Return to Who Will We Be? The Association of Historians of American Art on its Fortieth Anniversary

The exclamation “Aha!” is usually one of surprise, delight, wonder, and enthusiastic engagement with a revelation of sorts—one in which the speaker has dropped her guard and is instead taking pleasure in the joys of discovery. Friends and colleagues sometimes look at me quizzically when I invoke the acronym and affectionate moniker for the Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA), and we repeat the declaration “aha!” to one another for emphasis. And indeed, AHAA often does evoke these very associations for me.

Many of the “Aha!” moments of AHAA are due, I believe, to its consistent and insistent union of Americanist art historians at different career stages (including graduate students) and of those who work at museums with those who work at colleges, universities, or other schools. This is not by happy accident but rather due to intentional design: new chairs alternate annually between what used to be described as “academia” and the “museum.” During my time on the AHAA Board (Chair, 2016–17), we worked to clarify our language around this bifurcation, as all AHAA members are academically trained and engaged. The inclusion of both museum professionals and those who teach at colleges or universities is also foregrounded in AHAA’s biennial symposia—each one collaboratively organized by a team of representatives from schools and museums. The AHAA board selects the host city not only for its promising partnerships but also for geographic and regional diversity.

Of course, defining ourselves by where we work is one of the many problems of capitalism and the twenty-first century. In recent years, AHAA has begun to grapple with many labor and structural issues that scholarly organizations face. These problems especially came to the fore after the economic crash of 2008–9 and the subsequent fallout in the job market and plummeting budgets of museums and universities. The low cost of AHAA membership and symposium registration has long been part of a conscious attempt to encourage membership at all income levels, and Panorama is similarly committed to open-access, fee-free subscriptions. In 2017, we expanded CAA travel grants not only for graduate students but also for those members in contingent or temporary positions or who do not have access to institutional funds. Like many scholarly societies, our board members and the editorial team of Panorama conduct their work on a volunteer basis, with their hours of labor, like much scholarly work, falling under the amorphous category of “service to the field.” Yet this means that much of the work is reliant upon board members and editors having other sources of remuneration and access to other kinds of institutional support.

In the first years of Panorama, we were especially lucky that editor-in-chief Jennifer Marshall was able to hire graduate students through the University of Minnesota to help conduct much of the labor needed to keep a nonprofit scholarly publication running. Yet we quickly realized that this reliance upon institutional support would limit our boards and only permit those already employed—and employed by wealthy institutions—to conduct the work of the organization and shape its future. As a result, the organization has worked hard to secure generous support from philanthropic and scholarly institutions, such as the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation, to underwrite our ongoing work and include the voices, ideas, and leadership of those who are not affiliated with well-funded institutions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been happy to see AHAA continue to look out for those in precarious positions, offering emergency relief grants supported in part by the Luce Foundation. I am grateful to the AHAA Board and its members for continuing to build the association. Congratulations on forty years of “Aha!” moments. I look forward to many more in the years to come.

Cite this article: Ellery Foutch, response to “Who Will We Be? The Association of Historians of American Art on its Fortieth Anniversary,” ed. Louise Siddons and Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 2 (Fall 2020), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.11027.

PDF: Foutch, response to Who Will We Be

About the Author(s): Ellery Foutch is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College