Ikemoto deserves longer art history tenure Students support her and so should Vassar

Since Vassar’s founding, art history has been an essential part of our strong liberal arts curriculum. Matthew Vassar himself donated what is now a revered art collection with a seed of Hudson River School paintings inextricably linking the college with the art of its surrounding landscape. Building upon this legacy, an integral part of the Art Department for the last three decades has been the American art history curriculum. A full-time Professor of American Art is vital to the college due to its location in the seat of the American Art Movement. This institution has the unique opportunity to be a steward of our country’s artistic inheritance, and produce future scholars that will shape an American artistic legacy.

We as students must therefore ask why Vassar is phasing out American Art from our curriculum, and letting strong, engaging professors slip away.

Since Karen Lucic’s retirement in 2011, Professor Wendy Ikemoto has been at the helm of American Art at Vassar. Hired as a two-year Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, her time here is about to come to an end—a significant loss to the college, Art Department and most importantly the student body. Since arriving at Vassar, enrollment in American Art courses has skyrocketed from six to thirty-two. A number of her students aren’t even from the Art Department—many come from American Studies, Women’s Studies and the sciences as she teaches an intrinsically interdisciplinary subject. Dozens of students have been positively affected by her lectures in Art 105/106, her classes, her seminars and the events she has developed on campus.

Actively engaged with the student body at large, Professor Ikemoto helped to coordinate the Vassar-West Point exchange that included a student-curated exhibition, gallery opening and panel discussion. She also organized the Framing American Art conference that brought brilliant minds from across the country together for a day of intellectual pursuit. This event not only helped raise students’ awareness of contemporary scholars at Yale, Stanford, and Williams but also brought Vassar’s art history students to the attention of these institutions.

Inside the classroom, her teaching methods are engaging and inspiring. On day one, Professor Ikemoto announces that she teaches to how the mind learns, rather than adhering to traditional models of dumping information and hoping that it’s absorbed. She demands that students themselves truly become the art historians and participate in looking closely at art – analyzing, evaluating and drawing conjectures beyond the traditional research paper.

Vassar has always had an exceptionally strong art history program with alumni who go on to accomplish great things. But with a world that’s focused on 21st century learning, there is room for improvement. Such is true for many classes at Vassar, and departments across campus are currently asking themselves how to keep up with new demands, how to be more innovative, how to attract new students, and how to prepare those students to compete in the job market and attain spots at top graduate schools. New, vibrant professors like Wendy Ikemoto should be a large part of the solution as the keystone to Vassar’s future success.

Of course, we must acknowledge the economic situation. It cannot be denied that these are tough times, and tough decisions must be made. It feels as though since arriving on campus, the Class of 2013 has been witness to endless controversies regarding lay-offs, cut backs and spending freezes. This includes, of course, the hiring freeze.

I am not economically savvy, and I have neither the information nor capacity to judge what financially makes sense for Vassar. But I can absolutely, without a doubt affirm that if bright, young professors like Professor Ikemoto are allowed to leave this easily, something is wrong. It absolutely does not make sense that we would allow other institutions to snap up the best and brightest, leaving Vassar in the dust. I must emphasize that this is not just a threat posed to the Art Department or American Art, but a wider issue that affects every department and the college as a whole. It is a dangerous path to turn away new talent and cut programs that are flourishing in academic areas that students embrace and desire to pursue.

In an Art Department already noted for its scholarly renown, a full-time American Art professor can only serve to solidify that reputation for years to come. As an elite college in the United States, it is essential for Vassar to provide its students with a vocabulary of visual culture with which to better discuss the effects of art on our country’s past, present and future. Issues of war, race, and conflicting cultural and political ideologies are at the crux of this nation and the art which it has produced. The critical assessment of so-called Americana is paramount to our own individual experience of the project of America.

As a student body, it is our responsibility to speak out for that which will benefit both the college and its students; thus, a student-led campaign is currently being held in the hopes of securing a full-time position for Professor Ikemoto, and guaranteeing the future of American art history at Vassar. We are in contact with both Acting Dean of the Faculty Stephen Rock and Acting President Jon Chenette, and will present to them this week a letter, testimonials and signatures on behalf of Vassar students. We must seize this opportunity to recognize that as students we are responsible for the future of Vassar, and must demand of her all that she can be for incoming generations.

One Comment

  1. I agree whole-heartedly that Vassar should dedicate itself to a full-time professor of American art, and from everything I’ve heard, Wendy Ikemoto is great. But, I do find it interesting that the Vassar student body has decided to rally behind the potential loss of an Americanist- when we don’t have an Africanist on staff. Surely, an Art History department as old-school as Vassar’s won’t let American art disappear entirely- yet that seems to be exactly what has happened to their previously-meager (at best) African art offerings.

    This is particularly interesting in tandem with the recent article on Professor Collins, in which she discussed her studies of African art at Dartmouth as being inspirational to her trajectory as a scholar. If we truly want to produce the brightest and most innovative next-generation of art historians, we should, perhaps, lend some consideration to artistic traditions beyond the Western canon. That sentiment is relevant to artistic traditions within our own continent, as well- as far as I know, the FLLAC still doesn’t have a permanent exhibition space for its phenomenal collection of Native American arts.

    Doesn’t Vassar tout itself as a progressive institution? Is it enough to have progressive thinkers like Andrew Tallon and Wendy Ikemoto, who focus entirely on the Western tradition? Why does it seem that progressive thought when it comes to art at Vassar only happens within the borders of the canon?

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