Department of Art and Art History News

Students gain opportunities through Mellon Foundation funded partnership with the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Tue. December 22, 2015

hair, video, and copper installation in gallery
Tunga, Lezart, 1989, iron, copper, magnets and embroidered silk, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 1989, Tunga. Image Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Two books weighed down students who arrived to the November opening of the exhibition Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez. Ten undergraduate and graduate students were given the tomes in addition to travel stipends to attend the opening and symposium around Contingent Beauty.

The exhibition catalog’s large size provides room for luscious, full-color images of work by the artists included in the exhibition. The second book, Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Lantino? appears small but contains 1200 pages of texts pulled from the digital archives of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), the research institute of the Latin American Art Department at the MFAH.

“I had only visited [the MFAH] once before, so it was a good opportunity to see more of the museum and what kinds of programming they are interested in,” says Julia Detchon, M.A. candidate in Art History. “I also connected with some curators and researchers at the ICAA and have since been offered a fellowship to help them with research on the Adolpho Leirner archive next semester.”

The trip continues an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded partnership between The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS) and the ICAA, which encourages academic collaboration and digital access to the MFAH’s permanent collection.

“CLAVIS is oriented toward the training of emerging scholars and serving as a research hub for the field,” remarks Assistant Professor of Art History George Flaherty. “Working with the ICAA at the MFAH serves both those missions.”

black lego sculptural form in gallery
Los Carpinteros, Podgaric Toy, 2013, wood and LEGO® bricks, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Caribbean Art Fund. © Los Carpinteros. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Students also attended portions of a symposium, “The Contingencies of Beauty: Artists in Dialogue.” The scheduled included panels and conversations with artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela.

“During the last panel José Alejandro Restrepo said something about his video work, which had already drawn my attention at the exhibition, relating to the relationship between video art and television, this helped me to look at the film I'm working on for my thesis in a new way,” describes Art History graduate Jana Labrasca. “I am now thinking much more about the seemingly separate histories of cinema and video and television and am very interested in exploring these questions further in my project.”

Through partnerships and collaborations like CLAVIS’ work with the ICAA, the center continues to connect scholars and centers across Latin America and the U.S.

“I came to the university to be part of CLAVIS. It wants to engage with Latin America studies directly—not only create a discussion in the U.S., but touch scholars and institutions in Latin America,” says Patricia Ortega, first-year graduate student in Art History. “This trip was a very enlightening experience to understand what we do as art historians and how important it is to network in order to generate and exchange ideas.”

Q+A: Alie Cline (B.A. in Art History, 2013)

Mon. December 21, 2015

Alie Cline stumbled into art and social media after starting the art history blog Cave to Canvas in 2011, which at its peak had over 200,000 followers and collaborated with the Whitney Museum, the Pace Gallery, Tumblr, Artspace and more. During this time, Alie also served as the social media manager for the grassroots art organization Slow Art Day. In 2013, Alie graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with dual bachelor degrees in English and Art History. As the Digital Content Strategist for the Blanton Museum of Art since 2013, Alie oversees the museum’s social media strategy, digital communications, some digital marketing and more. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @aliecline, and as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media accounts.

She answered questions via email.

woman in flowered blouse poses for photo

Maggie Conyngham: Last month, you attended and presented at the Museum Computer Network conference. What is the focus of the conference and which panels did you participate in?

Alie Cline: The focus of MCN is “advancing digital transformation in the cultural sector.” It’s funny: for a technology conference, so many of the most important takeaways weren’t actually about computers or digital projects, but about how to connect to people—both internally within the structure of the museum, but also externally to visitors.

I participated in “Irreverent Storytelling: Ups & Downs of Unorthodoxy in Social Media” and “No Dollars, All Sense: Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art.” The former was a really fun look at some of the ways museums are starting to let loose online, like the Clark Art Institute and the Seattle Art Museum wagering paintings in a SuperBowl Bet, or the Albright-Knox’s March Madnesss-inspired “Art Madness,” which pitted artworks from museums across the country against each other in a bracket-style tournament. The latter was a Blanton-centric panel where myself and two other staff members discussed case studies of how we’re starting to incorporate digital adaptation into the museum.

MC: At the Blanton, you are a Digital Content Strategist and have helped transform the Blanton using a “digital adaptation” strategy. Could you explain exactly what this is?

AC: Our digital adaptation strategy is headed up by our aptly-titled Director of Digital Adaptation, Koven Smith. He was brought on in 2014 to help lead Blanton in a digital overhaul, both internally—staff members learning how to use Wordpress, contributing to blogs, etc.—and externally for visitors, both onsite and online. Koven is fond of saying what digital adaptation isn’t: a department within the museum, or iPads on railings. Instead, we’re looking at how how a digitally-inclined way of thinking—usability, need and agility—can permeate all departments of the museum and be used to solve problems and facilitate learning for visitors.

MC: How do certain strategies, such as the Blanton’s Snapchat, add to the museum experience? How has it affected visitor behavior or turnout?

AC: So often in the 21st century, our experiences with brands or institutions start online. I want people’s initial interactions with the Blanton to be a good one—not only does it set the tone if they’re planning to visit, but it also keeps them interested if they live in another city or even country. A large part of my social strategy is dictated by how how I would perceive the Blanton if I lived in another state and had literally no intention of visiting—is our twitter feed something I would want to follow, or is it filled with tours and events that I don’t care about? Our social media is a balancing game between local and global audiences, and the Blanton's various online platforms cater to difference groups of people.

That’s why I like our Snapchat so much: we started it to reach UT students, but it’s grown into more of a nationally recognized platform, having recently been featured on Buzzfeed. I was actually in the galleries the other month wandering around waiting for Snapchat inspiration to strike, when I received a snap from someone who was IN THE MUSEUM! I ran around until I found the person, who happened to be a student at UT and decided to visit after seeing some of our Snapchats.

It was the perfect scenario: a potential visitor deciding to come to the museum because of an online initiative. Our Snapchat is a fun way for the Blanton to try and shed the stuffy image that so many museums still have and show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. As a 20-something with a background in art history, I’ll have more respect for the museum who is able to poke fun at themselves instead of the museum who tries to keep its collection bubble-wrapped and placed on a pedestal.

MC: Museums all over the nation are embracing digital adaptation in their practices as well. Do you feel the “No Dollars, All Sense” approach that was discussed at the MCN conference has been effective beyond the Blanton?

AC: I think the Blanton has a unique way of looking at digital adaptation, and I haven’t really seen that phrase used in other institutions. Most museums tend to focus on digital products, released with great fanfare, that they can point to and say, "Look! We built an app! We’re in touch with millennials!" But is the resource-heavy and expensive mobile app actually arising out of a legitimate visitor need, or is it being created because museums are panicking about “staying relevant” in a digital age? (Scare quotes necessary.) Visitors are increasingly demanding a more engaging museum experience with options, both for the patron who wants to sit quietly and look at the art, or the millennial like me who wants to snap an Instagram photo every five feet.

At the Blanton, we’re trying to straddle that line by trying out new technologies quickly, at a low cost, and gauging visitor response instead of getting bogged down in meetings or red tape. We launched our Periscope account on the first day the app was made available because it was new and cool and we wanted to try it out; subsequently, I got (and still get!) tons of questions from colleagues about Periscope, best practices, and how to use it.

Similarly, we were one of the first museums to use Snapchat, so we established ourselves as a leader on that app. Even though we’re early adopters of technology, I want to stress that there is still a overall guiding strategy: Snapchat was a great fit with our brand and continues to flourish, while Periscope has evolved into a series of videos on Vine because our strategy with the original app didn’t fit the platform. Both of these examples are low-cost and (potentially) high-reward ways that we’re experimenting with technology and visitor engagement in a way that I don’t see many other museums doing.

MC: You've worked at the Blanton for a little over two years and started right after you graduated. How does your art history training impact your work?

AC: I hate how art history degrees constantly make the top of “Worst College Degree” lists. Even if I didn’t work in a museum, I’d still use the skills I learned in any job: thinking critically, writing thoughtfully and articulately, and, most importantly, being able to evaluate and read images in today’s photo-saturated society. I once had a former boss tell me that when hiring for his user experience consulting company, he’d pick art history majors over business majors any day of the week because they had a more well-rounded skill set and didn’t come into a job with assumptions or baggage from their degree—that’s really stuck with me as I’ve entered the workforce. On the most fundamental level, my art history degree has impacted my work because a friend in the Department of Art and Art History actually told me about the job—I credit her with helping me land my position before I was even out of school!

One of the main responsibilities of my job is taking content that the museum has, whether that’s a wall label or work from the collection, and making it digestible and relatable for an online audience. My degree helps when I’m paraphrasing or condensing “art-speak” into something that a layperson could understand on our Facebook page, blog, or elsewhere.

I also credit my arts background with helping me seek out the most interesting art-world news items and aggregate them for our audience on Twitter—I’m proud of the collection of articles and stories that make up the Blanton's Twitter, and my goal is that it would be interesting even to someone who didn’t follow art-world news all that often. But mostly, my degree gives me the confidence to talk about art to the Blanton’s online audience in a way that is (hopefully!) knowledgeable and relatable. Our brand voice is tasked with being worldly, vibrant, lively, welcoming, engaging, cool, smart, and local, and I doubt that I would have been able to strike the right balance without my degree from UT Austin.

Maggie Conyngham is a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Art History and French. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.

John Clarke published in Not Even Past

Fri. December 11, 2015

Green cube with white graphic design overlay

Dr. John Clarke's article "New Digital Technologies Bring Ancient Roman Villa to Life," describing his team's research of an ancient villa destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that covered Pompeii, was published in Not Even Past. 

Adriana Corral featured in Modern Painters' "Artists to Watch"

Fri. December 11, 2015

cover of magazine with artists to watch text over colorful rectangles

Adriana Corral (M.F.A. in Studio Art, 2013) was listed as one of 18 "Artists to Watch" by Blouin's Modern Painters.

Michael Smith featured in The Guardian

Fri. December 11, 2015

Man in baby costume leading graceful ballet dancers in uncoordinated dance
Image courtesy of the artist.

Professor Michael Smith was featured in The Guardian's "Does your nuclear shelter have a bar? Michael Smith on 40 years of mocking America."