Interviewsand Articles


Smart Arts: Observations on Art in Academia: Katina Huston

by Katina Huston, Apr 2, 2005



Wedesday. It begins with leaving home in the dark. Long lines for security. Dirty carpet, fluorescent light. A thousand docile people offer their shoes. On the plane there is more dirty carpet and fluorescent light. A woman recognizes me. I blink at her. It is Suzanne. We work at the same small liberal arts college but have never seen each other there. I know her husband who works at California College of Art in graduate studies. We chat.

On the subway into town, my colleagues are plain to see mixed in among the commuters. In front are three painters from McAllister, Texas. Behind me is an art historian from Seattle with a focus on Japanese paintings. I gather this from snatches of conversation overheard.

Every year, for 93 years now, the College Art Association holds a conference in a North American city and each year thousands of artists and art historians and new graduates who hope to teach these subjects in college and universities gather. They give papers, listen to papers, look for jobs. This year it’s in Atlanta.

I started coming to the CAA Annual Conference several years ago. Each year I used the event to look closely at the art, museums and galleries in a city other than my own while meeting with peers. For most of the year I don’t see a peer. From one year to the next, I make my art. I have shows. I teach my classes. I write. For CAA I pack up and examine my activities in the context of a larger whole. Once there, it is a joy to see the species (Art Academics) running with the pack and speaking the mother tongue.

Random Conversation 1
In the hotel lobby a woman holding a cell phone to the ceiling, “This is the Andreas Gursky hotel.”


“The Andreas Gursky photo, it’s of this hotel. Obviously he shifted it, made it round, removed that.” [she points to a big metal sculpture]

Three of us are sitting around a little coffee table, look, and recognize the famous photo that is our hotel lobby. I am amazed that she talks about Gursky as if everyone knows what she’s talking about—and we do.

A new fellow joins us with a big folio box, Ethan Jackson. I ask him what’s in the box. He brings out white gloves and shows his photographs. Using photos of Mars and 1870’s landscape photos of Eastern Oregon, he combines the images. “The empirical truth of a mountain range is placed in this fantasy frontier. These are in the tradition of American salon landscape photography. All the maps of Mars are U.S. Geological Survey documents, so I use them as a base and fill in the topographic information. I fill them in with Eastern Oregon.”

First Night Reception—High Museum of Art

Each year the opening reception is held at a major museum. Thousands fill the atrium chatting and crowding the buffet. My favorite part is shadowing small flocks of art historians as they assess the collection. “That’s not a Bellini. A studio product maybe, but Bellini? No.” Another presses close to the canvas and, two inches away passes her face back and forth across the surface looking at something I can’t see.

At the buffets I speak to any and all. One artist from the far end of Long Island came to interrupt “the focus and isolation” of her work. Art historians drop in from research conducted far away. Art professors return from distant appointments. Few here are from the centers: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.

Thursday morning: Panel Discussions, Papers and Sessions

Synesthesia and Perception

I duck in late and find a seat in the last row. A woman is introducing the topic. I don’t know what synesthesia is. She says “a question of basic perception. Does everyone see what we see, hear what we hear?” Now I am interested. “The simultaneous experience of two or more senses. “Syn” means together, “Aesthesis,” perception.

She apparently is a synaesthete. It is unusual, a medical condition. People talk about both metaphoric synaesthesia and actually dealing with multiple simultaneous experiences.

The next panelist arrives, Carol Steen, and talks about acupuncture triggering visions of moving color, colors which she depicts in her painting. She loses me. I want to hear about the difference in perception between an ordinary me and ordinary you.

I sneak out to Art for Politics and find a presentation on art confiscated by Nazis. It is a huge room with 200 seats. No one sits in front. Instead people are scattered in the aisles and in back. Slides are projected behind the speaker. They are rich paintings I have never seen. These are works that the U.S. Army has held back from German repatriation. It never occurred to me.

Lectures are a luxury. Few applicants pay the fee to come and hear the papers. The foundation of scholarship here is deeper, richer, more methodical than my own art practice and teaching. I feel suddenly stupid. I fear I have been asleep. I hope to avoid saying anything. This may just be the peril of being an artist in a sea of art historians.

Another panel: Print Cocktail. Again I come in late. This time I regret it. The room is full. Slides of unexpected works are up on the wall. A woman at the podium speaks in an accent that makes words like “solar radiation” hard to understand. She is talking about alternative print processes. In this case, an artist in New Mexico is using refraction from glass to scorch paper. “The right paper is difficult to find to capture scorch short of inflagration.… Scorches take on biomorphic forms; dogs and cats and pigs,” she says, showing pictures of burnt paper in which I see no dog, no cat, no pig. I love the absurdity of this.

Crossing The Street

A five-lane boulevard separates the Marriott, where the lectures and presentations take place, from the Hilton, which houses the career center. For the conference it separates the established from the entering professionals. One side is populated by tenured faculty presenting papers and serving on panels; on the other, graduate students look for work.

Crossing the street, the average age differential is twenty to thirty years and the income differential, fifty thousand dollars. I straddle both sides. The lobby of the Hilton is dark and a bit shabby. Artists in jeans and not so new shoes gather in clusters talking about friends and home and jobs. I do not find my usual friends here. When I first came here my friends were applying for jobs. Those who got jobs came back to interview candidates for their colleges. Those not hired eventually stopped coming. No friends are here this year, having reached a level where they can send a younger professor to interview in Atlanta. I will see them again in Boston.

Interview Tables

The career center, where University professors and H.R. professionals sit at folding banquet tables and interview candidates for positions, is in the basement. I wander through the sea of tables. Applicants wait for interviews in uncomfortable folding metal chairs. Cardboard boxes on tables are marked “drop off” and “pick up.” Piles of slides and curricula vitae move invisibly from the one box to the other, overnight.

The first table is Savannah College of Art and Design. They interview for a dozen positions each year. I ask how many students graduate each year. A thousand. ONE THOUSAND. I worry. I worry about the thousand new artists and trained designers eager to find work in Savannah each year. What will they do? In academia, art is linked to scholarly practice, so asking this question is vulgar. People forget that the Master of Fine Arts degree is not a baby PhD. 'Master' is a medieval guild designation for one who has mastered his or her art and produces masterful works: a performance, building, book or sculpture. “Guild” comes from guili, meaning payment. This is very different from the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), a lover of knowledge and wisdom. The myth is that if you are good, it will come.

I stroll through the aisles looking for someone who might talk to me. Daniel Buckingham is a sculptor and Ken Marchione is a painter. They teach at Munson Williams Proctor in Utica. I ask them about this. They talk about money. Entry level positions in art are low. The number of art schools cranking out graduates is huge. Still, there is merit in the creative process for their students and there is much to value in the personal expression and presentation skills they gain. It offers richer, enlivened lives, they say.

Daniel tells me “Ken and I live not so far apart. In our valley there is an explosion of artists. That’s a rare thing in a rural community. Now when people meet they ask ‘What do you do? What do you really do?’ There is a humbleness in that.”

Career Center

Job applicants line up for computer terminals. They stand obediently in line between velvet ropes, not talking. In the past, the job seekers waited in noisy crowds for new job announcements, which were on paper, handed out every few hours. The robust horror of paper updates has been replaced by computer access. I understand that this is much more efficient, but I miss the noise. Before, we applicants lined the walls sitting on the floor with the handouts. Friends clustered in circles scanning sheets looking for jobs, sharing information— “Aren’t you metal sculpture? Here’s something in Minnesota.”

Now people print out what applies to them and instantly submit an e-resumé. The messy collegiality of the past is missing.

Past experiences of talking to my fellows in line was an inspiration for writing this. I wanted to go back and do what I had done naturally, interview my peers. Find out what my fellow artists were doing in Milwaukee or Athens, Georgia. See what their work looked like, find out what they learned in graduate school.

David Allan Duncan is sitting on the carpet with a friend organizing his slide packets. It is his first time at CAA and just coming out of graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He put out 20 applications before arriving and sent out another 4 today. “What are you looking for?”

Duncan:  A job.

w & c:  Any job?

Duncan:  Yes.

w & c:  Where?

Duncan:  Anywhere.

He shows me his slides. They are of drawings of people, kids in malls. His friend Brent Thomas, from Louisiana, is with him. He also has packets of slides and resumés. He too is at the University of Arizona in graphic design. The slides show photo-realist drawings. He mentions a possible connection between graphic detail and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I see no compulsion, just work. I think he is still finding words to name what he does. Why is he, a second year graduate student in art, here?

“I want to teach drawing. I was told, if you want to move back you have to leave. It is hard for the arts there. New Orleans is saturated and there is not much outside of New Orleans. At UA, they offer career class in school and they mention random jobs to studio majors. ‘You can be a massage therapist’ they say.”

Emily Wilson was also at the University of Arizona and originally from Utah. She is a replacement lecturer in print in Kentucky for the semester.

Wilson:  I like the adjunct life.

w & c:  How did you get the job?

Wilson:  A visiting artist came to Arizona and I printed a portfolio for her. She needed someone to finish teaching a class so I got on a plane and went to Kentucky.

w & c:  How do you like it?

Wilson:  Love it. It’s a small university, tight,
comfortable. I bought cowboy boots.

MFA graduates want to teach. Art is a scramble if you don’t have a trust fund. Scratching for time while trying to earn enough to make a living while making art is stressful. The dream solution is teaching at a university where pay is adequate and working hours are short. Even saying “two-day work week” makes my friends laugh with envy. I have one of these jobs. The down side is that it is part-time, temporary with no benefits, even when you are working full time in the same position for years. There is little opportunity for advancement and I can be dropped without reason or apology. So lecturers envy the tenured.

The several tenured artists I have met here and in the world are few. As a result they carry the burden of committee work which often prevents them from doing their own art.

Book and Trade Fair

Robert Bersson is representing his textbook Responding to Art. He is in transition. He tells me about leaving a tenured position which was all-consuming, but secure, to do his own work which is fulfilling, but altogether insecure. “I took early retirement to become a starving artist. It’s precarious. I don’t know if the book will go and if not, who knows?”

Random Conversation 2:

I drop into a chair in yet another lobby. A Japanese woman sits in the chair next to me. She is married to an American and studies design in Kobe. She is here to interview for jobs. She was raised in Brazil, schooled in Brazil, goes to graduate school in Japan. Her english is perfect.

w & c:  How do you manage the two cultures?

woman:  Even in Brazil I am stuck with Japanese manners. If a party is at 9:00, I arrive at 9:00 and sit on the couch with the host, often hours before the other guests arrive. In Japan, being late would be rude. It’s rude to be on time in Brazil, but I can’t help it.

Party Crashing

Success in the art world can take on an almost mystical aura. When someone rises to prominence here I have to ask “Why?” So when there is a source of success like at Yale or Rhode Island School of Design or Chicago Art Institute, I wonder: Is the school that much better? Is it the students? Or is it who you know?

This year I can see how the other half lives. Faculties of many good Universities seem to be filled by graduates of just a handful of schools. These same artists are often represented in New York galleries. I want to see what it’s like for the people who went to these schools.

Chicago Institute of Fine Arts is filled with a party of happy recent grads. I join in and and eat mashed potatoes from a martini glass. A sound artist friend from California is here looking for work. I speak to a woman artist who lives in Chicago and teaches drawing in Minnesota. “I love it. I think I earn enough to pay for the commute.” So I see it’s the same for us; we piece together a living from fractional jobs.

I drop in on the National Gallery of Art Center for Advanced Visual Study. The people are so polished I am afraid of them. I tell the man at the door who I am and ask if I can join. He lets me in. Still I feel like a scoundrel. I can tell from the attire that they are Art History and not Art. A woman I shared a cab with last night is here. She smiles and waves, so I feel more at home.

w & c:  What’s it like working at the National Gallery?

woman:  It’s filled with people and events, international life. There is my research and the research of the woman I intern for and then papers to present and events of the institution.

Here there are four kinds of smoked fish. Four sauces. A blond woman with a pageboy descends, “I don’t know you.”

I back away explaining myself, “I am writing an article.”

“This is a private event, a reunion of people who worked as interns.”

I flee in shame, horror. Chased out, it is easy to see how this notch on a resume could change your life. In the end you would know the biggest art players in the world and a few in politics. 

In the end the happiest group from the outside is the Historians of Netherlandish Art. They are not cool and the buffet is unremarkable, but they are very, very happy to see each other.

There are thousands of scholars toiling away in basements, each working on his or her own little chunk of knowledge. They walk out into the light to show us, but no one understands. It is only in these rooms, filled with their peers, that these scholars can compare notes. Perhaps the bits of knowledge fit together like pieces of a puzzle offering meaning to a greater whole.

Ideas ferment and become papers which are presented at the next gathering; they disseminate, attaching to more objects, touching down in lectures, textbooks and eventually common understanding.

Other groups gather for annual meetings to forward intellectual and creative agenda. Leonardo (a society and magazine) is one. Leonardo deals with the link between science and art.

I am just in time to hear who everyone is and what they do. A meteorologist is working on remote sonification. A nanoscientist is collaborating with an artist using scanning paneling microscopes to measure the sounds of cells. Someone at Long Island University is linking traditional arts media with new media course development. An artist uses experimental media and is developing a video manipulation controller to integrate audience members with each other and give them control of the camera. (The prototype is an octopus of interfaces). An evolutionary ecologist (did he say snails?) is interested in representing what he sees using visual arts. A professor and technology artist uses art as a critique of technology, creating a robotic typewriter. I wonder, does it just type or generate content? I would like to see. I love this group so when they ask, I tell them who I am. I tell them: an artist/writer researching and documenting subcultures in academic art. They laugh. For a moment I belong.

Interviewing the Interviewers

Chris Kienke, American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, is sitting at the interview tables. When I walk by, he looks up at me so I sit down and talk to him. He has a degree in painting, but teaches at a school of architecture and design.

w & c:  How did you get to Sharjah?

Kienke:  I got hired from CAA when I came to the conference five years ago.

w & c:  Are you still a painter?

Kienke:  I still paint a bit. It’s smaller, more restricted. I don’t have a studio. There is only my home. I found an outlet for the work. There are several galleries in Dubai, and they took my art and they all sold. Lately it’s been digital photography. It’s cleaner.

w & c:  How is it in Sharjah?

Kienke:  I am a resident of UAE, so the government could toss me if they were dissatisfied with something I was doing. The university wants to secure academic freedom, so they offer a rolling four year contract. Tenure is a problem, so this keeps the passive/inactive tenured person out of the system.

Kienke created an installation called The War Room in collaboration with another artist. It deals with the period before the Iraq war and after the initial “declared victory.” He names these issues in carefully neutral terms.

“The art has brought me around the world. To Scot-land, Bangladesh.” He explains how an appointment teaching in relative isolation led him to an international art community. “In the U.K. there is a fiercely competitive art field and the goldfish is only so big as the tank. In Dubai there are no fish. The ambassador to Denmark writes because he needs art, or wants to introduce the visiting Danish artist around.”

Sangoyemi Ogunsanya is waiting for an interview. The name is Nigerian. Currently she is working as Curator of Education at an Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. Born in New York, she worked in the Northeast around Philly, Boston and New Hampshire. As an artist, she makes character works that are manifested in several forms. There are installations and masks and collages building on narratives she invents. Sources might include plants, animals and places. “I prefer to be in a University. I was at the University of South Florida as an artist. You have enough time to do your own work.”

An elegant blond woman in her 50’s knits, waiting for an interview at table 117. Her nametag says “Independent Scholar.” I ask what it means.

woman:  I’m unemployed.

w & c:  What is your field?

woman:  Art History. I did my dissertation on Turner. Twice I’ve come to CAA and found a job. Academic Gypsy. I’ve got three degrees from Stanford.

w & c:  And you are unemployed in San Antonio?

woman:  Don’t laugh. I was untenured and accepted a job as interim chair. The politics did me in. The entire system was being investigated for corruption. The Texas Rangers actually came in and took the computers. It was like the Wild West. Yesterday I was on the plane talking to a man from Denmark. There’s an entirely different atmosphere in a place where women are in government and maybe serving as queen. In Texas they really just wanted an executive secretary.

Nan Curtis, Curator of Art, Nevil Public Museum of Brown County. “It’s nice to be with people who speak the same language. Los Angeles is a hard town. I miss it now. It’s not nearly as hard as Green Bay.”


“I teach the way I was taught. I’m all over them in the beginning, then, as they develop, I let them coast. Now I’m in Cincinnati.”

Robert Rhoades, College of the Redwoods, Eureka, CA is a professor interviewing candidates for a painting position. He tells me about what he’d seen the day before, “saw a guy yesterday at one of the presentations. He was the head of Lamar Dodd College of Art here in Atlanta and arranged for his students to get in for free. He was trying to get them to participate. He was so excited about the panel, excited about innovation. I liked walking in and hearing someone talking about chewing gum as a print medium. The artist made something beautiful of it too! I find myself pulled back to beautiful art. I am surrounded by the beauty of the land in California. The galleries there are filled with beautiful landscapes, but then I come to this conference where people are talking about making ugly art.”

Friday morning I awake, eyes gummy, at 8:30 am. I lay out another polished outfit as I watch a movie on HBO. I have not had an actual meal since maybe Tuesday.

In the elevator I meet a Medievalist who has been working in Germany. Her panel last night went beautifully. And late. It was on ritual and sacred space. For the past two years she has worked in an archive in a small German town doing postdoctoral research. She is looking for a job. “I am worried I might be out of touch with the art historical dialectic,” she tells me.

The lobby has become disheveled, relations chaotic. Hair is no longer orderly, and people have returned to their everyday selves, jeans and tennis shoes. I actually slam in to two, three people all of us aiming for the escalator. A convention of cheerleaders is arriving, pouring tiny girls in purple and silver into the lobby.

Last Panel

I am tired and do not want to go, but Ted Purves is speaking, so I do. The topic is Temporary Action: Contemporary Public Art Projects. Kurt Perschke tells us that he created the panel so he could meet other artists interested in the subversive. He shows slides of a temporary memorial to the Kobe earthquake with many, many snowmen “melting into grotesque stages of dissolution.” Purves presents a project about “highly local social interaction” involving exchanging produce in his urban Oakland neighborhood. The projects are about the artist “making oneself available to the public to do what one has always wanted to make or do” free from “the corrupting nature of money.”

Another panelist, an art historian, offers Boston’s Big Dig construction project as a public art work. In the end, the scattered audience gets scrappy. Is it art? Is not. Is too. This is the most robust dialogue I have seen here.


The downtown corridor is deserted. I do not want to leave my hotel. An entire Hair Products Convention is in the lobby checking in. I wander down to Starbucks and see a guy from the conference at coffee with his new “friend.” I go back to my room and watch more HBO.

Train to the airport. I recognize a fellow traveler, a fellow artist/academician. I don’t want to talk to anyone ever again, but in the skyway to the terminals, I give in. Who are you what do you do where are you from?

He is a part-time, temporary, lecturer working as head of an art area at one of the Cal State Universities.

“Oh yes, I know that position.” I hear his story walking through the terminal. No one I know is on the plane. No one I know is in Houston. I arrive home in the dark, in the rain, happily.  ∆



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