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Embattled Curators and Job-Hunting Profs: 2014 CAA Conference

by Philip A Hartigan on February 20, 2014

Artist services at the book fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Artist services at the book fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — The 102nd conference of the College Art Association (CAA) took place in Chicago last weekend. Thousands of art educators, museum curators, art historians, and even some actual artists gathered at the Hilton hotel on Michigan Avenue for a four-day gabfest that featured hundreds of panels, a book fair, professional development meetings and workshops, a video lounge, and lots of off-site events. Black was the chosen shade in both clothing and eye wear, though I did notice a few backsliders wearing jeans, wool jackets, and plaid shirts.

Though I attempted to see as much as I could, sadly I missed the paper entitled “Doggie Style: Rococo Representations of Animal Sexuality.”

Kay Rosen's interview at CAA

Kay Rosen being interviewed at CAA

I did, however, hear the end of a discussion about the role of the museum curator, at which the first audience member to ask a “question,” who harangued the panelists about how terrible her job is, how museums have forsaken imaginative programming in favor of blockbuster shows, how the job of the curator is less and less about being in contact with the art in an institution’s collections. I attended a Distinguished Artist Interview with Kay Rosen, she of the giant paintings of words, who turned out to be an interesting subject, though she was ill-served by her interviewer, Terry Myers of the School of the Art Institute, who seemed more concerned with reminding the audience how well he knew Rosen as a friend and colleague than eliciting insights into her working process.

Claire Pentecost discussing soil at CAA

Claire Pentecost discussing soil at CAA

I had better luck at a discussion on socially engaged art, during which artist Claire Pentecost spoke about a project she created for Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany. Pentecost is interested in land use and ecological practices, so she made sculptures out of soil, installed a cabinet filled with a composting bed, and created vertical growing towers in the gardens outside the building in Kassel that sprouted edible plants over the three months of the exhibition. She also elicited the participation of local German farmers to give public demonstrations on soil cultivation.

A demonstration of materials at the book fair

A demonstration of materials at the book fair

I mention this in some detail as a way of pointing out the different vocabularies you will hear at a conference like the CAA: highly abstruse and theoretical (“Interdisciplinary, Transdisciplinary, Cross-Disciplinary: Pedagogical Challenges in an Era of Expanded Disciplines”), specialized art-historical (“Localism, Micro-identities, and the Art of the Late Antique Mediterranean”), or like Claire Pentecost, considering ideas through a plain presentation of an artist’s own practice.

People at the book fair told me that attendance seemed to be down this year, possibly because art departments couldn’t spare the funds to send as many participants as before. As a first-time attendee, I couldn’t compare this conference to previous ones, but other people I spoke to suggested that the conference had fulfilled its purpose of bringing art professionals together to share their latest thoughts, experiences, and research on the state of art in the academy — and to network. Two art professors from a Midwestern college who wouldn’t give me their names told me that they were in Chicago to look for new jobs. And Davinia Stewart, a graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, was excited to see what she could find out about life after school. I’m sure you’ll join me in hoping that somewhere in the Hilton Hotel, Ms. Stewart was able to find some answers to that question.

The 2014 College Art Association Conference took place February 12–15 at the Hilton Chicago (720 S Michigan Ave, Chicago).

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