Gómez and Kurczynski Receive Mellon Foundation Grant to Support Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures

Ximena Gómez
Ximena Gómez
Karen Kurczynski
Karen Kurczynski

AMHERST, Mass. – The Trustees of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have approved a grant of $225,000 dollars to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to support a Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures entitled "Race and Visual Culture in the Americas, 20th to 21st Centuries.”

Proposed by Ximena Gómez, assistant professor in the department of history of art and architecture, and Karen Kurczynski, associate professor in the department of history of art and architecture, this seminar responds to, “the increasing importance of the history and politics of race in American public life in recent years in the context of rising political polarization, the renewed prominence of white supremacist discourse, the immigration crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement and growing awareness of the patterns of police violence against communities of color, the crisis in journalism, the impact of social media on daily life, and the unequal burden on communities of color of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Concentrating on art and visual culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, Gómez and Kurczynski aim to bring together scholars from different fields in order to examine the historic and contemporary significance of race in shaping cultural identity and to break down what they describe as, the colonial framework of humanistic study and social understanding. “We seek new scholarship that expands (or even potentially rejects) the canon of ‘great works’ of American art,” they say in their seminar proposal, and scholarship that, “considers the Americas beyond just the narrow conception of art of the United States, in particular, work by prominent white, male, and heterosexual artists that is sometimes taken to define American art.” In addition to scholarship, the seminar will, explore the possibilities for art and media to serve as spaces for decolonial activism that not only comment on or redefine the social landscape, but also attempt to open new possibilities for productive engagement.

“Race and Visual Culture in the Americas, 20th to 21st Centuries,” is proposed to take place during the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters. It will involve six events, divided evenly between the fall and spring semesters and organized into three parts. The first two parts involve two seminar meetings each and the final part will entail an academic conference and a public art event in the city of Holyoke, Mass.

Participants in the seminar will be comprised of UMass Amherst and Five College faculty and professionals from a range of disciplines, and local artists, some of whom are involved in the ”El Corazón” public art project in Holyoke. “Creating this group of local faculty members supports the seminar’s goal of encouraging interest in the arts in the Pioneer Valley beyond the traditional art-historical canon and is guided by a strong social justice component,” say Gómez and Kurczynski. In addition, two visiting faculty will be invited to participate in each of the four seminar meetings, and three for the conference.

According to the Mellon Foundation’s website, “Sawyer Seminars were established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. The seminars, named in honor of the Foundation's long-serving third president, John E. Sawyer, have brought together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from a variety of fields mainly, but not exclusively, in the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences, for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants. Foundation support aims to engage productive scholars in comparative inquiry that would (in ordinary university circumstances) be difficult to pursue, while at the same time avoiding the institutionalization of such work in new centers, departments, or programs. Sawyer Seminars are, in effect, temporary research centers.”