Reflecting on the Association for Art History Conference 2021

Rachel Harpole, MA History of Art student, reflects on the Association for Art History Conference hosted by the University of Birmingham. The article is enriched by our volunteers’ and panellist’s comments and thoughts gathered by Karolina Mickiewicz, a second-year Spanish and Art History student.

During the Easter break, Birmingham was lucky enough to host the Association for Art History Conference 2021. With the event happening online this year for the first time, things looked a little different from the average conference, but there was still ample opportunity for students and staff to get involved.

Cheryl and Claire from AAH working from their London office during the conference

The Association for Art History’s annual conference, now in its 47th year, is the UK’s only such event dedicated to art history and visual culture. People from across the discipline, from academics and researchers to curators and writers, attend the research-focused event to hear the latest international research and critical debate about art, art’s histories and visual cultures. Unfortunately, last year’s conference had to be cancelled, but to make up for it 2021’s edition was the biggest yet. ‘This year’s online event was like nothing that Cheryl or I have ever done, or attempted, before’, says Claire Davies, Head of Comms & Events at the AAH. ‘Online events are completely different to in-person, they demand almost opposite approaches for success. Online events can be easier for the attendees but they are invariably more complex and time consuming for the event organiser’.

We’ve all experienced Zoom classes and meetings, but how do you even begin to organise an online conference with hundreds of attendees and speakers committed to presenting research as well as dozens of fringe events? ‘As experienced event organisers Cheryl and I knew that online events and in-person events were completely different animals, and neither of us had ever done a virtual event of this size before,’ says Claire. ‘For in-person events you have a building, you have chairs, you have doors and you can usually assume that people will navigate around a building and read signage etc. For online you have to create everything – the virtual building, the entrance, the room, the seats, the signage as well as indicating how and when people can speak; when you have to do that for hundreds of people simultaneously things can get very hectic. Being organised, prepared and remaining calm and supportive are the key things involved in delivering online events.’

What does an online conference look like? Some screenshots from across the conference

Key in making this all happen was the group of student volunteers who worked in the background to help panellists and attendees negotiate the online platform. ‘During the conference I held various positions: Dedicated Conference assistant, working directly with the scholars and making sure all the talks ran as smoothly as possible; Team Supervisor, working with my absolutely wonderful fellow volunteers to support where I could; and on the email help desk, answering queries about the Aventri platform,’ says BA student Lucy. One of the main advantages for the students helping was the chance to sit in on a few of the hundreds of talks being delivered at the conference, hearing about cutting-edge research in areas they might not have considered before. ‘I was super fortunate to be able to listen to some amazing talks from some amazing people. My particular favourites, which were incredibly inspiring, were the sessions ‘Art history and British cinema’ and ‘Video art in Africa’,’ Lucy says. BA student Milly agrees: ‘all the sessions I sat in were interesting and inspiring. I really hope to be involved with the association again in the future!’

In terms of the content of the conference, the talks – which were divided into panels consisting of six to eight papers – covered an incredibly diverse range of subjects. One of those panels, ‘Exhibiting Craft: Contexts, Histories, Practices’, was convened by UoB lecturer Dr Claire Jones and PhD student Inês Jorge. The panel was based on Inês’ PhD research, which examines the exhibition of craft since the 1970s, and the ways in which different displays have shaped the definition of craft. ‘Whilst my research focuses on recent shows and includes case studies that are mainly held in Portugal and the UK, we attempted to open the panel to other periods, geographies and issues involved in the curatorship of craft. As a result, our selection of papers covered practices from the late-nineteenth century until the 2010s, and from Western countries to South America,’ says Inês. Subjects covered in the panel include an analysis of Tate Modern’s 2018 exhibition Anni Albers, the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists and the alternative spaces which gave visibility to female artists in the 1800s, and the Museo del Barro in Assunción, Paraguay, which investigated how objects are separated according to media, provenances, or disciplines within museums.

The panel on ‘Exhibiting Craft’ emerged from Inês’ research, which looks at the exhibiting of work such as Cristina Rodrigues’ The Blanket (Gold and Silver), 2013.

The conference format allows for people involved in art history from across the sector to hear new research and critical thought that helps them think about their own work in a new light. Robert Brennan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, was a panellist for the session ‘Pre-Modern Women as Artists, Patrons and Collectors’ (co-convened by UoB’s Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange). Reflecting on his involvement, Robert says, ‘I really couldn’t have been more grateful to take part in these panels. What stood out the most was the sheer diversity of directions that it suggested: historically marginalized genres like illumination, playing cards, and needlework, the challenges and rewards of integrating feminist with ecological perspectives, self-representation between portraiture and patronage, the new methodological possibilities offered by digital humanities. To me, it gave a glimpse of the extent to which gender can and, indeed, must guide the way in opening up so many pressing issues in our field.’

The 2021 Keynote speakers reflected this diversity. Topics included a conversation between members of the BLK Art Group, Body and Space in the Uta Codex, How to Teach Manet’s Olympia After Transgender Studies and Experiments in Renaissance Art History at the End of the World – some of which are now available for all to enjoy on Youtube.

A snapshot of David Getsy’s keynote, How to Teach Manet’s Olympia After Transgender Studies, now available to watch on Youtube.

So how did the online format differ from a normal year? Whilst opportunities for meeting colleagues and networking may have been more formal than an in-person event, being online made the conference more accessible than it might have been previously. ‘We were able to invite keynote speakers that might not have ordinarily, or so easily, been able to contribute,’ says Claire. ‘The same is true for speakers participating in sessions. Not having to travel and take time off work or find childcare or find the funds to attend an in-person event was hugely beneficial for many participants, and, we believe, did make this year’s event accessible to more people.’ Inês also agrees there are benefits to the online format: ‘Whether you are attending, speaking, or hosting, an academic conference is a space for sharing ideas and networking, where people are especially open to responding to questions and comments. If you are looking for professional opportunities, you can always talk to the keynote speaker and ask for advice or talk about your work. The Covid-19 pandemic has limited our ability to be with each other physically, but it has also diversified the ways in which we can participate – we can ‘raise our hand’ (at least on Zoom) and ask questions both in the oral and written formats.’

Whilst there may have been less free coffee than usual, the 2021 Association for Art History conference was a great opportunity for Birmingham’s students and staff to get involved with an international academic event. ‘It was amazing to be part of a big team of fellow art history students! We all pulled together to make the event a success,’ says undergrad Ksenia. It definitely wasn’t an easy feat to pull off, considering the size of the event, and those involved – including Claire Davies, Cheryl Platt and Trevor Horsewood from AAH and Matt Clulee and the team of student volunteers from the University of Birmingham – worked incredibly hard to make it happen.

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