Art history graduate students making their mark in the art world

When Graham Bader came to Rice as an assistant professor in 2008, the Art History Department’s Ph.D. program was a year away from enrolling its first students. Just nine years later, the program has reached a full cohort and its students are making their mark in the art world by landing several coveted fellowships and jobs over the past year and advancing scholarship in the field.


“One of the things that our program enables students to do is to engage in hands-on, high-level curatorial work while they’re studying for the Ph.D.,” said Bader, now an associate professor and chair of the Art History Department. He noted the opportunities the department’s students have to work with curators and collections at world-class nearby institutions such as the Museum of Fine of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) and the Menil Collection.

“It’s increasingly important to have a Ph.D. for curatorial work,” Bader said. “More and more curators at top institutions have Ph.D.s, and the expectation is for a higher level of analytical sophistication. We’re so well-positioned with these partner institutions — it’s ideal for preparing students for an ever more competitive job market. We’re training them to be both scholars and curators.” Case in point: The program’s first graduate, Stephanie Chadwick, is now an assistant professor of art history at Lamar University.

‘Learning to look at works closely and ask questions’

When Katia Zavistovski won a coveted position as the assistant curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) last spring, the museum’s curators were impressed by her work co-curating the “Raid the Archive: The de Menil Years at Rice” exhibit, which was displayed at the Rice Media Center in 2012.

“My experience at Rice was crucial in preparing me for museum work in general and my current position at LACMA specifically,” Zavistovski said. “The professors I’ve studied with fostered a methodology that coupled critical thinking and inquiry with engaged visual analyses of art objects themselves. Curators interact with art on a daily basis, and learning to look at works closely and ask questions about what they reveal is a fundamental skill that I honed during my time at Rice.”


Working full time in Los Angeles since June, Zavistovski is completing her dissertation, “Picturing Common Objects: Vija Celmins, Llyn Foulkes and Joe Goode in 1960s LA,” which explores representational painting practices from the 1960s in Los Angeles and concentrates on paintings by these three artists that portrayed or incorporated mundane objects from everyday life.

Zavistovski’s Ph.D. program colleague, Melissa Venator, is another example of a successful placement at a prominent national museum. Venator is in the midst of a two-year curatorial fellowship at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, where she is contributing to an exhibition and international conference celebrating the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus and its legacy in the United States. The exhibition will feature selections from the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which houses the largest collection of Bauhaus material outside of Germany, including works by artists featured in Venator’s dissertation, “The Spotlight, the Reflector, the Electric Sign: Light Art and Technology in 1920s Germany.”

A Social Science Research Council/Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship is allowing graduate student Nikki Moore to track the history of the Rockefeller Foundation’s development of industrial agriculture in what has come to be known as the Green Revolution in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and the broader Caribbean between 1940 and 1978. Her dissertation, titled “Agritectures of the Green Revolution: Architecture, Art and the Agrilogistics of Transnational Aid from the United States to the Caribbean Region, 1930-1978,” examines the art and architectural projects through which this revolution was realized and responded to during these years. Her project also received a Special Citation for the Graham Foundation’s 2016 Carter Manny Award, which recognizes “outstanding doctoral students whose work represents some of the most innovative and advanced scholarship on architecture and its role in the arts, culture and society,” according to the foundation.


Moore just completed a four-month research stay in Mexico City, where she visited the University of Chapingo, which was the first university in Mexico to award advanced degrees in agriculture, as well as other institutions.

“Combining developments in genetics that have led to vastly augmented crop yields with seed storage programs and elaborate facilities for testing and research, the Green Revolution transformed what we think of as the rural, pastoral fields of first Mexico, then Colombia and the Caribbean, followed by the Philippines and ultimately India into the front line of modernization,” Moore said. After completion of her dissertation, she hopes to secure a tenure-track position where she can continue to teach and research the art and architectural histories of Latin America. “The economic, social and ecological ramifications of these programs, which we are only recently coming to terms with, make up, quite possibly, one of the most impactful developments of the Cold War era.”

From the racial politics of art to the Arab-speaking diaspora in Latin America


Rachel Hooper, who expects to complete her Ph.D. studies this year, won a 2016-17 Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, which supports “promising research in object- and image-based U.S. art history,” according to the council. Her dissertation, titled “American Art Histories: Framing Race in Exhibitions, 1842-1876,” analyzes the racial politics of art exhibitions before and after the Civil War. “I argue that ideas about race inspired organizational schemes for exhibitions in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Philadelphia in times of radical political upheaval and great social change,” said Hooper, who was one of 11 advanced graduate students nationwide to receive the fellowship. She plans to continue her research as a professor at a college or university focused on undergraduate education.

Caroline “Olivia” Wolf, who completed her Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship in March 2016, said the opportunities available to her in Houston have greatly enhanced her research. She was a 2013-14 Camfield Fellow in the Latin American curatorial department of the MFAH prior to traveling to Argentina in 2015 as part of her fellowship.


“I would like to say that in terms of Latin American art and architecture, both (Assistant Professor of Art History) Fabiola Lopez-Duran and Mari Carmen Ramírez of the MFAH have been instrumental in providing support for students seeking national fellowships and opportunities to work with the renowned collection and exhibits at the MFAH,” Wolf said. “They have been an inspiring, driving force behind this new area within Rice’s program.” Her dissertation, “Migrating Constructions: Nationalist Debates and Mahjar Monuments in Modern Argentina, 1910-1955,” focuses on the art and architecture of the Arab-speaking diaspora in Latin America’s southern cone.

The success of the department’s students has continued more recently: Layla Seale, who spent six months at Madrid’s Prado Museum last year assisting with the preparation of a major exhibition on the 15th-century artist Hieronymus Bosch, was just awarded the Kress Foundation Two-Year Institutional Fellowship in the History of Art, which will allow her to be in residence for two years at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands beginning this fall. In Leiden, Seale will work to complete her dissertation, “Demons as a Cultural Species in Late Medieval Northern Europe,” which examines a range of late medieval objects and manuscripts in which figures of the demonic predominate.

As the Art History program looks to the future, Bader said, the new Moody Center for the Arts will be of great importance. “The Moody will have secure gallery space and will enable new opportunities for curatorial projects by students and faculty,” said Bader, whose research and teaching focuses on postwar European and American art and the interwar avant-gardes of Germany and Russia. “One of the things we want to develop is that students, as they’re approaching the end of their studies, will have the opportunity to organize significant exhibitions using the spaces of the Moody and the cultural resources of Houston.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.