Letter from the Art Department Chair: Douglas Fordham

Letter from the Chair 


It is quite a moment to be stepping into the position of Department Chair, and I’m looking forward to working with faculty colleagues and students to meet these challenges. Our previous Chair, Carmenita Higginbotham, will begin this fall as Dean of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. Carmenita joins an impressive list of Art Department faculty who’ve assumed leadership posts at UVA and beyond. Fifteen years ago Carmenita and I began our careers at UVA as Assistant Professors, and we helped each other through publication deadlines and teaching highs and lows. Carmenita’s infectious enthusiasm for teaching, her sense of humor, and her insightful advising will be missed, and we wish her all the best in her new endeavor. 

As the retirement and new hires sections of the newsletter attest, the art department’s faculty has changed dramatically over the last few years. It is hard to overstate the positive imprints that Paul Barolsky, John Dobbins, and Dan Ehnbom have left on their colleagues and students. Added together, they’ve taught at UVA for well over a century, and I couldn’t even begin to calculate how many students they’ve taught in their Renaissance, Roman, and Indian art classes. At the same time we’ve welcomed new faculty and teaching curators including Giulia Paoletti in African art and photography, Henry Skerritt in Aboriginal Australian art, and Adriana Greci Green in the indigenous arts of the Americas. Bill Wylie notes an equally significant transformation of the studio art program in his letter. The expansion of art history’s borders and interests, and the equally dramatic expansion of artistic training and practice, has challenged older paradigms of coverage and canonicity. And while our curriculum is changing, alumni would still find a constant, I hope, in the cultivation of student creativity, inquiry, and engagement.  

To use a metaphor with less precision than Professor Dobbins might like, it feels like there has been a crossing of the Rubicon for the department and the University. Where before, references to “Mr. Jefferson’s University” were uttered with a certain blithe confidence, the phrase is heard less often today. Jefferson’s complex legacy feels more distant yet also more pressing right now. In the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and accelerating with the Black Lives Matter movement, members of the Art Department have engaged in a discussion about the history of our own department and the values that we share. This spring, faculty and staff voted anonymously and unanimously to remove the McIntire name from the Department of Art. This is one step towards a culture of equity and inclusion that we are undertaking together, and it will require a sustained and serious effort to achieve.  

As we learned more about the history of our department, we gained a clearer sense of the man under whose name we have worked and whose legacy we had accepted without question. Paul Goodloe McIntire was born in 1860 and briefly attended UVA. He made several gifts to the University totaling about $750,000, or approximately $10 million today.  This was enough, at the time, to establish the McIntire School of Commerce and the McIntire School of Fine Arts. Like other affluent capitalists of the “City Beautiful” movement, McIntire viewed the arts as a vehicle for shaping public consciousness, public space, and promoting an ideology of white superiority. For the city of Charlottesville McIntire commissioned statues of George Rogers Clark, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The statues of Lee and Jackson contributed to a revisionist “Lost Cause” history of the Confederacy.  Erected in the Jim Crow era, these statues justified violent repression and disenfranchisement of Charlottesville’s black residents, and they provided symbolic backdrops for lynchings, public appearances by the KKK, governmental seizures of Black assets, and most recently, white supremacist marches.   

The statues of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea on West Main Street and George Rogers Clark on the UVA Corner also advance a narrative of white supremacy, in this case over Native Americans. The statues valorize the central figures as white conquerors, standing above Indigenous peoples who either cower or gain nobility in tragedy. At its September meeting this year, the Board of Visitors voted for the removal of the McIntire bequest that currently stands on University property: “RESOLVED, the Board of Visitors supports University efforts to remove and relocate the statue of George Rogers Clark”. The University has yet to formalize the removal of McIntire’s name from the Art Department, but faculty and staff have expressed in one voice the need for this monument to McIntire to be pulled down as well. 

Fortunately, the rest of this newsletter focuses on the recent past of the Art Department and the remarkable accomplishments of its undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and alumni. I’ve taken up too much space already to highlight all that you’ll find inside, but I think you’ll agree that the art exhibitions, art history publications, archaeology excavations, public engagements, and student creativity within reveals a dynamic contribution to scholarship and the arts. For making the newsletter possible, I would particularly like to thank Catherine Walden, Administrator of the Mellon Indigenous Arts Program, and Liza Pittard, Marketing and Visiting Artist Coordinator.  

I’d like to end with a faculty undertaking that offers a very different reckoning with American history than we find in McIntire’s statues. University Professor Beth Turner is a lead curator on an exhibition that just opened its doors at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City that runs through November. Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle brings together thirty panels painted by the famed African American artist who worked on the series through the 1950s, in the midst of a violent and uncertain civil rights movement. And now Lawrence’s paintings return to a city ravaged by a pandemic that has laid bare inequalities in income, healthcare, education, and policing. As the New York Times critic Yinka Elujoba writes, the exhibition “succeeds in making visible, and even visceral, America’s history with the struggle for racial and political equality.” I hope that some of you may be able to visit the exhibition, and I hope that we can all begin to travel and meet together in Charlottesville, New York, and further afield in the years to come. Many thanks for your interest in and support of the Department of Art, and we’re always pleased to learn of your life journeys.  


Douglas Fordham, Chair