Knowledge & Networks

Canadian Art History, Circa 2012

Introduction

Martha Langford and Johanne Sloan

On October 31, 2012, twenty-seven Canadian researchers came together in Montreal for a study day: Knowledge and Networks: Canadian Art History, circa 2012. This event had been organized by the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art at Concordia University. The participants, a healthy mix of established and emergent scholars, came from the University of British Columbia, University of Manitoba, York University, University of Toronto, Carleton University, Université du Québec à Montréal, Concordia University, McGill University, University of New Brunswick, and NSCAD University. There were also representatives of national visual arts organizations, such as the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (Winnipeg) and Artexte (Montreal). The hosting of the event had been encouraged by the Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, and supported by a Connections Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Martha Langford, Research Chair and Director of the Jarislowsky Institute, and Johanne Sloan, Graduate Program Director of the Department of Art History and Deputy-Director of the Institute, planned the event for the Institute and moderated the four sessions.

The Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art called this meeting because of its members’ recognition that the field of art history was at a crossroads. Its institutions and contributors were negotiating the value of older forms of knowledge production and dissemination, even as new kinds of digital, virtual, and networked modes were coming into play. Invitations to the meeting went out in June 2012: from that point forward, the discussion was lively. No one questioned the point or timeliness of the meeting. In a context of considerable uncertainty and many bright ideas, it seemed obvious that members of the field wanted and needed to talk. Each of the invited participants came back with developments they wanted to share and points they wanted to raise. These topics concerned them as individual contributors to the field and in their capacities as leaders. For this was a stellar group of recognized shareholders in the field of Canadian art history, not only in the sense of producing and possessing knowledge, but also because they had shouldered the responsibilities of circulating and sharing that knowledge, within their organizations and institutions, and outside them, as connectors between cultural communities [LINK]. The participants were prepared to examine the current situation of Canadian art history, and to contribute to the debate according to their personal experience, institutional affiliations, current partnerships, and future plans.

The themes of the study day sprang from the following questions:

  1. How do you situate yourselves vis-à-vis the print culture vs. digital culture debates?
  2. What is your relationship to journal and book publishing at the present time?
  3. What limitations and/or new opportunities are you encountering regarding publications?
  4. How is the archival turn transforming research and its mobilization?
  5. How are new technologies influencing your teaching, whether in the classroom or through distance education?
  6. What is your involvement in the transformation of exhibitions and curatorial initiatives into digital and virtual forms?
  7. How do questions about identity, community, or place play themselves out across these new forms of knowledge-exchange?

These questions were not entirely innocent. They were designed to bring forward information about the present and future plans of both established and nascent organizations. There was much to consider. Emergent institutions and projects included the Art Canada Institute/Institut de l’art du Canada (ACI/IAC); the Canadian Art Commons for History of Art Education & Training (CACHET); and Critically Canadian Historical Art Network (CCHA). More established programs included Artexte, the Canadian Centre for Contemporary Art (CCCA); the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art; the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective; the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, and the University Art Association of Canada, as well as publications, such as the Journal of Canadian Art History/Annales d’histoire de l’art canadien; RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review; and the contemporary art magazine Fillip. Some questions had been framed to highlight new trends in pedagogy and knowledge mobilization; others confronted challenges to research created by shrinking resources and reminded participants of areas that remain chronically underserved. All participants in the study day understood that the Institute’s goal was never to consolidate the disparate activities of everyone concerned under one umbrella, but to seek points of convergence and complementarity, thus minimizing duplication of effort and resources within a highly competitive research world. Formal partnerships (active or imminent) offered one way forward, but participants were also attentive to opportunities for informal collaboration and collegial support. At the very least, and this seemed no small ambition, people felt that by sharing information and strategies—by forging new communication networks—the field of Canadian Art History might become more internally coherent and more accessible to a larger public. To that end, forms of research and knowledge mobilization under discussion included journals (printed and online), archives, databases, encyclopedia, exhibitions, innovative pedagogy, and public outreach; the digital economy, aboriginal knowledge, and gender studies were imbricated in these discussions. Current thinking across the humanities about “creative commons” and “knowledge mobilization” nourished our preparations, as we set out to conceptualize and collectively design new ways of approaching art historical research.

In her introductory remarks, Martha Langford confirmed that many of the knowledge mobilization questions that the group had already been considering corresponded to lines of inquiry outlined within SSHRC’s designated research stream of Digital Economy, reflecting concerns with the “tools and/or knowledge … the creators of cultural products need in order to participate more fully in the digital economy.” She also noted that this gathering could be seen to be responding, and quickly, to a recent study by Diane M. Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.1 This study had been commissioned by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Based on interviews and site visits to eight American art history research centres, Zorich’s report characterized digital art history as marginalized within the field. Among her informants, Zorich found mostly exponents of more traditional approaches to research and its mobilization, scholars manifesting considerable uncertainty about how to enter the digital economy. Their degrees of caution were verging on territorial anxiety about developments across the digital humanities. Zorich’s study was illuminating, if alarming from a Canadian perspective, as she observed generational divides and the absence of a collaborative tradition within the discipline. If this were also true in Canada, the chilling effects on advanced methodologies, such as those framing Aboriginal research and interdisciplinary projects could easily be imagined. Zorich found few exceptions to an American academic culture that was burrowing in, rather than reaching out. She noted “an absence of dialogue among the community’s leadership—its professional organizations, funders, thought leaders, and research centers—about what art history will be in the 21st century, and the role digital art history plays in that scenario.”2 She strongly recommended the convening of “thought leaders and coalitions,” noting that such a meeting had never occurred.3

The Zorich report was published in May 2012. By that point, Canadian art historians had already identified the need for dialogue; we were not going to wait for the “thought leaders and coalitions” of American research centres to show us the way. We had already determined to meet. While the concerns and conditions described by Zorich were not unfamiliar to Canadian art historians, the participants in Knowledge and Networks had voted with their feet, indicating that they preferred to live in a culture of partnership and collaboration. As the meeting began, participants were already committed to its success.

The organization of the day is outlined on the agenda. The structure was simple and effective. There were four plenary sessions. The topics were publication, education, research-creation, and a final session on the respective values of solitary research and collaboration. For each of the four topics, two presenters had been invited to make opening remarks. Grouped around the seminar table were designated spokespersons for the activity under discussion, while the rest of the group participated freely. Discussions were recorded, to serve as aide-mémoires for the three Concordia University doctoral students who had agreed to serve as reporters: Pablo Rodriguez, on publishing; Mark Clintberg, on education; Sarah Watson, on research-creation; and all three writing about the last session, its issues and reflections on the day.

Both the timing and location of Knowledge and Networks: Canadian Art History, circa 2012 were strategic. The event was held on the day preceding the University Art Association of Canada conference organized in 2012 by Anne Whitelaw, vice-president of UAAC, a faculty member of Concordia University, and a member of the Jarislowsky Institute. These events were mutually beneficial, and the Jarislowsky Institute hopes to repeat the formula in coming years.