Talk examines ‘past, present and future’ of art and art history at Stanford

May 18, 2016, 12:00 a.m.

On Tuesday, the Stanford Historical Society (SHS) hosted “Department of Art & Art History: Past, Present and Future,” a talk examining the department’s growth over the years.

The event, held in partnership with this year’s Stanford 125 initiative celebrating the University’s 125th year, featured Mona Duggan, deputy director emerita of Cantor Arts Center, and Alexander Nemerov, Carl and Marilynn Thoma provostial professor of arts and humanities and chair of the department of art and art history.

Duggan spoke about the intertwined history of art and art history at Stanford.

“Jane Stanford ensured arts would be part of curriculum from the beginning,” Duggan said, explaining that the early Stanford art curriculum was not particularly notable, with a small faculty focusing mostly on graphic arts.

The majority of Duggan’s talk focused on what she termed the “Eitner Years,” the period from 1963 to 1989 in which Lorenz Eitner served as both chairman of the art department and director of the museum. Duggan, who came to Stanford herself in 1970, described Eitner as an “effective leader, excellent and popular teacher, and wise administrator.” Upon arriving at Stanford, Eitner was “dismayed at the deep neglect in which the arts had languished at Stanford,” Duggan recalled. The Stanford Museum was also in poor condition. Eitner had to build his departments from scratch.

Duggan recounted how, after less than ten years of Eitner’s leadership, the Stanford art department became one of the nation’s top ten institutions. Eitner established advanced degree programs, brought artists-in-residence to the University and built up collections for teaching and research. Eitner also directed the museum without pay.

Duggan discussed two events in 1989 that affected the Stanford art department: Eitner’s retirement and the Loma Prieta earthquake, which forced Stanford’s art museum to close after many of the pieces in its collection were ruined. The museum was in transition for several years, until 1993 when Duggan was appointed director of development.

In January of 1999, the museum reopened as the Cantor Arts Center. Although Cantor was incredibly well-received by the public, Duggan said, the art department faculty was not as receptive.

Duggan said that the art department and Cantor were “two units with new leadership, new players, operating separately with separate goals.”

In the early 2000s, Duggan helped lead the first Stanford arts initiative “to ensure that all students had opportunities to engage with the arts.” The initiative established professorships in the art department and helped bring the new McMurtry Building to Stanford.

Duggan retired from her position in March of 2015.

After Duggan’s closing remarks, Nemerov addressed the present situation of art and art history at Stanford. He argued that there is a negative stigma around the arts today at Stanford.

“There is a sense of the arts here, among the undergraduates, as a useless adornment to life,”  Nemerov said.

However, Nemerov wrapped up his discussion with optimism that the close relationship between art and art history would continue, particularly because of the physical proximity of the new McMurtry building to Cantor.

Audience member Ernesto Matalsol discussed the benefits of the talk.

“The community learned more about the culture of an entire academic institution,” he said. “As [Nemerov] said, Stanford is very pro-art today. Most of the Stanford community is very appreciative of art.”

Duggan encouraged the audience to view the exhibition “Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine,” opening in Cantor on May 21.

Both Duggan’s and Nemerov’s talks were preceded SHS’s 40th Annual Members’ Meeting in which they welcomed seven new board members: Megan Davis, Leslie Kim ’98, Victor Madrigal ’94, Michele Marincovich ’68, Richard Shavelson and Rick Yuen.

Contact Caroline Kimmel at ckimmel ‘at’  

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