra Visiting Professor of American Art is John R. Blakinger.
Podcasts of the 2018 Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art are available to listen to.
Further information about the Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford.
Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture.