The Chicago Objects Study Initiative (COSI) is a collaboration between our department, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), and the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. It was supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation during its initial phase from 2014 until 2023. Our department has since endowed key components and expanded relationships with other area collecting institutions.
COSI provides graduate students with coursework and training in object-driven research, including increased access to objects in the museum’s renowned permanent holdings and to the expertise of the museum’s professional staff. Introducing the more intensive and direct study of objects at a formative moment, the program provides graduate students with tools, skills, and experiences that will shape their dissertation research and prepare them for scholarly careers in academia, museums, libraries, or other research settings involving collections.
COSI programming has been implemented in many ways throughout our graduate program, including: a required class co-taught across institutions and centered on original artworks, curatorial fellowships, graduate student-taught classes at the Art Institute or other museums, seminars taught by local curators and conservators, workshops with visiting scholars, research assistantships, and private collection visits.
COSI builds on our Rhoades Exchange Program with the AIC, which was established in 2007 to offer an annual seminar taught by an AIC curator or conservator and yearlong curatorial training for a PhD student.
Art Institute of Chicago
While the Art Institute of Chicago is a rich resource for the entire city and region, COSI brings our institutions closer and facilitates direct relationships with the collection, facilities, and curators. Placing curatorial research fellows in the Art Institute with curator mentors, and encouraging teaching fellows to conduct their own seminars in the museum’s galleries and studyrooms, COSI provides students with the unique opportunity to engage deeply with the AIC’s collection. Their wide range of collections and easy access for the academic community–all students get free entry–gives the Art History department a seemingly bottomless resource for object study.
The COSI Objects and Materials Seminar is required for all art history doctoral students. Team-taught with multiple partners in multiple locations, including the Art Institute of Chicago, this course focuses on sustained, close engagement with art objects, and on the methods and questions such inquiry involves. Students are introduced to basic techniques of material and scientific analysis, as well as to recent theoretical debates that resituate art history as a study of both physical things and their disembodied images.
Students can also enroll in two annual Suzanne Deal Booth Conservation Seminars offered by a conservator or conservation scientist, and in seminars taught by various local curators and conservators drawing on their areas of expertise, including the Rhoades Seminar, taught annually in the Department of Art History by one of the Art Institute’s curators or conservators. Recently offered Rhoades Seminars have included “Reading Ancient Egyptian Art” (Ashley Arico, Spring 2024), “Making Art for the Princely Court in 15th Century France and the Burgundian Netherlands” (Martha Wolf, Fall 2022), “Gender and Sexuality in Modern European Art” (Jay Clarke, Winter 2022), and “Possibility and Peril: Material and Technical Innovations in Modern Textiles” (Erica Warren, Winter 2021).
COSI Curatorial Research Fellowships
Each year the Department of Art History collaborates with the Art Institute of Chicago to appoint one to two UChicago PhD candidates to serve as yearlong curatorial research fellows under the mentorship of a curator. Drawing on departmental endowments from the Rhoades Foundation and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and another named in honor of former faculty member Joshua Taylor, fellows spend two days per week performing primary, scholarly research and writing about clearly defined objects in the museum’s collection; the remaining time is devoted to the research, writing, and completion of the Fellow’s dissertation. Fellows are able to draw on the expertise of staff at the museum beyond their curatorial mentor, including other curators, conservators, and conservation scientists.
Fellows are in residence at the Art Institute, working closely with a curatorial mentor. In collaboration with the Department of Academic Engagement and Research, which originated in the Chicago Objects Study Initiative, the Department of Art History appoints up to two fellows following a competitive application process during the preceding spring. All three institutions strive for the best possible matches between Fellows and curators, matches that make pedagogical and professional sense given the Fellow’s career stage and research interests and given the curator’s work plans and expertise. The fellowships provide stipends to complement annual University of Chicago funding.
COSI Museum Seminar
Each academic year, the Department of Art History offers one or more graduate student-taught courses that take place primarily at the AIC or other local art institutions such as the Field Museum of Natural History, the Newberry Library, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The instructor leads an undergraduate seminar, largely in museums’s galleries and studyrooms, centered on object-based teaching. This aspect of the program both provides an opportunity for the graduate student to teach with objects in the museum and provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to foster formative encounters with works of art at an early stage. Past courses have included “Making Space: Buddhist Art from India to China” (Alice Casalini, Spring 2023), “Walls Between Cultures: Curatorial Interventions in the Encyclopedic Museum” (Roko Rumora, Spring 2022), “Monsters and Miracles: Representing the Strange in Medieval Art” (Carly Boxer, Winter 2021), and “Warhol’s Art Histories” (Solveig Nelson, Fall 2019). The class complements our annual offering of the Rhoades Seminar taught by one of the Art Institute’s curators or conservators.
Every academic year, we invite some of the scholars who present one of our Smart Lectures to conduct an object-based discussion in the permanent collection or a particular temporary exhibition of the Art Institute or other area institution. The joint visits are open to a limited group of students, faculty, and/or curators, small enough to view objects closely and to have meaningful conversation. Select objects are often drawn from storage as well as exhibitions, and the format allows for close examination of objects. We also offer related workshops by visiting scholars or curators centered on close examinations of objects or object-centered research skills, for example on provenance or imaging techniques.
Every year the graduate fellows and interns work with the Art Institute’s Department of Academic Engagement and Research to arrange a Spring Colloquium. The colloquium draws on the museum's collections or exhibitions, student expertise, and selected readings and talks as a basis for discussion of a particular theme. The 2023 colloquium was entitled “Fold, Bend, Flip–Museum Objects in Motion” and considered the physical interaction of objects in museum collections with the people tasked with preserving, understanding, and sharing them.
COSI Research Assistants
To help integrate objects into the classroom and to facilitate close work with the collections of the Art Institute and other local institutions, faculty who plan to teach courses that will meet at the AIC or otherwise make use of their collections may be awarded departmental funding to hire student research assistants to help identify and research suitable objects from the area's collections.
Private Collection Visits
The Department of Art History organizes visits to Chicago-area private collectors in response to faculty and student interests. These visits aim to provide students with opportunities to develop deeper knowledge of their area of study, to draw on the distinctive expertise of private collectors, to access privately held objects, and to build working relationships with patrons of the arts in the Chicago community.