In April, just about a year after the art history “program” (i.e. major) at William Paterson University was terminated, I attended the fabulous SUNY New Paltz Undergraduate Art History Symposium to support our final graduate with a BA, who was also one of my advisees.
This year, I noticed that the papers were particularly sophisticated and polished. Each speaker was so confident, and clearly prepared for the professional world! They had completed their undergraduate degrees, and their chosen major supplied them with a well-rounded view of global history (just like a history major), as well as strong research and writing skills. It also provided them the “soft skills” that employers look for like oral communication, digital fluency, critical thinking, and problem-solving. They will go out into the workforce as teachers, social workers, museum workers, UX researchers and designers, social media managers, digital content creators, and as new types of workers whose jobs haven’t even been invented yet. Some of them might go on to pursue MA or PhD degrees in Art History, but that’s only one possible avenue.
As I listened to the presentations, I noticed that our graduate was not the only one whose program had recently been terminated. Another speaker had also experienced the proverbial rug being pulled out from under her, just as she completed her degree. And, as someone who has spent nearly twenty years teaching in minority-serving institutions, I couldn’t help but notice that both students were Black women.
Now, the fact that these two graduates were women of color is just an anecdotal observation, not any sort of solid evidence for a broader trend. Still, it didn’t sit well with me, so I invited them both to share some thoughts here on the blog.
I wanted to highlight their achievement in particular because the opportunity gap is still a gaping hole in American public education. Primary and secondary educators talk about closing that gap, while academics talk about inclusion, diversity, and equity in university spaces. But how can we even begin to approach those things when we shut the doors on students of color at nearly every stage of their education? The opportunity gap is already a problem in K-12 schools, and eliminating undergraduate majors carries that problem over into higher education.
Take art history, for example. The field is still overwhelmingly white. According to datausa.io, in 2020, 59.3% of undergraduate art history degrees were awarded to candidates who identify as white. Black art history majors totaled 3.69%. Academic institutions and museums are still overwhelmingly white spaces too. The numbers for faculty look to be about the same as they are for undergraduate majors—around 60% white—while museum staff are closer to 75% white.
This isn’t the venue to analyze that data in any substantive way, but it is a perfect place to celebrate some recent graduates and their work. These young people pursued a subject that inspired them, and I have no doubt that they will go on to use what they learned in unexpected ways. Please read what they have to say about their chosen major and consider what the closure of similar programs across the country means for equitable access to quality public education. Art history majors are too often the butts of the joke—the field is perceived as elitist, irrelevant, unmarketable.
Here’s the thing, though: there are NEW and DIFFERENT jobs out there, especially post-COVID! And students can get those jobs with a BA, not even needing an MA or a PhD! When we allow corporate-minded administrators whose focus is exclusively on the institutional bottom line to make top-down program-closure decisions, we deny students the full range of higher education in the service of “career-aligned” majors. All that does is create a growing underclass of worker bees, many of whom are starting from minoritized positions to begin with. When faculty and student voices are ignored in the university, the racist and classist structures of academic spaces remain the status quo.
B.A. Art History, University of Akron, class of 2022
Why Art History?
When I was young, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I spent my days playing in my neighbor’s rose garden, digging up sticks and pretending they were the bones of a massive dinosaur which somehow roamed around my suburban Warren, Ohio neighborhood. As I got older and my interests changed that connection to the past through artifacts remained. I became intrigued by human artifacts and the story they told and the history that bound it all together. When I applied to the University of Akron, I thought I knew what I wanted: to be an archaeologist and study Anthropology.
Part of the general education requirements for most undergraduate majors was to take an art elective, and there were several to choose from. I decided, nearly on a whim, to take the Survey of Art History 1. This class showed me new ways of integrating history and materials to create a pathway to the past and tell a much more layered story. Near the end of the semester I realized that my place was not in the Anthropology department, but as a member of the Art department. I ran to my advisor’s office and signed every form necessary to add Art History to my list of majors. This was in the spring of my freshman year in 2019. By the summer of that same year, my program was cut along with 79 other programs. In their absence, the university paved the way for a state of the art eSports team and the revival of the baseball team.
Luckily, I had declared my love for art history in time to be able to stay in the major, yet the victory was short lived. As happy as I was to be invited lovingly into the art school’s final cohort of this particular major, I knew that if I changed my mind, there would be no returning. This is a terrifying feeling for any college student whether they know what they want out of their college experience or not. Another blessing is that I inherited a stubborn, stick-with-it attitude from my parents.
I chose this major not because it was a fleeting trend but because it connected so many of the things I loved into one amazing ball of learning. Very seldom in this world do you find the opportunity to unite nearly every aspect of yourself into an educational pathway and then into a future career. Here, I was able to be a narrator and a researcher, not only recounting historical events, but connecting them to the ever changing world of art. During the pandemic, when the site of George Floyd’s death became an interactive memorial and mural dedicated to the memory of another slain man, I realized the value of my art history major. In so many cases, art is reserved to the sacred sanctuary of the “white cube” and released into the world through performance and site specific art. The streets in Washington D.C. became new avenues for painting, subsequently marred by protest, but even there was another layer of history and meaning that I could absorb to help me understand my world. These new landmarks became a type of site specific art, while also acting as a memorial. Not only did this memorialization happen in real life, but these same markers also became commonplace on the internet. They trended, were shared, liked, and appropriated by other artists and given new life. Art history became more than just a field of individuals analyzing stories encoded in paint and composition, it became a tool for understanding my reality.
B.A. Art History, William Paterson University, class of 2022
My Art History Journey
I’ve been on this higher education journey since September of 2014 and I will be the first in my immediate family to graduate from college/university. I struggled with tuition and book cost when I first started because I did not fully understand how it worked. Since I was the first in my immediate family to attend college, my parents and other family members were making a lot of suggestions about what major I should take. Everyone in my family has been in either the medical or business field—my dad was an EMT for the city of Paterson until they laid him off in 2011. He’s now a supervisor for a medical transport company, and works as an emergency responder for 911 calls. My mom worked in customer service and is now a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Preakness Healthcare Center, where I volunteered my free time in high school. On my dad’s side, all my aunts and uncles have worked or currently work in the medical field. The medical field has always been a part of my life but I did not want to be in it at all. Then my uncle brought up accounting and how quickly I could finish school and get a job so I chose that even though I didn’t want to. Right away, I knew it wasn’t for me, and that same day I went to the registrar’s office and filled out a form to change my major to Art Studio.
Making that change in major was an important part of this journey. I took classes that I really enjoyed and became a part of the art world. Once I got financial aid, I was able to be a full-time student and take classes at full speed. One of the classes was an introduction art history class. That class started the fireworks in my brain, that the major I really should be is an art history major. Art history is a perfect mix, learning about the work itself, the time it was made and the things that were happening that may have influenced the work to be created. I enjoyed both the introduction courses and the professors who were teaching them.
I am a third generation child of my family who came from Jamaica. I will also be an example for those who look like me, an African/Jamaican American woman who’s starting to put her mark on the art world.
Look out for Ms. Rush and Ms. Laylor in the future. I know they have great things ahead of them! In closing, here are a few additional testimonials from graduates of WPU’s extinct art history “program.” Please note the range of positions they now occupy in the world, and join me in wishing all of them continued future success!
“The Art History department at William Paterson did more for my understanding of the world’s cultures, geography, and history than all of my prerequisite classes combined. History told me why events happened, but art history showed me who it was happening to.”
–Morgan Taylor, BFA 2018, 3D Artist, BehaVR, Nashville, TN
“The Art History program at William Paterson University is the main reason that I am enjoying a successful career in the museum and arts non-profit field today. Learning from professors who had a wide array of experiences ranging from activism, academia, and gallery and museum curation made all the difference in realizing that I could turn my love of arts and culture into a career. The art history department honestly saved my college career. When I was lost and thinking about dropping out of school, the professors and community of the art history department made me realize I had more to learn and gave me a safe and welcoming place to study and grow.”
–Emily Polhamus, BA Art History 2009, Director of Communications at Ardmore Presbyterian Church (Ardmore, PA)
“The Art History program at William Paterson University provided me with a foundational training that is invaluable and wholly prepared me for my current career and area of study. The program doesn’t just prepare people for careers in the arts, it primes them to enter any field with a unique lens and context to navigate varied systems and processes. I feel as if I am a better and more uniquely qualified macro social worker thanks to my training under the best professors I have had the privilege of studying under.”