After a string of professor retirements that plagued Yale’s History of Art Department in mid and late 1990s, the department is finally settling in as new professors continue to fill in gaps and student interest grows.
The department is moving ahead with a forward-looking vision that professors said is aimed at adapting to global trends as it repositions itself at the field’s forefront. Some professors said the department is considering appointing specialists in Native American and Islamic art.
“There’s been a wonderful spirit and frank discussions about what we are doing and planning real strategic ideas for the present and the future,” History of Art Chairman Edward Cooke said.
But just last decade, the simultaneous retirements of many of the department’s luminaries cast a dark cloud on departmental optimism. In the second half of the 20th century, Yale’s History of Art was at the top of its game. The faculty included Americanist Jules Prown, medievalist Walter Cahn and architecture historian Vincent Scully — all were progressive leaders in their fields — but now, all are retired.
History of art professor Mary Miller likened academic departments to “living organisms” because of their cyclical rotation of professors generation by generation. Another professor, Timothy Barringer, said the department has spent the last few years rebuilding its faculty, but the bureaucratic red tape that must be cut through to make new appointments slowed the rebuilding process.
Under Cooke, however, the department has replaced many of its retired professors, though it still seeks a medievalist.
“You always want to have gradual turnover,” Cooke said. “It’s impossible to search everything all at once. But we are past that and there’s a whole new energy with a new cadre of senior professors.”
Several of the tenured professors are relatively young and many even younger junior professors bring fresh perspectives to the department, professors said.
“The irony of it all is that I’m 51, and I’m sort of the old guard,” Miller, also the master of Saybrook College, said. “There aren’t a lot of older professors at retirement age right now. Most of the tenured faculty are indeed mid-career.”
History of Art professor Sandy Isenstadt said the department now has “a kind of critical mass” of junior faculty.
“Sure, it’s a transitional moment, but there are some very exciting faculty in place who are going to shape the department for the future,” Isenstadt said.
Graham Boettcher GRD ’05, a doctoral student in History of Art, said the department’s situation during the late 1990s left many of his fellow students “disgruntled.”
“One of my classmates who entered with me left for Princeton during that time and another classmate decided to leave to go to medical school,” Boettcher said. “My incoming class, which was the class that matriculated in 1999, [was] a bit decimated. Those who stayed were the ones who had strong advisors from the get-go.”
Now, Boettcher and his colleagues have many more course offerings and professors with whom to study, he said.
“It’s the sort of thing where you keep the home fires burning, you keep the positive things going that you already have in place,” Boettcher said. “But one shouldn’t be afraid to broaden the horizons of the program and maybe bring in new faculty members and new students who could add a lot to the program.”
One of the department’s newest senior professor, David Joselit, said he is excited by History of Art’s planning and growth for the future.
“Our department is in a moment of lively thinking,” Joselit said. “Yes, we have strategic plans — but it’s not up to us. One has to get these resources from the University and one has to make a case for these new resources. It’s more than a will.”
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