From poor black kid to…Art Historian?

President Obama took a shot at Art History majors yesterday at a General Electric manufacturing plant. Obama’s comment is nothing new for us foolhardy art historians. A lawyer friend poked fun at me years ago: “Nikki, what are you going to do with a doctorate in Art History? Is someone gonna come up to you and say, ‘Ah, doctor, my painting hurts!'” I thought it was fitting to re-post my journey in Art History.

For those of you who have already read my post from fall 2011, “I was a poor black kid…”, you know that I come from pretty humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey. Perhaps the next question is: why did you become an art historian? A question I get pretty often. My mother would tell you that already at the age of five, I was fascinated by everything connected with museums–cold marble floors, dazzling framed color, curious-faced visitors, the hushed atmosphere. She said that I was as contented and stimulated there as other children might be at Disney World (truth be told, I’m not a fan of Disney). My passion for art history initially stemmed from my love for and appreciation of museums, specifically The Newark Museum (what a great education program they have there!). Then, at 15, I left Newark and Connecticut for Barcelona (pronounced Bar-THAY-lona). I took my first art history course there in Spanish. It was a real trip to discuss Picasso, and then walk down Las Ramblas to get to the Picasso Museum. My bus route home to my Spanish host family literally went past Gaudí’s La Casa Batlló and La Casa Mila! How could that not have an impact?

As a Smithsonian High School Intern, I had wonderful opportunities to expand my understanding of the world beyond the arts, including meeting Rep. John Lewis (GA) along with my fellow teenage interns (now, on the left, Judge Asha Jackson from Georgia and Principal Shawna Becenti from New Mexico). Summer 1993.

As a Smithsonian High School Intern, I had wonderful opportunities to expand my understanding of the world beyond the arts, including meeting Rep. John Lewis (GA) along with my fellow teenage interns (now, on the left, Judge Asha Jackson from Georgia and Principal Shawna Becenti from New Mexico). Summer 1993.

I was awarded the National High School Internship at the Smithsonian Institution in the African American Studies Center the summer before starting college. I got to see the inner workings of the Smithsonian, and I knew then that I wanted to major in Art History. Oddly enough, the women that I worked with there warned me not to pursue a career in the arts (low pay, not enough jobs, etc.). So what did I do? I became a double major in Spanish Lit and Psychology at Wesleyan University. After a year and half of taking art history classes, I didn’t listen to those women anymore. I had the wonderful opportunity to work as an intern for the Amistad Center and the African American Art Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. For two consecutive summers, I was in direct contact with the 6,000 piece collection of art, photographs, and artifacts that enabled me to study African American works within the larger frame of American art history (I’ll leave out the part where I worked at Burger King on the weekends to scrounge up money for the upcoming academic year. Talk about socio-cultural-economic shifts!).

What happened next? The abridged version: From Wesleyan to the University of Delaware (MA, Ph.D.) to adjunct teaching purgatory in the Philadelphia area to a Mellon Postdoc at Wellesley College to Assistant Professor at Wellesley College! Despite President Obama’s opinion that more money could potentially be made with a skill in manufacturing, I’m proud of my three Art History degrees. I’ve traveled internationally learning and teaching about art (Ethiopia, Canada, Cuba, and England, for example). I wouldn’t trade my life as an art historian for any other “trade” in the world. I’m not the richest woman, but I’m not doing too badly for a poor black kid!

Washington Post: “We know what President Obama thinks of art history majors. But what do they think of him?

(See About Nikki G for my current musings and brief cv)

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3 responses to “From poor black kid to…Art Historian?

  1. I was the only African American art history major during my time at Wellesley (’74–’78), and I too was told not to commit to it as a major. Now, some 36 years later, I am a mixed media artist, art instructor, and art consultant; none of which would’ve been possible without my Wellesley art history degree. I’m not rich either, but the satisfaction I derive from my art-related endeavors is worth much more than money to me.
    P.S. I’m so glad to see you are teaching at Wellesley, and inspiring Black women to see themselves in art.

  2. Pingback: I was a poor black kid… | Nikki G Ph.D.·

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