posted by Karen von Veh
Early last year, in my role as president of the South African Visual Arts Historians (SAVAH), I was asked by Professor Federico Freschi (at the University of Johannesburg) to send out a call for participants to apply for a travel grant to attend the CAA Annual Conference in New York in February 2013. After mailing the request to SAVAH members, I read through the requirements and found that it was an extraordinarily generous grant for which one only needed to be a full-time practicing art historian residing in a country not well represented in CAA membership. The grant, which was funded by the Getty Foundation, was aimed at encouraging dialogue between art historians from around the globe and included a year’s membership to CAA.
As a lucky recipient I was one of twenty people heading for the icy snow-laden New York in February and arrived on the first morning that JFK airport was opened again after being closed for two days due to blizzards. My first activity in New York was to head for Central Park and enjoy the novelty of walking in the deep snow.
The day before the CAA conference, travel-grant recipients had a preconference gathering where we met the other grantees and gave five-minute presentations to introduce ourselves. This allowed us to get to know each other and identify like minds and areas of collaboration, so from the first meeting there was already a networking frenzy taking place. The grantees reminded me of the League of Nations, with people from various African countries, South American countries, India, Pakistan, China, Haiti, Korea, Iceland, and several Eastern European countries (and I have probably missed a few). There was a lot of lively discussion every time we met, and we got on very well with each other as a group. It was wonderful to meet so many diverse people who shared a passion for the development and teaching of art history.
The CAA conference was huge and frenetic with many parallel sessions, so one had to choose the papers very carefully. I heard some wonderful presentations by Amelia Jones, Griselda Pollock, and Whitney Chadwick (among others) in a feminist session that was packed to the hilt, with people sitting on the floor and lining the walls. As part of conference attendance, everyone had free access to many galleries and museums in New York for the duration of the conference, so there was much rushing to see exhibitions between listening to papers.
I was also lucky enough to be invited (with the other African delegates) to the opening of El Anatsui’s glorious exhibition, Gravity and Grace, at the Brooklyn Museum, where the artist made an appearance as well. For this and other wonderful visits (such as a private tour of the African collection at the Metropolitan Museum) I must thank Jean Borgatti, who was assigned as host to two of the African delegates but was kind enough to include all the visitors from Africa in her plans. At the end of the conference, we had a final “debriefing” session where we could state what worked and what didn’t. From my point of view, the entire event was splendidly arranged and I cannot fault anything, although on a purely personal note I would have enjoyed more time with the group as a whole.
After the conference we were invited by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to visit their museum and research center in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Most of the group were able to extend their visit for the extra three days required for this trip, and we were bussed off to Williamstown, where we stayed at the delightful Williams Inn. At the Clark we were given a tour of the library, the print archives, and the museum, and joined in discussions of possible future projects for the Clark’s Research and Academic Programs to pursue. We were also taken to one of the biggest art spaces I have ever seen: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or MASS MoCA), which had a room large enough (one football field long) to display Xu Bing’s enormous flying Phoenix.
After returning to New York, most travel-grant recipients returned to their countries, while I and a few others were able to stay another few days (in my case until the weekend—two more days) to make the most of the city. I spent this time literally running from one gallery to another to try and fit them all in before leaving. New York is amazingly rich in terms of what it has to offer culturally, and I feel this trip was altogether an enriching experience—from the intellectual stimulation and visual excitement to the wonderful people I met. This affords great networking opportunities such as reciprocal arrangements between institutions (student or staff exchanges) and invitations to conferences or ongoing discussions about the state of art history on a global scale (via email, of course). As a direct result of this trip I have already been invited to speak at a global conference in Slovakia this September, and am making arrangements for exchange programs with other institutions.
First image: Me (the “Michelin Man”) in Central Park.
Second image: The “African Contingent” admiring El Anatsui at the Met.
Third image: Our group at the final “debriefing” in New York.