Q&A with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw

Text by Greg Johnson

The “Gwendolyn” in Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is a salute from her parents to Gwendolyn Brooks, the celebrated poet who in 1950 became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Photo by Peter Tobia

The “Gwendolyn” in Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is a salute from her parents to Gwendolyn Brooks, the celebrated poet who in 1950 became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

She was given the name DuBois in honor of W.E.B. Du Bois, the esteemed scholar, civil rights activist, and co-founder of the NAACP.

“You get names like that and it means something,” says Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art in the School of Arts & Sciences. “It means that our family is connected and committed to certain causes, both in the arts and in society.”

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Photo by Peter Tobia

Shaw’s parents met during the Civil Rights Movement; both worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Her mother, a sociologist, is an artist, and her father had been an artist in his 20s and 30s. Shaw says both her parents were always supportive of her interest in the visual arts.

Born in Boston but raised in California, Shaw completed her undergraduate studies at California College of the Arts and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her graduate work at University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford University, where she received her Ph.D. She was an assistant professor of the history of art and African American studies at Harvard before joining Penn in 2005.

As an art historian raised by people fighting for social justice, Shaw says it is essential that her work serve a larger purpose.

“It has to benefit a larger community and be of use to many different kinds of people to satisfy my moral core and my own intellectual mission,” she says.

Her social, moral, and intellectual commitment was on full display in “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” an exhibition Shaw co-curated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that ran from Jan. 10 to April 5. The exhibit highlighted selections from the Art Museum’s extensive holdings of African-American art created by artists both famous and lesser known.

The Current recently sat down with Shaw in the Jaffe History of Art Building to discuss her interest in art, art schools and universities, Philadelphia’s place in the American art world, self-taught artists, and why it is important that museums showcase the work of underrepresented groups.

Q: Did you always have an interest in art?
A: I went to a small, independent high school in San Francisco and we had a really wonderful art department there, and I always enjoyed my studio art classes. When I had to make a choice about what kind of a college education I wanted to pursue, I thought I wanted to do studio art. I did my first two years at California College of the Arts and then I transferred to Santa Barbara because I was better at talking about [art] than doing [art]. I had a hard time coming up with projects every week for the studio art classes, but I could always do well in my art history classes, my English classes, my history classes, so I decided to switch.

Q: You were raised on the West Coast and attended college in California. What drew you to the East Coast?
A: For studying art history, the East Coast is better. It just is. There are some really wonderful museums on the West Coast; I worked at a few of them. I worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at the de Young Museum, but the East Coast has a higher concentration of cultural institutions, of museums, obviously of universities. For my field, for American art, there is far more historical American art that can be accessed easily on the East Coast. There are a few great cities to study American art in, and Philadelphia and Boston are at the top. I’ve been really lucky to be able to do that in both cities, but Philadelphia is really the best location for my current interests. Washington, D.C., is just to the south and New York and Boston [are close by]. It makes doing research, and also having access in terms of teaching, having access to different collections, really easy.

Q: Why does Philly stand out? Because of the historical importance of the city?
A: Historically, Philadelphia has produced a lot of wonderful and important American artists from the colonial period forward: Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, both of them in the 18th century. In the 19th century, of course, Thomas Eakins and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Many of these artists were affiliated with places like the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is the country’s oldest art school and museum, so there are these very rich legacies that are in the Philadelphia region. Through the 20th century, you have artistic families like the Wyeth family down in the Brandywine: N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth, the youngest generation of that family. With the high concentration of art schools in the region—PAFA, Moore, the Fine Arts Department in the School of Design here at Penn, Tyler Art School at Temple—there are a lot of really great young contemporary artists being produced in the region. Because, economically, people can live well in Philadelphia, these artists can stay here and do their work and be in proximity to New York City without having to necessarily move there. The arts community, both the contemporary and the historical arts community in Philadelphia, are really rich and institutions like the [Philadelphia Museum of Art], the Institute of Contemporary Art, Slought Foundation, all of these give us at Penn and in the area really strong support and access to both regional artists and international artists who come through. It’s a really dynamic environment and one that’s much more liberal and open than you find in other cities. 

Q: You attended art school at the California College of the Arts and also a mainstream university. Do you recommend one over the other, or does it depend on the kind of art a student wants to produce?
A: I think different size schools have different merits. The California College of Arts and Crafts—it’s now called the California College of the Arts—when I was there, it was about 1,200 students. Classes were very small and I knew most of my peers, which is a very different experience than being at a place like UCSB or Penn, where if you’re a fine arts major or an art history major, you’re going to know more of the other students who work in your area, but in all your other classes you may never see the person sitting next to you again. It’s a very different thing. Some students thrive in small college settings and others want the larger experience of being at a university with multiple schools and multiple programs that they can choose from. I think one of the things that Penn really has going for it—particularly in the arts and culture areas—is that when students come to Penn to study fine art, to study art history, to study music, to study writing, they’re coming with the idea that they will get very close, hands-on attention for that, but that they’ll also have access to the larger, wider University and all the opportunities that come with that, such as being involved in different kinds of student organizations, sororities or fraternities, or other student affinity groups, et cetera. They’ll have those things, that kind of broader university education and lifestyle.

Q: In 2013, you gave a talk at the Barnes Foundation titled, ‘Self-Taught Artists: Horace Pippin and His Peers.’ Do you think it is possible for a self-taught artist to succeed and be accepted by the art community today or must he or she attend some type of school?
A: There are lots of different kinds of artists in the world. There are some artists who participate in the mainstream art world and want to be a part of art history. These are artists who want to sell their work, have it placed in private collections and in museum collections, and want to support themselves through the sale of their work. That’s only a small percentage of people who make art. My mother makes art; she makes beautiful watercolors; she makes them for herself and for her family and friends; she has no interest in selling them. There are many people in the world like my mother who make art for themselves, for their friends, for their families, for their immediate community. When we talk about self-taught artists as a historical term, sometimes we’re thinking about artists that fall under a number of different titles: self-taught, outsider, visionary, folk art, these are all terms that can be used interchangeably but really mean different things. With visionary artists, through most of the 20th century, we considered these artists to be people who, for most of their lives, didn’t make art or maybe they made things for themselves, or maybe they all of a sudden heard God speak to them and say, ‘You need to make art in honor of Me,’ and all of a sudden they began to make magical, mystical, incredible art. This might happen kind of late in life and the objects that the artist made were not to please anybody else besides themselves and, perhaps, if they had divine inspiration, their creator. I think that kind of art is really exciting and interesting because it points to a very kind of intimate, personal need that people have to express themselves visually and materially, and to make things that are important to them, and that satisfy themselves, their communities, or perhaps their creator, and aren’t about commercial aspirations or personal fame, or glory, and those sorts of desires. In the American context, many outsider artists, visionary artists, folk artists have been people of color and women, coincidentally the same people who did not have easy access to formal art education, either because of economic reasons or because of prejudice, because of exclusion. Most formal art schools in this country during the 19th century did not allow women to study because they had nude male models and it was considered improper for women to be in the presence of a naked man in public. Women artists weren’t able to train in the same ways as their male colleagues were, so it limited the kind of art that they could do. Similarly, racial prejudice kept a lot of people of color—people of African-American descent, Latinos, Latinas, men and women alike—in the country outside of art schools until the end of the 19th century. And then economically, going to art school isn’t cheap. For people coming from working-class families, from middle-class families, sometimes doing fine art was not an option.

Q: What classes do you teach at Penn?
A: The classes that are in rotation for me right now are the introductory class, Art History 102, Renaissance and Contemporary, which I co-teach with a colleague. I really enjoy that because it’s a large lecture class. We usually have about 100-150 students and it’s nice to be their point of introduction to the field. I also really love teaching the American art survey class. I share that class with my colleague Michael Leja. I’ve taught it for the last two years and he’ll teach it the next two and then we’ll rotate back. I’m planning to develop that class as a [massively open online course] through Open Learning this fall. I’m excited about that. One of the reasons why it’s so important to me is American art history is a field that, despite the fact that it sounds quite traditional and well-established, is really a pretty new area within art history. Only since the early 1970s has American art really been a rising field, so it’s less than 50 years old.

Dubois Shaw
Photo by Peter Tobia

Q: What sorts of assignments do you give students? Do they have to complete art projects?
A: Not really art projects, but they’ve had to produce different digital products. I also teach classes that result in exhibitions. For example, this semester, it’s actually a two-semester class, I am teaching Art History 388, which is a curatorial seminar that’s resulting in an exhibition called ‘Do/Tell’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art. That class is the second curatorial seminar that I’ve done with the ICA. The History of Art Department has partnered with the ICA on a regular basis to do these classes. I’ve done other curatorial seminars with the Arthur Ross Gallery on campus and with the Penn Museum. Students also helped me with research for ‘Represent,’ the exhibition I co-curated  at the PMA. We had a Mellon-sponsored graduate seminar that was connected to the exhibition last spring while the exhibition was still in preparation. Students were able to think about how they would conceive of an exhibition. I also generally incorporate some sort of digital learning in my classes. I work really closely with the Weigle Information Commons and the Education Commons here on campus to do these things.

Q: You have traveled a lot, visiting Cuba, Paris, Spain, Peru, Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii, and London, to name a few.
A: Yes, some of this travel is for class and some for the Alumni Association. One of the things that I’ve done for the last five or six years is to be a faculty host for Penn Alumni Travel, which I love. I absolutely love Penn Alumni Travel; I think what they do is really great. It enables faculty to connect with alumni in really nice places around the world. I use the trips in part to learn more about different subjects as well as to share my knowledge with my travelers. For example, over the last five or six years, I’ve really been trying to increase my knowledge of Latin American art, which is an area that I studied as a graduate student but I don’t consider my area of research or my specialty. Traveling with Penn Alumni Travel to Peru, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, the Caribbean, I was able to give lectures there on subjects that I knew, but also see things that otherwise would be very difficult for me to get to on my own, like Machu Picchu, for example, and expand my knowledge base, go to museums around the world and experience these cultures. My research budget doesn’t always allow for all that to happen, so Penn Alumni Travel is a great way for me to do that. Plus, I have made so many wonderful alumni friends. That is the real bonus. Then, in the History of Art Department, we have a number of funded seminars through alumni gifts. We have some very generous and dedicated alumni who help support these classes. We’ve been able to take students all around the world. In the 10 years that I’ve been here, I’ve taken students to London, Hawaii, New Orleans, Venice, Italy, and São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All of these trips have been in direct relation to exhibition projects that the students were doing. They could see other works by the artists that they were [studying] here in those locations, see how they’re displayed differently in different contexts, whether it’s someplace like the Pitts River Museum at Oxford, where we went when we traveled to London, which has a very, shall we call it, archaic style of display from the 19th century, to some place like the British Museum, which we saw during the same trip, which has a much more modern, very contemporary, sleek display of objects. Taking students to the art is very, very important. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to do that. I think it’s one of the things that makes the art history major [at Penn] really special, these travel opportunities that students have with faculty to engage things together.

Q: Do you think it is necessary for art historians or aspiring artists to travel and view art in different parts of the world?
A: Certainly. I think seeing art in person is really the best way to see it. For all the technical innovations that we have—and you can learn a lot looking at art online—it never substitutes for seeing the actual object in person, for standing in front of something that on a computer screen is just a few inches big. If you stand in front of it and it’s 10 or 15 feet wide, you get a totally different experience in person. You can see things with your eyes that are impossible to see when something is digitalized or reproduced in a book. There’s no substitute in art historical research for travel to different collections or for seeing things in person.

Q: How did your collaboration with the Art Museum come about?
A: In many ways, the exhibition is related to the continuing partnership between the History of Art Department and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Members of the History of Art Department regularly work with different arts institutions around the city and in the region, and also around the world and around the country. Contributing to exhibitions is another one of the ways that faculty in this department develop relationships with art institutions, both for our own research and areas of interest, and also for our students. History of Art is really committed as a department to making opportunities for our students—our undergraduates and our graduate students—to see what museums and other cultural institutions are like to work in so that they can get a pre-professional taste of engaging in a specific area. One of the beautiful things that came out of the exhibition is how many people were coming to see [it]. While it’s an exhibition of African-American art, the galleries were always full of a very mixed crowd. When I talked to people in the galleries, I found that some of them were regular museumgoers, but others were not.

Q: The exhibition showcased African-American art from the early 1800s to present day. What were your motivations for co-curating the exhibit?
A: There are a number of contemporary African-American artists who were also in the exhibition. Contemporary African-American artists are increasingly visible in the art world. Artists like Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, Penn’s own Jayson Musson, for example, are artists who can be seen regularly in New York and nationally and internationally, and there are a number of 20th century artists who are also very well-known. It was very important for me in working on this project—both on the catalogue, which serves as a handbook to the collection, but also on the exhibition—that the 19th century and the early 20th century was represented strongly because I think that many people don’t really know the complex history of African-American visual art in the 19th century, in the early 20th century. It’s much less visible than the contemporary [art]. Many of the objects, the material objects made by people of African descent in this country, are not in the permanent collections of large museums, let alone on display on a regular basis. Many of them are lost to history. I think introducing those objects to the public is a really important thing. Sometimes people ask whether African-American art should be displayed separately from American art. ‘Do we really need that in this pluralist day and age, in 2015? Do we need to separate out art made by people of African descent, Latino, Latina artists, et cetera?’ I think because of the history of artistic display and art education in this country, and the way many mainstream museums have historically neglected underrepresented communities, both in the collecting and in the display of art, people don’t know who these artists are, they don’t know their names. If you go into a museum and you’re looking around in a gallery, there may be a work by an African-American artist right in front of you, but unless you know that person’s name, there’s no way that you’re going to know necessarily that the work is by somebody with that heritage, with that background. And to me, it is important that every person knows his or her artistic and cultural heritage, and those of their surrounding community. I think it remains very important that museums highlight and display the art of underrepresented groups.

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