When art history professor Olivia Chiang began teaching at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, she observed that the standard art historical canons she referenced throughout her survey courses didn’t inherently resonate with her student body, which was much more diverse than that of most private institutions. At Manchester, with its majority non-White student body from primarily lower-income households, Chiang felt that she could no longer teach from the costly textbooks that continued to prioritize Eurocentrism and neglected non-Western histories — a notion that sowed the seeds for her project “Not Your Grandfather’s Art History: A BIPOC Reader.”
The project was born during Chiang’s fall semester sabbatical in 2020, when she decided to reach out to art historians of color in the interest of developing a textbook of accessible and diverse recounts of art history. But four months wasn’t enough time to get the ball rolling for such a vast project, so Chiang began to explore existing avenues, which led her to SmartHistory, the nonprofit Khan Academy partner for inclusive and equitable art history education.
“They make these fantastic short-form videos that are really engaging with students,” Chiang told Hyperallergic. “They take a single object and take this sort of deep dive into the history and the culture that produced this object,” she added, referencing a SmartHistory video from 2020 about a silver sugar bowl at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, where she would bring her students for a field trip each semester.
“It was a little sugar bowl, that you’d most likely walk right past in the gallery, but SmartHistory was such a fascinating exploration of the Triangular Trade Route, enslaved labor, and material culture,” the professor continued, saying she began integrating the platform’s resources into her courses.
Seeking funding from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) to flesh out her project which had since evolved from a textbook to a digitally accessible essay reader, Chiang reached out to SmartHistory with a proposal for a potential collaboration. SmartHistory agreed to host Chiang’s essay reader and provide editorial services, and the collaborators received a ~$145,000 grant from the NEH in 2022 for a series of “object-focused and thesis-driven” essays primarily authored by scholars of color investigating culture and history in accessible language.
Chiang specified that like everything else SmartHistory produced, the reader had to be free, as many of her students could not afford the expensive textbooks associated with the art history courses at the college. The grant money was used to compensate myriad authors with an honorarium for their scholarly essays on a variety of topics ranging from the cultural exchanges along the Silk Road to the Indigenous Mexica (Aztec) renderings of Africans and several other underrepresented art historical canons.
“Not Your Grandfather’s Art History” currently features 16 essays, and Chiang said that another six will be added to the compilation this fall.
“I do really hope that my students see themselves in this content and that they get excited about exploring their own history — whether that’s family history, cultural history or a different culture’s history,” Chiang said.
She noted that a lot of what’s covered in the available essays plugs in major gaps in general historical education as well, specifying that a majority of her students were really taken with the piece about the Black Pharaohs and equitable gender roles of the ancient kingdom of Nubia (now within Sudanese borders), and that of Juan de Pareja, the formerly enslaved, mixed-race assistant to Diego Velázquez who was later enfranchised and then painted for the only known Afro-Hispanic self-portrait made in Europe between 1480 and 1700.
Chiang reports that the reader has been well received by her students so far, with an end-of-semester survey indicating that they found the reader spoke more to their personal interests in art and history, made her courses more relevant to their lives, and provided a more nuanced and complex presentation of history. The next steps for the project include securing additional funding to continue compensating authors for their work in expanding the essay reader, and ensuring that the resource finds the audience that would benefit most from it.
Aside from the upcoming essays that will debut next season, “Not Your Grandfather’s Art History” will soon include a teaching resource written by Maya Harakawa for instructors to considerately address historical erasure, white supremacy, and race in classroom discussions.