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Northwestern University

Art and urbanism

Art historian Alison Fisher Ph.D. ’14 explores the sweeping changes in American cities

Art can move and memorialize, inform and inspire, a reality alumna Alison Fisher embraces as assistant curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the museum’s recent exhibit, “The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” Fisher teamed with two historians of photography, including Greg Foster-Rice Ph.D. ’03, to spotlight the preservation, demonstration and renewal of these three iconic American cities over the course of two tumultuous decades.

Fisher — who earned her Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern in 2014 — shared some thoughts about the show and the preparation that her Northwestern education provided.

What drew you to “The City Lost and Found” project?

First, the project addressed the time period and many of the same issues I investigated in my dissertation, even though that work focused on France. Secondly, I was excited by the premise, as architectural historians tend to be not terribly thoughtful about photography. We often use it to illustrate something that’s in the built environment rather than thinking about the agency of the photograph. It was fun and challenging to be able to work alongside two smart scholars of photography and to begin to think about the interconnections between urbanism, politics and representation during this period.

As you were piecing the exhibit together, what fascinated you?

I realized that there was a lot of intelligent thinking about how cities were changing during the postwar period, and that the sensitivity of many architects and planners to issues of urban scale, continuity and history was [similar to the factors] that attracted artists and photographers to the same subject.

Then, of course, there was the beautiful work, which included a high percentage of works that had never been shown together and some projects that had never been shown at all. To create these new relationships in the gallery space proved quite illuminating.

Did anything surprise you?

Yes, the project was a continual learning experience, especially with respect to the organization of loans from many different archives and institutions, as well as work with period media, including film and slide shows. Keeping 30-year-old slide projectors running for three months is no easy feat!

In what ways did your experience at Northwestern prepare you for your role at the Art Institute?

By the time I finished my coursework at Northwestern and started at the Art Institute [in 2009], I felt well-positioned for the job. I had the benefit of a robust and rigorous academic program that taught me how to contextualize art practice with deep historical scholarship, as well as the ongoing and generous mentorship of my former advisers, David van Zanten and Hannah Feldman, both of whom advised on the project.

In addition, I enjoyed an intensive fellowship at the Block Museum, where I received invaluable hands-on training. This experience helped build my confidence and my skill set for my future career.

We also had the great fortune to work with two stellar graduate students from Northwestern during the planning of the exhibition, both of whom added new works to the checklist and contributed great essays to the catalogue.

Learn more about the Department of Art History at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.  

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