By Rebecca King
Over Apr. 1-2, the graduate students of the Department of Art History and Archaeology hosted graduate presenters from across the globe for a symposium titled, "Endurance, Ephemerality: Art and the Passage of Time."
“Time is a hot topic in our field right now,” says Lauren Johnson, a doctoral student in the department and co-chair of the graduate student planning committee. “There are plenty of art historians at the beginning stages or mid-point of their careers who are engaging with questions of permanence and duration in works of art that were built to last, like memorials to the dead or religious sculptures.”
Time provokes many questions within art history, says Jennifer Padgett, co-chair of the planning committee and a doctoral student in the department. "Some of the guiding queries included questions like: How do we address works of art that no longer exist (or as we would say in our field, are no longer extant)? How do the physical or material properties of a work change over time? Conservation is a particularly interesting ancillary field of art history, and the questions of how to preserve an artwork’s materiality, or how to arrest decay and change in a painting, are becoming increasingly important in the study of technical art history. And then how do you address modern painters like Robert Rauschenberg, for example, who actually used materials like gold leaf, dirt, and vegetation in a way that emphasized their changing physical qualities over time?”
The planning committee of five art history graduate students—Emily J. Hanson, Katherine Harnish, Maxime Valsamas, and co-chairs Lauren Johnson and Jennifer Padgett—were careful to choose a symposium theme that aligned with current trends in art history scholarship. Once chosen, the theme was fine-tuned and approved by department faculty.
“The process was collaborative the whole way,” says Padgett, who is also a Lynne Cooper Harvey Fellow in American Culture Studies. “In addition to our current committee, two graduate students—Orin Zahra and Mia Laufer—both made valuable contributions when we were in the early stages, though they couldn’t be here for the symposium. We were also enthusiastically supported by our department chair, Dr. Elizabeth Childs, who was a great champion of the event and saw this as a productive opportunity for us to connect with graduate students from a range of universities, foster intellectual exchange, and invite presenters to visit the university and learn more about our department.”
The planning for the symposium began over a year and a half ago, in the fall of 2014. Since this was the first symposium of its kind hosted by the department, the graduate-student committee charted new territory, planning the event from the ground up. And though both Johnson and Padgett had experience planning events in the past, neither had put together an event as big—or exciting—as the symposium. “We basically planned an intellectual wedding!” says Johnson.
The symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Art History and Archaeology and the Center for the Humanities, included a keynote address and a series of panels that spanned centuries and a variety of art forms. “We wanted to give an expansive look at the rich variety of work being done by art and architectural historians,” says Johnson. In the end, that included topics like “conservation decisions on medieval hospitals and mosques in Cairo, Chilean religious sculptures, and ephemeral works of art by canonical artists like Leonardo da Vinci.”
“We were especially honored that Dr. André Dombrowski, an associate professor of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, accepted our invitation and presented an extraordinary keynote address on how scientific theories of the ‘instant’ and ‘reaction time’ coincided with the development of Impressionist painting during the 1860s-1880s,” Padgett says.
Both committee chairs acknowledge the importance of teamwork in pulling together such a large-scale event. Padgett says, “Our committee took on the challenge with fantastic energy, attention to detail, and teamwork. Lauren has been a fabulous co-chair and all of the committee members—Emily Hanson, Kate Harnish, and Max Valsamas—put in a lot of work and care to ensure that everything ran smoothly.”
Johnson adds, “Everyone brought their A-game and deserves equal credit! Jen has been a fearless and tireless co-chair. Max Valsamas secured additional funding from the Center for the Humanities here at WashU. Kate Harnish built an incredible symposium website with the schedule and paper synopses. Emily Hanson designed our symposium program to sync with the look of our poster. In the week running up to the events, we had a Dropbox folder with an organizational document created by Emily that we edited about every hour or so on some evenings. Talk about change over time!”
Looking back, both chairs are proud of the outcome and consider the symposium a smashing success. “Our hope was to bring as many art historians at the beginning of their careers to St. Louis to engage in a sort of creative laboratory. We wanted the graduate student presenters to feel supported and welcome to exchange their ideas freely, and to become inspired by the theories and conceptual approaches of their fellow presenters,” Johnson says. “I know we achieved our goal, because we constantly heard precisely that feedback from our participants. One of the presenters even took the time to email me and say that it had been the best graduate event she had ever attended.”