Wednesday, December 11, 2013

HBA Interview

I'm pleased to share the news that I was recently interviewed about my interests in British art and my new job at Columbia. The interview has just been published as the first "member profile," a new feature in the Historians of British Art Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2013), with questions posed by Editor Catherine Roach, Asst. Prof. of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. (You may recall that she was one of the speakers at my Why Victorian Art? symposium back in 2009). The picture you see here was published with the interview and shows me on the campus of Columbia posing with Henry Moore's Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967. For your reading pleasure, here's the interview. I think it gives readers a good overview of my art historical interests and the scope of my job as Curator of Art Properties. Enjoy!

Member Profile:
Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of Art Properties
Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

What drew you to the field of British art? I’ve always been an Anglophile. Although my father is Italian, my mother’s side of the family is of English descent and I credit Nana (my maternal grandmother) as the source of my interest in all things British. Her parents were Victorian immigrants from Lancashire and, despite only an eighth-grade education, she was surprisingly well-read. We would partake of tea and biscuits while she told me stories about Elizabeth and Essex or the King and Mrs. Simpson. From there I gradually discovered British art, and like many a young Romantic fell for the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. (Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Burne-Jones’s Beguiling of Merlin are still two of my favorite paintings.) Once I began studying the Pre-Raphaelites, I discovered the underappreciated art and life of Simeon Solomon and began doing work on him. My interest in British art soon expanded to nineteenth-century sculpture as well. My interest in British art has been a gratifying experience.
Where did you do your graduate work, and on what topic? I earned my M.A. in Humanities from the University of South Florida, where I wrote my thesis on the fatal woman motif in paintings by Rossetti and poetry by Swinburne. I also earned my M.A. in Library and Information Science from USF. After many years as a librarian, I went back to school and earned an M.Phil. degree and my Ph.D. in Art History from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, graduating in May 2013. My dissertation was on the Anglo-Roman sculptor John Gibson, best known for reintroducing polychromy in sculpture with his Tinted Venus, although I go beyond his interest in polychromy to consider other aspects of his long, productive career.

What projects are you currently working on? Two essays from my dissertation on Gibson will be published in book collections over the next few years. I recently gave a presentation at the Pre-Raphaelite conference in Oxford on Solomon’s 1860 painting The Mother of Moses, discussing issues of race and religion. I am turning that into an article, with a related spin-off article focusing just on his mixed-race model Fanny Eaton. My colleague Carolyn Conroy (University of York) and I continue to update the Simeon Solomon Research Archive (, adding more digital images of his work and exploring the possibility of publishing his correspondence on the site as well.

Tell us about your current post as Curator of Art Properties at Columbia University. As Curator of Art Properties, I oversee the art collections at Columbia. Few people are aware that Columbia even has a permanent art collection. Unlike other ivy-league schools, Columbia decided not to establish an art museum, but they did collect art from the time of its foundation as King’s College in 1754. By the 1950s an administrative body known as Art Properties was established to oversee the art collections, and the first curator was hired soon afterward. When the Wallach Gallery was established in the late 1980s, Art Properties was merged with it, but with the retirement of my predecessor it was decided that the two departments would be separated. This has allowed my department to revitalize interest in the art collections for educational and display purposes. The collection contains nearly 15,000 objects and ranges from Etruscan pottery and Buddhist sculpture to hundreds of portrait paintings and nearly 900 photographs. With my two full-time staff members and occasional interns, we are responsible for the organization and care of the collections, including inventory, exhibition and loan programs, conservation, photographic services, and so on. An educator at heart, I am pleased that we have begun new initiatives bringing art objects into the classroom, allowing students the rare opportunity to study closely and handle objects in a way they never could in other settings.
Are there any British works in the Columbia collections that you'd like to highlight? The art collections at Columbia are culturally diverse and include a few great examples of British art. Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967, a gift from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation (1967.20.1), is a highlight in our public outdoor sculpture. We have some wonderful portraits in the grand manner tradition, including Joseph Highmore’s King George II, ca. 1750 (C00.62), and Joshua Reynolds’s Sir George Grenville, ca. 1764 (C00.442). The Plimpton bequest in 2000 added to the collection about 60 portraits of noteworthy British men and women by painters such as Thomas Lawrence and Martin Archer Shee. We also have a number of prints by William Hogarth and other British artists.

Do you have any advice for student members who might want to follow a similar career path? The job market for art historians is very challenging right now. My advice to any prospective student member is to follow her/his dream in studying what s/he wants in British art, but to be aware of the bigger picture in the art world, particularly trends and names in modern and contemporary art. Apply for lots of grants and fellowships, network as much as possible, and keep one’s mind open to alternative career choices. One never knows how things will evolve.

No comments: