Chicago Objects Study Initiative

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 has been supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 2014.

COSI provides graduate students with new or significantly enhanced coursework and training in object-driven research, including increased access to objects in the museum’s renowned permanent holdings (both on view and in storage) 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 further work as faculty and, for many of them, also for positions in museums, libraries, or other research settings involving collections.

COSI programming has been implemented in many ways throughout our PhD program, including: a required class co-taught by faculty and curators at the Art Institute, dissertation writing and write-up fellowships, graduate student-taught classes at the Art Institute, workshops and seminars with visiting scholars, colloquia and conferences, research assistantships, and private collection visits.

COSI builds on our Rhoades Exchange Program with the AIC, which was established in 2007 and includes an annual seminar taught by an AIC curator or conservator and a 10-month curatorial internship for an advanced 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 two writing fellows in the Art Institute with curator mentors, and providing for one teaching fellow to conduct their own seminar each academic year, 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.

Objects and Materials Seminar

The COSI Objects and Materials Seminar is offered in the winter quarter and required for all first-year art history PhD students. Team-taught by curators at the Art Institute of Chicago with faculty from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, this course focuses on sustained, close engagement with art objects in the AIC collection, 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 the closely related Suzanne Deal Booth Conservation Seminars, offered each year by a conservator or conservation scientist based at the Art Institute, and in 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 “Conflict & Vision in the Modern Metropolis” (Alison Fisher, autumn 2016), “Making Meaning, the Materialities of Modern Art” (Maria Kokkori, spring 2016), and “Age of Rubens and Rembrandts” (Victoria Sancho Lobis, spring 2015).

Mellon Curatorial Research Fellowships

Fellows are in residence at the Art Institute, working closely with a curatorial mentor. Facilitated by the Mellon Academic Curator, the art history departments appoint 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 substantial stipends and cover tuition, insurance, and fees.
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. The Fellow and the curatorial mentor identify the project at the beginning of the fellowship in consultation with the Mellon Academic Curator and the Fellow’s faculty advisor. Fellows are able to draw on the expertise of staff at the museum beyond their curatorial mentor, including other curators, conservators, and conservation scientists. The fellowship includes opportunity for publication and travel, reflecting their obvious importance in both the curatorial and academic professions. All Research Fellows from Northwestern and UChicago meet regularly to discuss their research and to hear from Art Institute curators or university faculty about their own object-based work in order to facilitate shared academic discourse and deepen professional relationships.

Mellon Museum Seminar

Each academic year, COSI funds one graduate student-taught course which takes place at the AIC. The instructor leads an undergraduate seminar, largely in the museum's galleries and seminar rooms, 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 “Materiality and Spirituality in Chinese Art” (Jin Xu, spring 2015), “Italian Renaissance” (Joana Konova, autumn 2015), “How Photographs Look” (Carl Fuldner, spring 2017), and “Saints & Heroes, Art of Medieval & Renaissance Europe (Nancy Thebaut, spring 2018). The class complements our annual offering of the Rhoades Seminar taught by one of the Art Institute’s curators or conservators.

Mellon Visiting Scholar

Every year graduate students nominate and select, in coordination with the Art Institute, a Mellon Visitor to lead a two-day seminar at the Art Institute focused on objects from the permanent collection in collaboration with museum curators. The Mellon Visitor provides a forum in which our students and faculty engage in conversation with scholars, curators, artists, or critics. Former visitors include Islamic art historian Scott Redford, American artist Kerry James Marshall, and Japanese art curator Yasufumi Nakamori.

The visitor makes two trips to Chicago, one for research and one to lead the discussion in the Art Institute galleries or study rooms, in which curators, graduate students, and faculty participate in a discussion led by the Visitor of selected objects in relation to selected readings. The aim of the seminar series is to initiate intensive, object-catalyzed discussions of key issues in the history of art and allied disciplines—conservation, archaeology, curatorial studies, intellectual property, art practice, etc.—in which first-hand study of works of art and other interpretive approaches to objects would be mutually pursued. The seminar series engages the Art Institute's collections in ways that supplement and complement existing areas of expertise among UChicago faculty and among curators at the Art Institute.

Mellon Workshops

Every academic year, we invite some of the scholars who present one of our Smart Lectures to conduct an object-based discussion in the Art Institute’s permanent collection or a particular temporary exhibition. 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.

Conferences and Colloquia

Every year the graduate Mellon Fellows and Interns from both UChicago and Northwestern who are conducting research at the museum help arrange a Spring Colloquium under the guidance of the Mellon Academic Curator. The colloquium draws on the museum's collections or exhibitions, students' expertise, and selected readings and talks as a basis for discussion of a particular theme. The 2014 colloquium was entitled “From Thread to Brush: Textiles and Their Representation in the Andes;” the 2016 iteration "The International 1930s," coincided with the first public days of the AIC's exhibition America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s.

COSI also hosts two conferences focused specifically on technical art history. The 2016 conference examined how new tools of scientific analysis are changing art historical inquiry in 19th-century art, taking its lead from major investigations conducted at the AIC on the work of Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and others.

Research Assistants

To help integrate objects into the classroom and to facilitate close work with the Art Institute’s collection, faculty who plan to teach courses that will meet at the AIC or otherwise make use of their collections may be awarded Mellon funds to hire research assistants to help identify and research suitable objects from the Art Institute's collection.

Private Collection Visits

To complement COSI and Rhoades programming, the Department of Art History throughout the academic year organizes visits to Chicago-area private collectors. 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.