Mellon Foundation grant to support art history initiative with UChicago, Northwestern, Art Institute

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded three grants totaling $1,299,404 to three of the Chicago area’s premier institutions—the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago—to enhance the study of art history through a focus on working with art objects. 

This unprecedented, four-year, inter-institutional pilot effort, known as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chicago Objects Study Initiative, will provide graduate students from both universities with new or significantly enhanced coursework and training in object-based art history research. It also will increase their access to works of art drawn from the Art Institute’s renowned permanent holdings—both on view and in storage—as well as fully leverage the expertise of the museum’s curatorial and professional staff.

Thanks to this new initiative, emerging art historians will receive rigorous training in the techniques, materials and physical properties of works of art as part of their curriculum, as well as develop related research skills. By emphasizing curatorial practice and providing in-depth exposure to conservation and conservation-science approaches to objects and materials, the program addresses a professional need for broadening instruction in the discipline of art history.

The program will prepare graduate students to consider works of art as primary sources for original research; it also will give students the tools, skills and experience needed to prepare them for positions in museums, libraries or other research settings involving collections.

Students will be given direct access to works of art through visits to the Art Institute’s art storage areas, to be overseen by a newly created position—the Mellon academic curator—and supported by a dedicated art-handling technician. The two universities also will have expanded access to classroom space at the Art Institute, where faculty can hold on-site sessions for graduate-level classes, in addition to the objects methods course.

Coursework will be further supplemented by a biannual conference on materials and techniques—including an integration of the strong collaboration already in place through the Mellon-supported NU-ACCESS program—as well as an annual colloquium that would connect to the Art Institute’s “Crossroads” exhibition series, a new and highly experimental program to focus on cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary topics.

Lastly, a host of events will be held throughout the academic year for students, faculty and museum staff to encourage dialogue and collegiality among program participants and the graduate student cohorts, as well as long-term relationships between faculty and curators.

An hour’s drive separates Northwestern from the University of Chicago, with the Art Institute situated squarely between the two. With the Mellon Foundation providing the means for these institutions to work on a single, collaborative program, the Art Institute will become the hub where all three institutions can connect.

In addition to the required coursework for all graduate students, three Mellon Research Fellows—two graduate students from the UChicago and one from Northwestern—will hold yearlong fellowships at the museum. They will be matched with appropriate departments and curatorial mentors, who will supervise and support original research on objects in the museum’s collection. Northwestern also will select one graduate student per year to work in a curatorial department as a Mellon curatorial intern.

“This ambitious collaboration made possible by the Mellon Foundation heralds a new era of collaboration between the Art Institute and the art history programs at two great Chicago universities,” said Douglas Druick, president and the Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute.  “All three partners have long desired to establish a closer relationship. This generous grant addresses a significant need in both research and training, and also promises to integrate our institutions as never before. In the process, it will greatly enrich the practice of art history.”

“This initiative builds on existing collaborations between Northwestern and the Art Institute, and promises unique ways for our art history faculty at Weinberg College and colleagues at the University of Chicago to combine their scholarly work,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said. “Our art history department is known for field-leading research, and by gaining new partners we can create novel programs for graduate students that will expand their career opportunities. We greatly appreciate Mellon’s support.”

“The arts are integral to the vibrant intellectual culture of the University of Chicago,” said UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “The Mellon Foundation’s support will create new opportunities for collaboration in art history among our three institutions, with vital educational and research benefits for graduate students. We are excited about this chance to work closely with the Art Institute and Northwestern, and we extend our gratitude to the Mellon Foundation.”

These grants form part of the Mellon Foundation’s initiative to support partnerships in research and graduate education between American art museums and doctoral programs in art history.  The initiative seeks to strengthen the intellectual and professional preparation of art history graduate students through programs that fully integrate object-based study and curatorial and conservation practice into the PhD curriculum. Mellon Vice President Mariët Westermann said, “It is wonderful that these three institutions have collaborated to develop such a robust program, and that graduate students in these universities will contribute to new research based on the museum’s collections.”