In 1988, Jonathan Katz, today an associate professor of practice in the department of the history of art, started the first queer art history program at the City College of San Francisco. He went on to launch programs at the State University of New York and at Yale. This year, he kickstarted the world’s first graduate queer art history fellowship at Penn: the James D. McDonough Fellowship in Queer Art History.
“I’m the Johnny Appleseed of queer studies,” Dr. Katz quipped.
The McDonough Fellowship is funded by a $3 million donation from an anonymous donor and underwritten by the Alphawood Foundation; the fellowship program is named in honor of the foundation’s former director. The program fully supports three inaugural students: one Master of Arts scholar and two PhD candidates, with more to follow in the academic years ahead. The fellowship allows students to add a concentration in queer art history that accompanies their history of art degree.
The program essentially codifies what already is a diverse faculty with expertise in the field.
“We already have, both in art history and across the University, a fairly well-developed curriculum [for queer art history],” said Dr. Katz. “The problem hasn’t been curricular development, it’s been dedicated funding for grad students in queer studies. And the reason that’s significant is that often, across the U.S. and the world, students who express interest in queer studies are no longer encountering the kind of obstacles I encountered when I first went into it.”
Dr. Katz, in addition to being an academic, is also a known entity in the art world as a curator: He presented “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery. It was billed as the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in modern American portraiture.
The McDonough Fellowships, he explained, are partly a response to ongoing conservatism among American art museums—an intent to add new curatorial voices who can increase representation in museums and, too, add queer historical contexts to existing works. Artworks, he explained, are often borrowed by museums but never referenced in queer ways.
“The homophobes are now outliers, but where we run into major difficulty now is the academy is becoming increasingly disconnected from the museum world,” he said, “because the museum world is still really old school.”
Dr. Katz said he was “totally blown away” during the application period for the fellowships, when they received 46 applicants who were “extremely, highly qualified.”
“[The fellowships] provide a wonderful opportunity for students to pursue research into dimensions of art history which have historically been underrepresented, invisible, if not outright suppressed by conventional academic scholarship,” said interim history of art graduate chair David Young Kim.
The three scholars are Eduardo Carrera, a doctoral candidate; Nina Hofkosh-Hulbert, working toward a Master of Arts; and Emma Jacobs, also a doctoral candidate.
Mr. Carrera joins Penn from Ecuador, where he was director of the Contemporary Art Center in Quito, Ecuador. He became familiar with Penn’s history of art program through work on the “Dispossessions in the Americas” project, led by director of the Latin American and Latinx Studies program Tulia Falleti, with whom Dr. Katz leads the exhibition programming. His research ties together queer art history, the Latinx experience, and the experience of Latin American artists—particularly in translating the word “queer.”
“Queer is an English word, so what I’m doing with my research is [examining] how you can translate the word ‘queer’ into contexts of postcolonial artists,” Mr. Carrera said. “I’ve been working with translation of ‘queer’ to the word that is ‘cuir/cuyr,’ which in Spanish it’s linked to an ecological experience. ‘Cui/cuy’ is an animal that inhabits the Andean region in South America and has an important cultural and spiritual connotation in that territory, so it’s a way of linking these identities to spirituality, to nature and to the non-human, also.”
So far, he said, he is enjoying the variety of perspectives—the “chorus of voices,” he said—that he’s receiving from his cohort, particularly in Black Art Histories, taught by Presidential Associate Professor of History of Art Huey Copeland and Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor of history of art Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. He is also enjoying the Methods course and its opportunity to get closer to the work of several art historians.
“Queer art history or Black art histories are making a change to the narratives about how we are written in society,” he said. “I think queer or Black artists are working on ideas that can give us answers to the urgencies which the planet is living now.”
Ms. Jacobs double majored in art history and women’s studies at Vassar College and later obtained her Master of Arts in history of art from Williams College. As a PhD candidate, she is interested in the intersection of feminism and queer theory with art history. Knowing Dr. Katz was involved with the program, she said, was a big draw.
“[Dr. Katz] is one of the leading scholars of queer art history in the world and he’s a hugely influential curator as well, and I’m interested in doing curatorial work after I get my doctorate,” she explained. “It was a perfect fit for me and I feel very lucky to be here—I think the McDonough Fellowship is a first-of-its-kind thing and a great opportunity for more training to be done at the intersection of queer theory and art history.”
She plans to research American lesbian artists from the 1970s through the present, the intermix of art and film, and the interactions between abstraction and visibility, representation, and identity politics. She is currently also taking the Black Art Histories course, along with Method and Methodology in Art History (which is a required course in the program), and is auditing an undergraduate course about queer art taught by Dr. Katz.
“It’s incredible that Penn has the faculty they have, the resources they have, and that they’re interested in training a new generation of scholars who want to attend to questions of identity and sexuality from a variety of perspectives,” Ms. Jacobs added.
Mx. Hofkosh-Hulbert studies queer art history during the Medieval period. They joined the program wanting to revisit a project from their undergraduate experience that approached a Medieval object through queer and trans studies to think about “temporal rupture and epistemology,” they said. They’re interested in examining how objects in the past have been leveraged for different agendas.
“Queer studies and queer theory have been helpful to me both personally and in general,” Mx. Hofkosh-Hulbert said. “These kinds of academic lenses for thinking about things can sometimes be very disconnected from real life, which is really challenging, but I think at its best theory can be like an X-ray to help make sense of how and why things work the way they do.”
Dr. Katz noted that the McDonough Fellows will also complete a museum internship over the course of the summer. They also have the opportunity to help him with exhibitions in the future—“Though I’ve counseled them not to do that in the first semester,” he laughs.
Next semester, Dr. Katz will teach two graduate courses: Art, Sex, and the Sixties, looking at social liberation and theories in embodiment, as well as Sexuality of Postmodernism, offering theoretical tools to undo homophobia in critical theory.
Penn, Dr. Katz said, is well-suited for the program because of the right matrix of political will, a thriving museum community in Philadelphia, and institutional will. The result is a program built to last and ensure Penn becomes the “home of queer artist scholarship for a century or more.”
“The ambition is, quite nakedly,” he said, “to become the epicenter for queer studies scholarship in art history.”
Adapted from a Penn Today article by Brandon Baker, October 10, 2022.