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Northwestern University

“Small But Mighty”

Thanks to its roster of heavy hitters, the Department of Art Theory and Practice is drawing major attention in the art world

 An international ranking of the most powerful figures in contemporary art features two curators affiliated with Northwestern’s Department of Art Theory and Practice.  

And a recent list of the Chicago artists most respected by their peers includes four faculty members in the same department.  

It all adds up to growing prestige for the department, a small program making an out-of-proportion impact on the global art scene. 

“Some art programs have a very specific focus, but ours is a general program, and that’s a gift,” said Professor Michael Rakowitz, a conceptual artist who joined the Northwestern faculty in 2006. “Each of us has our own focus. It is a very rigorous program that has benefited from everyone’s presence.”

A diversity of talents

“Small but mighty” is how the publication NewCity described the Department of Art Theory and Practice in its recent article “50 Chicago Artists’ Artists.” It included four Northwestern faculty members on its list:

World-renowned curators

Meanwhile, visiting curators Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Adam Szymczyk have been ranked 19 and 21, respectively, on Art Review’s “Power 100,” a roundup of the most influential figures in international contemporary art. The annual list is watched closely by the art world and top academic art programs.

Art Review describes Christov-Bakargiev as a “formidable curator” noted for her work as the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13), a preeminent exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years. The visiting professor has served as a curator and director at museums around the world, and will be the curator of the Istanbul Biennial in 2015.

Visiting artist program lecturer Szymczyk , meanwhile, will serve as the artistic director of the next documenta exhibition, which will take place in 2017. Described as a “superstar among curators,” he is also the director of the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland.

The department also includes a number of other acclaimed artists:

All have been featured in major international exhibitions and publications. Read more about the Art Theory and Practice faculty.

This diversity of talents, combined with the department’s reputation for hands-on teaching, creates a unique setting for the study of art. 

“We’re different from other programs that may have incredible, stellar faculty members, but that limit the access to them,” Manglano-Ovalle said.

“We are a teaching institution. Nobody here is just a figurehead. Nobody is here for the name only.” 

Teaching at a critical level

The small department — housed for now in the former Roycemore School building at 640 Lincoln Street while Kresge Hall undergoes renovations — touches many lives at Northwestern. Each year, about 350 undergraduates sign up for classes in painting, drawing, sculpture and photography, to name just a few of the department’s offerings.

Up to 35 undergraduates declare a major in art theory and practice annually. Only five applicants are admitted into the department’s prestigious graduate program each year.

Whether or not they major in art or pursue advanced work, all students learn to consider their roles and responsibilities as artists in society, Manglano-Ovalle said.

“We are teaching at a critical level, no matter what we teach — whether it’s a seminar course or a beginning discipline-specific course,” he said. “We create situations in which artists come together to articulate and sometimes defend their work and discuss the issues that their work may be referring to or drawing upon.”

“A continuous dialogue”

Those discussions cannot help but be informed by the teaching and research that go on elsewhere at the University. Concepts from philosophy, gender studies, history, politics and the sciences become a part of critiques and class discussions. “It’s a continuous dialogue,” Manglano-Ovalle said.

Art Theory and Practice faculty bring that same spirit to the classes that they develop and teach with faculty from other areas at Northwestern. Dunning, for example, is co-teaching a class called “Artists and Engineers Collaborate” at the McCormick School of Engineering with Malcolm McIver, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. 

Such courses demonstrate the ways art infuses all aspects of society.

“We’re not just ‘artists,’ but also scholars and researchers, and we expect our students to take that approach as well,” Manglano-Ovalle said. “We don’t just want beautiful objects. We want our students to take their work with us seriously and critically.”

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