The art history department and college museum share an expansive, multidisciplinary vision for the arts at Williams.
Two students huddle over an image depicting musicians shaking tambourines, drunken men lolling in bushes and revelers in turbans dancing at a tavern party overseen by angels.
In this 16th-century folio, Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness, Persian painter Sultan Muhammad illustrates verses by the poet Hafiz with a sense of humor that, many students in the class acknowledge, stands in contrast to their ideas about Islam.
“One of the major prohibitions in Islam is alcohol,” Williams professor Murad Mumtaz explains to the students in his tutorial, What Is Islamic Art? “So the question is, how is this art Islamic?”
He goes on to explain that the role of alcohol in Muhammad’s painting is more complex than it first appears. The angels swooping down to offer wine to the revelers are symbolic of divine love and inspiration, he says.
The discussion, the painting and the very fact of the course itself all illustrate a substantial shift in how art history is taught at Williams. It’s an evolution that began decades ago and continues to take place throughout the discipline, globally. Art historians are reconfiguring the so-called “canon”—works of a given artist, period or school, typically from a Eurocentric aesthetic and practice, that are accepted as intellectual anchor points by scholars and connoisseurs alike. Areas of study, and scholars’ intellectual approaches to them, have broadened to include African, Indian, Latinx and Indigenous art and artists, among others.
“Most of our courses put art in conversation with social questions, political questions and questions of identity and faith that students have,” says Michelle Apotsos, art department co-chair and chair of art history. “Art is not a passive, consumable topic. It’s put to work to help answer questions that have been serious forever.”
A NUANCED INTERPRETATION
Mumtaz’s spring-semester tutorial, cross-listed with religion, introduces students to a range of faiths, cultures and countries that have contributed to Islamic art’s own 1,400-year evolution. Students consider various traditions, comparing Western art historiography with traditions that arose simultaneously in the Ottoman Empire, China and South Asia. They also examine how a variety of artworks, from ancient manuscripts and mosque architecture to Sufi graffiti and prayer mats, are used and interpreted.
In another spring course, Abstraction in Action: Global Modern and Contemporary Art, Assistant Professor of Art Mari Rodríguez Binnie and her students explore how at various historical moments “abstraction has signaled formalist rupture, cultural co-optation, revolutionary politics as well as racial, feminist and queer critique,” according to the course description. A specialist in modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on Latin America, Binnie also teaches courses including the Postwar Avant-Gardes, Cold War Aesthetics in Latin America and Intro to Latin American and Latinx Art.
“There is a hunger for these kinds of examinations and critical analyses of the canon,” says Binnie, who, along with Mumtaz, joined the faculty about five years ago. Their scholarship—together with that of Apotsos, who specializes in African and Afro-Islamic art and architecture, and of two new hires in East Asian and Native American and Indigenous arts expected to join the faculty in the fall—reflects an increasingly expansive and multidisciplinary vision for art history.
“Western European art history is part of our history,” says Mumtaz, who is originally from Pakistan and is also a visual artist trained in the traditional practice of North Indian miniature painting. “At a time when we are constantly polarizing ourselves and others, I’d like for students to develop nuanced interpretation and, through that, gain empathy for individuals they might not agree with. We should acknowledge the coexistence of other histories that need to be engaged with equally. It shouldn’t be this versus that.”
Adds E.J. Johnson ’59, the Amos Lawrence Professor of Art, Emeritus, “Today the world is not as focused on Europe and North America. There is obviously a future for art history, and the way it’s taught needs to change with the people who teach it. The whole discipline has changed, and all for the better.”
Johnson says that expansiveness has long been an element of Williams’ approach to art history, which has served as a conduit to the art world for many who never considered studying the subject. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Johnson’s course European Art Before 1700 was so popular that it averaged 200 students a semester.
“Art is not a passive, consumable topic. It’s put to work to help answer questions that have been serious forever.”
— MICHELLE APOTSOS, art department co-chair and chair of art history
Williams’ art department rose to prominence as a leader—if not the leader—of the field as it emerged after World War II. (Before the 1930s, art history was rarely taught in the U.S.) The program flourished under S. Lane Faison Jr., Class of 1929, William Pierson, and Whitney Stoddard, Class of 1935. Playfully referred to as the “Holy Trinity,” the trio of professors introduced many students to the field, students who would go on to become leaders at museums and galleries including the Chicago Art Institute, MASS MoCA, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). These alumni, in turn, came to be known as the “Williams Art Mafia.”
Williams continues to feed its graduates into museum and gallery leadership, a pool that has grown more diverse over time. According to a 2022 report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, women now constitute 66% of museum leaders, and 20% of leadership are people of color. But there are still imbalances as museums reckon with equity in pay, representation across different areas of work and types of institutions, racism and sexism.
Williams arts educators and leaders agree that more work is needed to ensure that art history as both a discipline and a career is inclusive and representative.
“We’re taking a hard look at not only who we are as a community but also the community that we’re meant to serve,” Apotsos says. “We’re focusing on creating a department where students can see themselves reflected as not just participants in these histories but in many cases as authors and facilitators as well.”
Encouraging these types of understandings in both theory and practice is also a goal for WCMA. Not surprisingly, the museum’s strategic plan—written in anticipation of its centennial in 2026—echoes much of the vision for the art history department. It includes nurturing cross-disciplinary arts, diversifying the field of arts leaders, “involving every Williams student with the museum” and “creating experiences with art that inspire lifelong learning.”
“Activating the collection” is another goal—something that happens naturally when professors in art history and many other disciplines engage the museum and its collection in their teaching.
“Direct study of works of art is key to art history,” says Pamela Franks, the Class of 1956 Director of WCMA. By looking closely at an original object, she says, students can observe its materiality, condition and scale along with the techniques used in its creation—something they can’t get by looking at slides in a lecture or reproductions in books.
Object Lab, a long-standing collaboration between WCMA and faculty members from a variety of disciplines, is a dedicated gallery space in the museum where students can study art up close. The space can hold an entire class for one or several sessions in the museum, or students can visit independently to view the artwork associated with their course—and all the other courses making use of the gallery that semester. It’s not uncommon to see Object Lab exhibitions for courses in environmental studies, history, neuroscience and political science alongside those for art history.
Faculty can draw upon the museum’s 15,000-piece collection, which holds a range of artworks from Egyptian grave pots dating to 3800-3000 BCE to the 2022 multimedia piece Sojourner Truth by Detroit-based figurative painter Mario Moore.
In addition to Object Lab, the museum offers many other ways for students to access its collection, including internships for undergraduates and graduate students as well as exhibitions of seniors’ work during their final spring semester. In March, WCMA partnered with Williams’ Asian American Students in Action group for an Ekphrastic poetry workshop. Students wrote poetry in response to Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings on view in the exhibition “Across Shared Waters: Contemporary Artists in Dialogue With Tibetan Art From the Jack Shear Collection,” which runs through July 16.
The collaborations inform the museum’s work to ensure that the collection represents the full range and diversity of the community at Williams and beyond. Another priority for WCMA is acquiring works by previously underrepresented artists, Franks says. A 2017 gift from Clarence Otis ’77 and his wife, Jacqui Bradley, for example, has facilitated the purchase of works by Black artists, including photographer James Van Der Zee, who documented the lives of African Americans inNew York City and the Berkshires, and Maren Hassinger, who experimented with combining sculpture, movement and nontraditional materials.
WCMA curators are also expanding the museum’s holdings in various movements and traditions. In the course Acquiring Art: Selecting and Purchasing Art for WCMA, taught by curator Kevin Murphy and economics professor Stephen Sheppard, students help seek out and fill gaps in the museum’s collection. In addition to writing a research paper on an aspect of the art market, they spend a weekend in New York City interviewing gallery owners and artists. They also visit galleries and auction houses to find works of art that align with the museum’s collecting priorities and present them to WCMA staff for potential acquisition. The museum purchases those deemed most impactful for the collection.
In 2016, as a result of students’ work in Acquiring Art, WCMA acquired Hermann Fuechsel’s landscape Keene Valley, Adirondacks, 1876, which Murphy describes as “a Hudson River School painting from the 1870s, when artists like Albert Beirstadt and Frederic Church painted grand, epic vistas of famous places in American nature. WCMA has wonderful Hudson River paintings but none in this grand mode.”
To date, the museum has acquired more than a dozen works of art proposed by students in the course, including Opening 13, a 2016 black-and-white print on Korean mulberry paper by photographer Jungjin Lee that depicts a stone or barren island in a gently rippling sea. The students, who visited Lee’s gallery in New York, selected the work in part because they knew WCMA is “working to diversify its collection,” says Mira Kamat ’23, who is originally from Mumbai and took Acquiring Art in 2021.
Engaging students in this way is central to the museum’s mission, Franks says. “It’s amazing to have a new core audience of students every four years, because their perspective is always fresh,” she adds. “It’s a great opportunity for us to hear their concerns and calls for change, to learn from them and to move forward.”
Through collaborations with the museum and in their art history classes, Williams students from all disciplines are learning how art relates to, enhances and even informs many aspects of their daily lives.
“Every artwork is trying to tell a story and engage in contemporary topics, like feminism, equality and socioeconomic [issues],” says Kamat, who was scheduled to graduate in June with majors in art history and English. Like generations of Williams students, she had a life-changing experience in an introductory art history course. In Kamat’s case, that course was Art and Architecture From the Age of Enlightenment to the Present.
Co-taught by Michael J. Lewis, the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art, and lecturer Catherine Howe, the course examines works by Rembrandt, Bernini, Maya Lin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Vincent Van Gogh and Kehinde Wiley, among others. Lewis typically focuses on an artwork’s formal properties, while Howe presents its social context and encourages students to think about how a piece’s meaning has changed over time.
“It’s amazing to have a new core audience of students every four years, because their perspective is always fresh. It’s a great opportunity for us to hear their concerns and calls for change, to learn from them and to move forward.”
— PAMELA FRANKS, the Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art
“Many people want to know the answer of how to look at something,” says Howe. “I’m very clear that I’m not trying to tell students what a good work of art is and what they should like. Rather, I want them to understand a work of art and find it thought-provoking.”
Adds Lewis, “You cannot look at art in isolation.”
For Kamat, there’s no question Art and Architecture changed her trajectory at Williams.
“Coming out of high school, I would have never thought about the art history major,” she says. “But at Williams, it’s crazy not to take art history classes. It’s been one of the highlights of my time here.”
Featured image, at top: ALLEGORY OF WORLDLY AND OTHERWORLDLY DRUNKENNESS, Folio from the Divan of Hafiz. ca. 1531–33. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. Jointly owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA and Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Cary Welch Jr., 1988. 1988.430 + L.2019.55