posted by CAA — May 26, 2016
Earlier this month Suzanne Preston Blier of Harvard University succeeded DeWitt Godfrey, an artist and professor at Colgate University, as president of the CAA Board of Directors. To commemorate the passing of the CAA torch, Godfrey has interviewed Blier about what lies ahead for the organization.
DeWitt Godfrey: First, before we start the interview, I’d like to congratulate you on the being elected president of CAA. I can think of no one who is more ready to take on the role. I take comfort in handing the reins over to you.
Suzanne Preston Blier: Thank you so much! I’ve been involved with CAA for a long time and this feels like a culmination of many years of new engagement with the organization.
DG: As an historian of art who specializes in the arts of Africa, how will this interest shape your role as president of CAA?
SPB: CAA’s 2015-2020 strategic plan emphasizes the need to think more internationally – more globally. A key part of this strategy is to explore how CAA can better serve art and scholarly constituencies outside of the U.S., as well as projects here that address these wider sets of issues and concerns. It is important that artists and art historians in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are central part of the mix, along with our many colleagues in Europe and Australia. In a field such as art history that historically has been so Western-centric, the idea that CAA selected an Africanist as its new President also speaks volumes in terms of how far our field, and the Association itself, has come since its founding.
DG: We are in an important moment in CAA’s history characterized both by unique challenges and potentials. What are your perspectives on the organization as we go forward?
SPB: Being part of an organization of this complexity, one that is over a hundred years old is pretty awesome. Although in many ways it is a difficult time to be in this position of leadership, it is also a moment that carries real pluses in thinking about how we can renew and reshape the Association going forward. As to some of the challenges, we recently replaced two long-standing and really excellent senior staff members through retirement. Fortunately, we were able to find two great new leaders who I am excited to work with – people who bring new ideas, potential, and energy to the organization (Hunter O’Hanian and Tiffany Dugan). At the same time, many professional organizations, including ours, have seen financial challenges, due to budget cut-backs in university funding for not only professors but also support for things like research and travel. Because of these factors, we have to make CAA even more relevant and important as we begin to think more about both advocacy, and the kinds of intellectual and social sustenance that makes it not just worth participating, but also essential to do so. There is a lot we can do better, and I look forward to hearing from members (and non-members) about their specific suggestions and concerns.
DG: You do a fair amount with social media – and you helped found a website at Harvard on digital mapping. Do these interests extend to CAA and its digital presence?
SPB: Yes. I confess to being a fan of Facebook (indeed, I am active!). For many in my generation it has been important professionally. It is one of the ways I keep up with what is happening in my field and others. It is also a great means to bring in people internationally. I follow one group, African Art University, that has over 22,000 members, most of whom are in Africa. New technologies are coming into play and building on them as we go forward will be important. Being part of the team at Harvard that helped build Worldmap, an online digital mapping system that is readable in some 30-40 different languages, offered seminal insight. This nourished a passion for not only maps, but also digital tools, and the importance of both collaborative and cross-disciplinary work in building something that will serve a wide variety of needs and interests. In many ways I see this kind of experience offering insight for an organization like CAA as we move forward. New social media engagements and software technologies will be a key part of CAA’s future! For example, CAA Connect is scheduled to launch in the early fall of 2016.
DG: You have been involved with CAA for much of your career. How have you seen the Association change over time? What have been some of the real highlights for you?
SPB: Alas, some of it is a blur! Of course, it is hard to forget the trauma of job interviews in strange hotel rooms at the Annual Conference. I remember traveling up the elevators with other applicants – including artists – and thinking, not only did they look much better, but they had it far worse since decisions were based on works they chose to carry with them in their portfolios. On a better note, I remember being accepted for and giving my first paper at CAA. It was totally intimidating – a panel on semiotics, chaired by my future colleague Henri Zerner. Still today the CAA ballrooms tend to be really intimidating. I also remember the intellectual clashes that shaped earlier CAA conferences – Material Culture (labor, class, feminism) versus more traditional approaches. What I mostly remember however is meeting amazing scholars and artists over my years of service – many of whom are now good friends
DG: CAA has long brought artists and art historians together. What do you see as some of the advantages going forward of having such a broad wingspan organizationally?
SPB: As an organization we are clearly much broader in our interests and “wingspan” now than we were at the outset – including not only artists and art historians, but also museum professionals, critics, and designers. One of the great things about CAA is its very breadth. While today some of us are housed in different departments, many of us are visiting the same galleries, sharing the same social media posts, and interested in the same larger intellectual and social issues. In this period of economic uncertainty it is all the more important that we find ways to address shared interests and concerns collectively. Whether it is trivializing arts and culture through the recent STEM focus or finding tangent ways to help artists and art historians in our professional and other lives, there is clearly strength in numbers. One of the most important – and revolutionary – endeavors I have been part of at CAA is the Mellon Foundation-funded Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, which brought together artists and art historians in an effort to not only impact policy but also to change the law to help save time and money for many members of our group. In many ways it was a model.
DG: You chaired the task force on the Annual Conference that formulated substantial changes to the conference. What did you learn from that process? What are some of the impacts this will have on the conference itself and on the organization?
SPB: This was a great experience, working with a diverse group of people who helped to rethink the whole conference format. Basically, mine was more of a listening role and one of encouraging people to think creatively and outside the box. On a practical note, the time frame between proposal submission and presentation goes from nearly two years to eight months, and we are now encouraging members to present or participate in other ways multiple years in a row. In addition to a new time grid (shorter and a greater number of panels) we also have a Saturday suite of panels on key themes for the organization. Equally importantly we now have an Annual Conference chair (the first is Judith Rodenbeck) and with our new director of programs, Tiffany Dugan, we will be seeing lots of interesting things happening. I encourage everyone to keep making suggestions – and to come!
DW: “CAA is welcoming on board a new executive director to CAA, Hunter O’Hanian. What are your thoughts on this and other changes as you both begin this journey?”
SPB: I am really excited about being able to work with someone as skilled, knowledgeable, and energetic as Hunter. We share a similar vision about CAA, its potential, and how key changes might help. He is coming to the organization with lots of experience in areas that are important to both administration and the arts. In meetings with him he has stressed how much he looks forward to finding new and improved ways for CAA to support and encourage the professional lives of visual artists, art historians, designers, and curators. As he has said to me “We have to make CAA even more meaningful in terms of various aspects of our professional lives and engagements.” I feel the same way. Moreover, it is clear he not only listens deeply but thinks deeply, and I have found him very insightful in thinking through how to best get from where we are now to where we want to be in the years ahead.
DW: “You earlier chaired The Art Bulletin editorial board and later served as Vice President for Publications during a key moment of change – plus you publish extensively – how has this changed and what does the future hold for publishing in the organization?
SPB: Publishing great journals has long been a CAA strength and it will continue to be so. It has been exciting to watch the growth of a new CAA journal – caa.reviews, which is now one of the most productive journals anywhere in terms of the sheer volume of content, and the global reach of its reviews. It is also great to see how much the content and scope of The Art Bulletin has grown since I began to read it. Art Journal too has grown in so many interesting ways. What I hear too often (and would love to shake up) is the idea that X CAA journal only publishes articles in Y areas or Z subjects. I know the CAA journal editors are searching for new and provocative works that don’t fit any pre-conceived frame. Now that we have turned the digital corner with the journals, I hope we can see new kinds of digital writing – whether informal discussions in social media, posts on CAA Connect, blogs, and other content that can be brought together. In addition to expanding the journals’ reach, what the digital revolution and the Internet make possible is a revolution in how we think about, engage, and make available new kinds of textual and image engagements.