American Studies across Borders: International Opportunities for PhDs and Postdocs

International experience has become a prerequisite for success in academia – but depending on how you look at it, this can be exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I’m launching a new USSO series about how to take your research across borders, talking to representatives of those institutions and programs that can help PhDs and postdocs build an international profile. The Terra Foundation for American Art is my first interview partner. With offices in Chicago, Paris & Giverny, and a worldwide events and exhibitions program, the foundation aims to foster a truly transcultural approach to our discipline. At USSO we are particularly interested in the Terra Foundation grants and fellowships. I have discussed the world of American art, international academia, and opportunities for PhDs and post-docs with John Davis, executive director for Europe and global academic programs.

The Terra Foundation is dedicated to furthering cross-cultural dialogue through the visual arts. What is it about the visual arts in particular that makes them so apt for global collaborations?

Works of art have always traveled.  For example, the eighteenth century was a period of quite intense trans-Atlantic exchange of aesthetic objects and materials between the British Isles and the American colonies.  In our modern digital age, there is still great value in seeing a painting or a work of sculpture in the flesh.  These objects encode cultural information in ways very different from texts.  This is why the Terra Foundation for American Art places so much importance on the exhibition of American art in venues outside of the United States.

Can you give us your take on the do’s and don’ts for career development in the current academic world, especially where researchers of American art are concerned?

In a world of contracting teaching opportunities, I think that graduate students need to be open to careers outside of the academy.  In American art history, this often means museum jobs as researchers or curators.  In the United States, there are currently a number of entry-level curatorial positions in American art, while teaching positions with an American art specialization in college and university art history and American Studies departments have somewhat dried up.  Part of the problem here is the presentism that has infected new generations of students whose interests rarely stray beyond the twenty-first century.  We might bemoan this state of affairs, but it is here nonetheless.  Thus, researchers with a primary interest in earlier periods of American art history would do well to ensure they are also able to teach courses in contemporary art.

Talking about careers – could you give us a glimpse of your own journey leading up to your appointment as Executive Director for Europe and Global Academic Programs ?

In my early career as a graduate student and post-doc, I taught on an adjunct basis whenever I could, but I also worked as a researcher in three different museums.  This exposure to objects, to their display and material properties, has been enormously helpful to me in my subsequent teaching at Smith College, in Northampton Massachusetts, where I’ve been on the faculty for nearly 25 years.  Administrative work isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I found the problem-solving part of it quite engaging, so I served for a decade as either department chair or dean at Smith.  I also have a strong belief that American art can only be properly understood if it is integrated into the larger discipline of art history and that raising awareness of American art outside of the United States is crucial to that endeavor.  So, whenever possible, I took up visiting professorships abroad, in Japan, Belgium, and France, and I have been promoting the notion that Americanists absolutely need to have competency in foreign languages.  They can’t expect to understand American art in a global context without reference to research materials and scholarship that are not in English.  I think that all of these factors might have suggested that I would be a good fit for my current position directing the European office of the Terra Foundation.

Which Terra Foundation fellowships and grants would you recommend for researchers at a PhD and post-doc stage?

We have a number of programs that would be of interest to international Ph.D. students and post-docs.  Our travel grant program gives funding to researchers from outside the United States who need to go to the U.S. in order to consult archives, view collections, or meet with American colleagues.  We also fund fellowships in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that are largely intended for non-American researchers to be able to spend time–from several months to a year–working on a scholarly project in American art history.  In the realm of publications, we fund a prize for the best article on American art by a non-American scholar, which is published in the journal, American Art, and we also have two book subvention programs, one with Yale University Press, which funds the publication and translation of a book manuscript written in a language other than English, and another one through the College Art Association that gives generous subventions to international authors publishing books on American art.  Researchers interested in organizing conferences on American art may apply for funding from our Academic Workshop and Symposia Grant program.  All of these opportunities are explained on our website, www.terraamericanart.org.  Also, if scholars find their way to Paris, they may want to work in our library, which is open five days a week and has the largest collection of books about American art outside of the United States.

I’m particularly interested in the Terra Summer Residency fellowship program, in Giverny, France. Could you describe it briefly – and who can apply?

The Terra Foundation is lucky to have a number of historic properties in the Normandy village of Giverny, the cradle of impressionism and the location of Claude Monet’s home and gardens.  Each year, we invite 6 doctoral students (3 U.S., 3 non-U.S.) and 4 early-career artists (2 U.S., 2 non-U.S.) for a 9-week residency.  The artists are given studios, and the historians are given everything they need to make significant progress on their dissertations.  Visiting senior fellows offer guidance and career advice to the students.  It is a beautiful, unique setting that fosters lifelong professional networks and relationships among the residents.  Students should be fairly far along on their dissertations, and they need to be recommended by their dissertation advisers in order to apply.

And finally…which American artist, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Time travel would be such a great thing for historians!  There are a number of American artists I would love to have met, but one in particular is the nineteenth-century genre painter, Eastman Johnson.  I’ve written several essays on his work, especially pertaining to his depictions of African-Americans and slavery.  There is a great deal of speculation about whether or not he intended these works to advocate a particular position on the divisive issue of slavery.  Most of his correspondence has not survived, so the artist himself is silent on the issue.  Perhaps in conversation he’d open up a bit….

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About Katharina Donn

Katharina Donn’s first book, A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11: Representing Vulnerability in a Digitized Present, is under contract with Routledge Research to be published this year. She works internationally, between Germany and London, and is employed as associate lecturer and post-doctoral research fellow at the American Studies Department at the University of Augsburg. She currently also holds a visiting research fellowship with the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL.
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