I had always known that Bard Graduate Center was a distinctive place but it was only when I spent two months there in the fall of 2016 that I really discovered why. I arrived having spent eleven years teaching art history in two US universities, USC and UC Riverside, and with thirty years experience before that in an institution with close links to BGC—the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As a member of the Research Department at the V&A back in the 1990s I’d seen the newly established course on West 86th Street take on the pioneering role in the US, a role which the V&A/RCA course in the history of design had already begun to pursue in the UK a decade earlier. In those days art history was done in departments bearing that name in traditional universities while design history was done in the former polytechnics. But design history in the polytechnics (or the “new universities” as they were to become) was invariably taken to mean the history of design after 1851, meaning that most of the objects displayed at the V&A—what were described as “decorative arts” —were nowhere considered worthy of serious academic study. Of course, there had been a long tradition of distinguished scholarship by museum curators—John Hayward’s research on mannerist goldsmiths and Peter’s Thornton’s on the history of interiors—but it was only with the foundation of the course run by the V&A in collaboration with the Royal College of Art that the history of design was recognized as beginning long before the nineteenth century and that the “decorative arts” were given an academic institutional home. With the establishment and rapid expansion of BGC the serious study of this expanded design history not only became a presence to be reckoned within the US but also, not least through its journal, began to set new standards for what was now becoming a recognizable discipline. Seen from afar by a historian of sculpture, who had always seen sculpture having as many links with decorative or luxury arts as with painting, BGC was obviously a lively place. But only when I arrived at the start of October last year did I realize how ambitious its brief now was and what a central position it and its remarkable faculty had within what had become the cultural history of objects. With the “material turn” and the new engagement of historians of every sort with things and “material culture” (however that is defined), what the V&A/RCA course and BGC had been pioneering was now being recognized as of critical and central importance.

The trajectory which I have rather simplistically described here was much on my mind during the two very stimulating months I spent on at BGC. The particular project I had come to work on forms one aspect of a book I have been mapping out about the role played by portraits in changing notions of authorship in eighteenth-century Britain. Linking an aspect of literary history with a question about the agency of images might seem to be a conventional art historical task but I was here in West 86th Street responding to the spirit of the place by focusing on a more specific topic—the production and dissemination of ceramic images of writers. Bringing those ceramic objects into play, especially as I talked about them with BGC colleagues who took material culture seriously, opened up new possibilities of thinking about how eighteenth-century publics “saw” writers. Here, then, I was in a sense heeding the plea made by Michael Yonan in a challenging article in the BGC journal West 86th Street that art historians pay more attention to material culture. Pursuing ceramic images produced by Wedgwood and others was of course made easy not only by the rich holdings of the BGC’s library but also by the fact that everything was immediately available on the open shelves. What this reminded me of was how readers could use the Warburg Institute’s library. (Perhaps this is hardly surprising giving the Warburgian mode of thinking I encountered in my conversations with faculty members such as Ivan Gaskell, Ittai Weinryb, and Peter Miller). But both the way in which the library was so invitingly accessible and its distinctive range of contents—rather more surprisingly—also prompted me to think differently about another project which I had planned to move on to later. This was an article about “Material” for a volume on the methods and theories of art history. Here at my fingertips was all the archaeological and anthropological literature with which I needed to familiarize myself. But more than that were the people—not least Paul Stirton (whom I first got to know on the 27 bus in Edinburgh in the 1970s) and Urmilla Mohan—all of whom who had been thinking hard (and differently) about how “material” might be approached. BGC’s scale and its intellectual liveliness make it a uniquely lively institution and this made it for me such a productive context for thinking and writing. While I certainly advanced the project I had come to work on, my fellowship at BGC had the very welcome effect of taking me in an unexpected direction through its distinctive culture and resources. What more could one ask of two months on West 86th Street?


Malcolm Baker, Professor of Art History, University of California, Riverside; Bard Graduate Center Research Fellow, October–November 2016