Pivotal 1920s Wellesley Course Called 'One of the Greatest Art History Courses Ever Taught'

July 29, 2013

On July 28, The Boston Sunday Globe published an extensive article chronicling a Wellesley art history course from the 1920s that transformed modern art and, by extension, American culture.

In The Young Wellesley Professor Who Invented Contemporary Art, Christopher Shea highlights the work of Alfred H. Barr Jr. as described in art historian Richard Meyer’s book What Was Contemporary Art? (2013). In 1926-1927, the young graduate student Barr developed a course for Wellesley students titled Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting, in which he invited students to explore the changes in artistic culture and to reconsider the nature of the divisions between “high” and “low” art.

Barr left Wellesley in 1929 to become the executive director of the new Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York. There he used the ideas from his Wellesley course to shape the direction of the avant-garde institution. Barr’s educational legacy, however, was also striking: At least three of the students in his small seminar (Ernestine Fantl Carter ’27, Helen Franc ’29, Katharine Sterne ’28) became major players in the art world. “Barr’s brief stint at Wellesley rippled through the art world for decades,” wrote Shea, and the class “comes across as one of the greatest art history courses ever taught”—a turning point in the history of modern art in America, according to Meyer.

We won’t argue. Since Barr’s original seminar, the Art Department has continued teaching, mentoring, and inspiring Wellesley women to lead the discourse and curation of art (both modern and otherwise) in the United States and abroad. A quick look around provides evidence to the claim.

Eleanor M. Garvey ’40 received the Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award for her work as a curator. She worked at several institutions (including Wellesley) before working as a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library and eventually earning the Laureate Award from the American Printing History Association in 1991.

Even before she graduated, Milly Glimcher ’61 began making waves in the art world by working with husband Arne to open the Pace Gallery on Newbury Street in 1960. Now the Glimchers’ New York-based gallery represents the work of the world’s most influential modern artists, including Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Alvia Wardlaw ’69 (also an Alumnae Achievement Award winner) is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on African-American art. Wardlaw has curated many pioneering exhibitions in her role as curator for modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, including Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art (1989) and the traveling exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2002-2006).

In 2012, Chung Hyung-min ’75 was named the director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (NMOCA) in Seoul. According to Korea Times, Chung is the first woman to lead the national museum since it opened in 1969.

Massumeh Farhad ’78 has been both chief curator and curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., since 2004. Farhad focused on contemporary Western art during her time at Wellesley, and traveled throughout Iran upon graduation to further her appreciation of different artistic styles.

“Wellesley may well be such a powerful incubator for professional art historians because, first of all, of the determined and gifted women who study here, and secondly, because of our pedagogical method,” said Patricia Berman, Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art, who was quoted in the Boston Globe article. “Historically, Wellesley has used what is known as the ‘Wellesley Method,’ art-historical study that incorporates the close examination and production of original works of art.  Because we have the Davis Museum [and before that the Farnsworth] as a working laboratory of ideas, and a strong studio faculty that invests students in the conceptualization and creation of works in a wide range of media, our students have an intimate relationship with art objects of all kinds.”

The trademark artistic and art historical education, the collaboration the Davis Museum, and the connections with experienced alumnae continue to kickstart the careers of younger graduates. “Over the course of my four years,” said Jenny Harris ’12, the Wellesley Art Department and Davis Museum “encouraged me, not only in my academic study of art history, but also in my extracurricular involvement at the Davis. They worked hard to support me in my summer internship and other job applications and were eager to do everything they could to help me make professional connections.”

After spending four months working in the Louvre through the Liliane Pingoud Soriano Fellowship, Harris moved to New York where she works as a curator’s assistant at MoMA—the very place Alfred Barr used his Wellesley experience to transform the art world nearly a century before.

More Wellesley Women in the Museum Field

This list highlights some of the positions held by many of Wellesley’s extraordinary alumnae in the world of museums. Thanks to Jeanne Hablanian and Brooke Henderson of Wellesley’s Art Library and Patricia Berman for assistance in compiling names. (Know of more we should mention? Let us know on Facebook!)

  • Ernestine Fantl Carter '27, Curator of Architecture and Industrial Art at Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and fashion historian
  • Helen Franc ’29, Editor in Chief at MoMA
  • Eleanor M. Garvey '40, Curator of Houghton Library at Harvard University
  • Milly Glimcher '61, Co-Founder of Pace Gallery in New York, London, and Beijing
  • Barbara Reise '62, Art critic and founder of Arstra Information, Ltd.
  • Karen Capriles Hodges '62, curator of exhibitions and acting curator of costume, Phoenix Art Museum
  • Ursula McCracken ’63, Director, The Textile Museum in Washington
  • Nancy Berman '67, Assistant Curator of the Jewish Museum in New York
  • Alvia Wardlaw '69, Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston
  • Deborah Gribbon '70, Director, J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
  • Jean Cadogan '71, Director and Associate Professor of Art History, Trinity College; curator, Wadsworth Atheneum
  • Maria Morris Hambourg '71, Senior Curator, Thomas Walther Collection, Department of Photography; former founding curator, Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art 
  • Jennifer Russell ’71, Associate Director for Exhibitions, Metropolitan Museum in New York
  • Elizabeth Pendleton Streicher '72, Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Worcester Art Museum
  • Teri Hensick '73, Conservator of Paintings, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums
  • Danielle Rice '73, Executive Director, Delaware Art Museum
  • Chung Hyung-Min ’75, Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (NMOCA) in Seoul, Korea
  • Lisa Dennison '75, Chairman, Sotheby’s North and South America
  • Marguerite Stanley ’75, Business Manager of KidsQuest Children’s Museum in Bellevue, Washington
  • Susan Grace Galassi ’76, Senior Curator, Frick Collection in New York.
  • Mary McWilliams '76, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art, Harvard Art Museums
  • Massumeh Farhad ’78, Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington
  • Gretchen Wold '81, Assistant Research Curator, Department of European Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • Anne Cademenos '82, Director of Corporate, Government, and Foundation Relations, Museum of Science, Boston
  • Julia Marciari-Alexander ’89, Executive Director, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
  • Nina Diamond '90, Writer/Editor, Getty Museum
  • Jennifer Morgan Williams ’91, Executive Director of Osterville Historical Museum
  • Rachael Arauz '91, freelance curator, Boston
  • Judith Hecker '91, Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, Museum of Modern Art, New York 
  • Melissa Moy '91, Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art, Harvard Art Museums
  • Mary Weaver Chapin '92, Curator of Graphic Arts, Portland Art Museum
  • Miriam Yudelson Katz '93, Research Associate, Department of Photographs, Getty Museum
  • Jennifer Kilmer '96, Director, Washington State Historical Society
  • Holly Salmon Tegelaar ’97, Objects Conservator at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
  • Sara Kabot '02, Head of Exhibitions, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
  • Rachel Ropeik '03, Museum Educator at Brooklyn Museum and Museum of Modern Art
  • Cara Manes '03, Collection Specialist, Department of Painting & Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Rebecca Tilles '03, Associate Curator of 18th Century French & Western European Fine and Decorative Arts at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, Washington, D.C.
  • Katherine Alcauskas '04, Collection Specialist, Department of Drawings & Prints, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Anna Greco '06, Curator of Education, Greenwich Historical Society
  • Leslie de Leon '07,  Education Associate , Cloisters Museum (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York
  • Amethyst Beaver ’08, Curatorial Assistant, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
  • Christina Louise Costello '08, Louise Bourgeois Catalogue Raisonné Print Cataloguer, Department of Drawings & Prints, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Ashley Swinnerton '08, Collection Specialist, Department of Film, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Ashley Boulden ’09, Exhibition Assistant, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Janet Chen ’10, Curatorial Research Associate in Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • Sarah Dickerson ’10, Graduate Student, University of Texas at Austin (Modern and Contemporary Art History); Former Worker at Blanton Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • Hannah A. Keck ’11, Private Collection Consultant and Specialist, San Diego
  • Hannah Townsend ’11, Curatorial Assistant at the Davis Museum; 2014 M. Phil Candidate at Pembroke College, Cambridge
  • Cabelle Ahn ’12, Intern, Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Wendy Dickieson ’12, Gallery Assistant, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
  • Jenny Harris ’12, Administrative Assistant, The Museum of Modern Art
  • Claire McRee ’12, Intern, Lancaster County Historical Society
  • Mina Juhn ’13, Gallery Assistant, Pace Gallery, New York
  • Hye In (Lisa) Koo '13, Gallery Associate, Eli Klein Fine Art, New York and Beijing