This monthly series showcases some of the Courtauld’s most interesting and successful alumni in the arts and related fields. Check back each month to learn more about what Courtauld alumni are up to in London and elsewhere.
This month The Courtauldian sat down with Eddy Frankel, Art & Culture Editor at Time Out. An avid writer on the contemporary art world, Frankel first studied Impressionism with John House for his MA in History of Art at the Courtauld. Since graduating in 2007, he has also written for The Art Newspaper, ArtReview, and The Guardian. Read on to hear about how he got to his dream job, the power of being persistent, and his art and football magazine, OOF.
Rachel Kubrick: What made you decide to do your MA at the Courtauld?
Eddy Frankel: I was studying for my BA in French literature next door at King’s College and we did a course on experimental film, something about it just clicked. My connection with experimental, visual art and my ability to write about it felt much more intense than it did with literature. So I told my lecturer that I wanted to do an MA in art history and she went, ‘don’t look anywhere but the Courtauld’ and she really went out of her way to help and push me. So there was no real other option really.
RK: Now you’re a journalist and critic. What brought you to this field?
EF: I knew I wanted to be a journalist and specifically a critic from a super young age. Back when I was 13, I was buying books of criticism and cultural writing - it was just something that struck a chord with me very young. It was really obvious to me that that was going to be my path. So at King’s I became an editor for the student newspaper and wrote bits for music and art websites.
Then when I went to the Courtauld, the library had a magazine rack with things like Artforum, ArtReview, Art Monthly and Time Out. I remember very distinctly going through all the magazines and thinking ‘I don’t want to write like this. This isn’t the kind of writing I’m interested in.’ Then picking up Time Out and seeing Ossian Ward’s reviews and going, ‘This is it. I want to write for this publication’ because the writing was like my writing. It was very easy, conversational, and talking about art in a way that wasn’t super elitist or difficult.
So at the age of 21 I looked at Time Out in the Courtauld Library and said ‘that’s the job I want’ and just tried really hard to pursue that. I worked for The Art Newspaper right when I came out of university, while photocopying in a hospital to pay my way through life, then took a four year break to go on tour and do music stuff. And then eventually got to Time Out freelancing on a one day a week thing and I was eventually made Staff Writer, then Front Section Editor and then finally took over from the amazing Martin Coomer on the art desk. It’s been three and a half years now of being the Art & Culture Editor. I also write for places like The Guardian, ArtReview, Monocle and The Art Newspaper on a freelance basis. But my day job is to go to art exhibitions and write about them, to communicate my passion for art to as wide of an audience as possible and hope that a little of my love for the subject is infectious. I’ve got a really big platform, and that comes with a lot of responsibility, so it’s something I take pretty seriously. But it’s a dream thing to spend your days doing, I’m super lucky.
RK: How has Art & Culture at Time Out changed since the pandemic started?
EF: Well, I’ve been furloughed for most of the pandemic, and Time Out isn’t covering art in my absence. I think the few people on the team who aren’t currently furloughed are mainly doing news writing, rather than any cultural analysis. I do miss going to exhibitions and writing about them, obviously, but it’s given me a lot of time for my other writing and curatorial projects while living it up on the government dime.
EF: OOF is my baby, a biannual magazine about the relationship between art and football. I started it with my pals Justin and Jennie Hammond and we’re now finishing up issue seven and working on an amazing gallery project and some exhibitions and artist collaborations. We’ve been super lucky to have people like Juergen Teller write for us, and to profile artists like Chris Ofili, Rose Wylie, Petra Cortright and dozens of younger artists doing amazing things with football in their art. It’s such a rich topic, and I’m super proud of the mag.
I’m a very project-oriented person. I always need to have something that I’m working on and can put a huge amount of my energy into because I have a lot of energy and it needs to go somewhere. Back when I was a teen and in my early twenties that would be being in punk rock bands, and now it’s OOF.
The magazine is kind of the thing I’ve always done – feel incredibly passionate about something and do it so much, and so intensely, that eventually it just has to work, or fall apart spectacularly. That’s really the key in journalism in general because journalism is really difficult and you get paid fuck all, you have to do it because you love it and you want it. That’s all it takes to be a journalist: desire. And being totally ok with being poor.
RK: How did you get that off the ground? Did you self-fund it?
EF: Totally self-funded. Justin and I set it up, and it paid for itself in the first issue. I think a lot of that comes from a) having publishing knowledge, so that we sort of knew what we were doing from the start, and b) having a DIY background. We distribute it ourselves, manage the printing ourselves, manage the subscriptions ourselves. That means we can recuperate our costs and, most importantly, pay our writers a fair fee.
RK: Do you think going to the Courtauld has impacted your career at all?
EF: It’s a pretty stuffy place, the Courtauld. It’s very conservative, but what it does is force a really rigorous approach to art history on you, which meant I learned a huge amount in a very short space of time. I came out of it with so much art history knowledge that it gave me the confidence to become an art critic. Plus, I think the art world is full of snobby people who will find any excuse to look down their noses at you. Going to the Courtauld is like a barrier against those people, it’s like a war medal, it shuts people up.
RK: Do you have any advice for Courtauld students who might want to become a journalist or critic?
EF: Becoming a critic is incredibly difficult. There are almost no full-time criticism jobs in the UK or in the world. It’s a very rare position so I know how insanely lucky and privileged I am to be where I am. I think my advice would be that if you like something, just do it fully. It might not work out but at least you’ll be being true to yourself. If journalism or criticism is what you want, then do it. You just have to want it more than job security and money and easy hours. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved. The art world is full of money and most of it doesn’t go to you, but if you love writing about art enough, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about having passion and believing in it, I reckon. So just hassle everyone, chase every story, and write, constantly. Also, don’t get upset when artists yell at you in interviews. Artists are mean.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This month I spoke with Akarsh Raghunath, a recent graduate of the Courtauld’s MA Buddhist Art: History and Conservation. Currently a PhD candidate in History of Art & Architecture at Harvard University, he is passionate about Buddhist art in his native India and the surrounding region. We corresponded via email to learn more about his current research and past experience in this unique programme.
At Bingling Grottoes in China
Rachel Kubrick: How were you introduced to art history and what made you decide to come to the Courtauld?
Akarsh Raghunath: The credit singlehandedly goes to my grandmother, R. Lakshmi, who sowed the seeds of visual discernment of religious arts from very early on in my childhood. Later, when I started volunteering and interning at the National Museum, New Delhi, as an undergraduate student I began to develop an utmost interest in pursuing the visual and performance traditions of pre-modern South Asia with particular interest in the Hindu-Buddhist exchanges.
After finishing my undergraduate degree in History at Delhi University, I had just enrolled myself to continue in its Masters programme when, given my leanings, one of my professors, Prof. Parul Pandya Dhar, shared with me the call for applications for the Courtauld's MA programme in Buddhist Art History and Conservation. This programme was everything I could ask for, with the perfect balance of Buddhist hermeneutics, art history and the concern for conservation. It offered the right foundations for what I foresee to be a lifelong pursuit. And what better place to pursue it than the Courtauld?
RK: You were part of the first cohort for the MA in Buddhist Art. Can you tell us about that experience?
AR: There had been previous batches for the MA in Buddhist Art before us, but this was the first time that the course was changed into a two-year programme co-taught with SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. This most certainly enhanced our learning experience- at the Courtauld we had guest lectures by some of the best art historians and conservators from across the globe along with the unstinted guidance of the brilliant conservation scientist Dr. Giovanni Verri as the course tutor, and at SOAS, we were taught by some of the best in the field of Buddhist Studies and Buddhist Art such as Professors Christian Luczanits, Vincent Tournier, Roderick Whitfield, Youngsook Pak and Ashley Thompson to name a few. Additionally, we had special gallery visits with curators at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum and had access to a wide range of study materials from across the libraries at the Courtauld, SOAS, the British Library and of course the museums across London and beyond. We had some of the most enlightening and memorable field visits to the Buddhist Silk Road sites in China and the ancient Buddhist wonders of the western Deccan in India. This enabled the cohort to pick and explore topics from around the Buddhist world and allowed for individual enquiries for coursework and dissertations.
The BMA 2017-2019 cohort with course tutor Dr. Giovanni Verri at Dunhuang, China
At the Courtauld working on the multispectral imaging of a wall painting fragment from Dunhuang, China
RK: Do you have any recommendations for students in London interested in seeing and learning more about Buddhist or other South Asian art?
AR: I don’t think I need to make any recommendations as London, quite evidently, has a lot to offer to South Asia specialists. There are various institutions which are repositories of not just objects and texts but also archives of colonial knowledge and contemporary state of affairs. There’s plenty of events and spaces - educational and otherwise - focusing on ancient and modern South Asian traditions. Among such meeting places, which indeed were very helpful for my coursework, were the India Art Circle and the Islamic Art Circle at SOAS which hold regular talks featuring new research in the subject, and the Sanskrit Reading Room Sessions, also at SOAS, where scholars working on translations are invited to read with a group of Sanskrit scholars and enthusiasts. Besides, once you're at the Courtauld or any other university in London, you cannot miss anything that’s of interest to you and happening around you.
RK: Do you think the Courtauld has already had an impact on your career since graduating in 2019?
AR: Yes, definitely! By the time I graduated from the Courtauld, I had developed what I now perceive to be a lifelong interest in the Arts of Southern Buddhism with an interdisciplinary approach on the visual materials, their technical analysis and a strong background into contemporary literary developments. I cannot thank enough this programme’s training in allowing me to make deeper and wider enquiries into not just Buddhist art, but also art history in general. Courtauld opened these doors for me and introduced me to many more ideas and inspirations which I hope to take up in future projects.
RK: What did you do between graduating and starting your PhD at Harvard?
AR: In the one year between graduating from the Courtauld and starting at Harvard, I was visiting the Pondicherry centre of the École française d'Extrême-Orient under the very kind and erudite guidance of Prof. Charlotte Schmid and Prof. G. Vijayavenugopal who introduced me to the world of Classical Tamil and Tamil Epigraphy, which I will continue to pursue during and after my PhD. Additionally, just before the pandemic hit us in India, I was also able to make some travels and documentations in Buddhist sites and museums in north India and Andhra, as well as visit medieval temples in Tamil Nadu associated with Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Bhakti traditions.
Some of us with Prof. Roderick Whitfield at the Maijishan Grottoes.
RK: What are you currently researching at Harvard? How has the pandemic affected your studies?
AR: At Harvard I am studying the trans-regional interactions of Buddhist material culture across the Indian Ocean. This is focused on locating Tamiḻakam in the South-Southeast Asian cultural encounters of Southern Buddhism. Given the structure of the PhD programme, I will be taking up coursework for the first two years, especially in non-South Asian fields, to be followed by more hardcore research on the topic identified above. Owing to the pandemic, I am attending to coursework distantly from India. This, however, has not had a direct ill-effect on my work-life because the university libraries and their affiliated archives are extremely generous and patient with their students who are currently spread across the globe.
RK: You’re in the early stages of your career- where do you hope to go from here? What’s your dream job in this field?
AR: I have always wanted to be in academia and research, and would love to teach in a university and curate exhibitions. I think the dream is to be able to pass on this ardour and admiration for the religio-artistic traditions of South Asia and keep the conversation going with the next generation.
At the Ajanta Cave 26 in India
Art historian, broadcaster, writer, publisher, lecturer, curator, and University Challenge winner – these are some of the many hats Jacky Klein (MA ‘01) has worn over her career. You may have seen her presenting on the BBC, heard her reviewing art on the radio, or watched her on Channel 5, where she is the consultant art historian for the new series, Secrets of the Royal Palaces. Read on to learn more about Jacky’s career, from navigating the Courtauld without an art history background to finally finding her place in the London art world.
Rachel Kubrick: What made you decide to do your MA at the Courtauld?
Jacky Klein: I chose the Courtauld and art history because I had had a gap year before university and I spent most of it on and off In Italy doing art history or archaeology. I was quite old - I was 19 - when I seriously started looking at art and getting interested in art history. Then when I went to Oxford (BA ‘99) to do a history degree I chose all the cultural history courses I possibly could; at the time you couldn’t do art history as an undergrad there.
When I was thinking of going back to college a couple of years later, art history seemed the obvious and immediate subject for me to choose. The Courtauld was the only place I’d heard of, so it was the only place I applied to! Luckily, I got a place on the Modernism MA with Chris Green and Shulamith Behr. I started that exactly 20 years ago, October 2000.
RK: How was that experience?
JK: Not coming from an art history degree, I have to say my first term was very tough. I probably was the weakest person in my group of ten of us. I remember having to scribble down terms in a slightly embarrassed way and then going off and looking them up, because I had no idea what chiaroscuro or pointillism was. I got into my stride really in the spring and summer terms. But it is a different discipline, looking at works of art and writing about them, even if you’re interested – as I already had been – in the cultural and historical context. So that was quite a challenge, but I totally loved it.
RK: What made you decide to do the European modernism course?
JK: Actually I first applied to do the course I’m about to start teaching on: the MA in Curating the Art Museum, though at the time it was more about museum history from the 18th century onwards. I originally chose that because I’d focused on 18th- and 19th-century history at Oxford, and I thought, ‘Okay, if I’m shifting into a new discipline, maybe I should choose an area I already know a lot about and love.’ I got offered a place but then I went away and realised that actually the art I most loved and wanted to know more about was modernism - artists like Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and the British modernists.
I was very lucky that they let me switch courses. I think it was actually on the day term started so it was all very last minute. But it was definitely the right decision. It was all very new, but my interest was kept alive because I loved the art, and I knew a bit about the history of the first and second world wars and the interwar period.
RK: Do you think the Courtauld helped you get to where you are now?
JK: Absolutely – especially for someone like me who had not done an art history undergrad degree. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to break into any bit of the art world without some art history qualification. It was my ticket for leading me into the career I’ve had.
Photo as MA student (2000-01)
RK: How did you start your post grad life?
JK: There weren’t many jobs advertised – but I saw on the Courtauld student notice board the trainee programs at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I applied for both of them and somehow got offered both of them. I accepted at Sotheby’s, but on the Friday before I was due to start, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh god, what am I doing?’ I was really interested in the research aspect of becoming a specialist in an auction house but I was really – and still am – not terribly interested in the mechanics of buying and selling artworks.
I felt awful, but I phoned them and said ‘I’m sorry but I don’t think I can take up the offer.’ That following Monday morning was a scary time because I thought, ‘What have I done?! I’ve just turned down a job and a good salary in an amazing auction house!’ But it also let me focus on thinking about where I really did want to work – which was in the public sector and in museums, which is mostly where I’ve been ever since.
I remember going to the Courtauld library and pulling out the Artists’ Yearbook, which was an annual directory of everything to do with the art world: the commercial galleries, museums, the manufacturers of art materials – everything. I went to the museums section in London and looked up every public museum that I had an interest in working for, and simply phoned each of them up in turn, before someone eventually caved and gave me some work experience.
That was the wonderful Emma Dexter in the exhibitions team at Tate Modern soon after it had first opened; she’s now Director of Visuals Arts at the British Council. And that’s where it all started really. One day turned into a few days, which turned into a week or two. I never had a proper contract but eventually I got paid a little bit. I managed to persuade them to pay me after I got a short term, paid curatorial assistant job at the Barbican. Then I could go back to Tate Modern and say, ‘the Barbican has managed to find a few pounds for me. Could you cough up a bit too?’ That turned into about a year of working at the Tate, split between exhibitions at Tate Modern and collections, then based at Tate Britain.
I wrote, for example, lots of the entries that you still see on the Tate website on the modern British works in the collection, which I loved doing because it was kind of like being a student again: it was research and writing. Then I got my first proper contract job as assistant curator at the Courtauld Gallery. That was where my curatorial career really started – and that then led to a job as exhibitions curator at the Hayward Gallery.
RK: Since then you have worked more in publishing and broadcasting. What made you switch sectors?
JK: I worked as a curator for about six or seven years, and I loved it. But for me, the bit that really excited me was the ideas, the research and working with artists. I was never particularly good at nor was I particularly interested in the logistical side of exhibition-making, like loan letters, structural engineering, or deciding on font size for the signage. All the practical stuff excited me a little less.
My relationship had started with the publisher Thames & Hudson when I was commissioned to write a book for them in 2007 on the artist Grayson Perry. That turned out to be a major moment in my career, and incredibly the third edition of the book just came out last summer. After I was commissioned to write it, I heard that the commissioning editor for art books was leaving and so I called up the managing director, a brilliant man called Jamie Camplin, and said, ‘Can I come and see you?’ I went into the meeting really just keen to know who would be steering my book, but he was ten steps ahead of me, and told me to apply for the commissioning editor role.
He took a massive punt on me because I had no experience in publishing. But I did have lots of good ideas, was a good writer, and as one of their authors, I was at least a little familiar with publishing contracts. Beyond that I knew absolutely nothing and was coming in at the most senior editorial level, which was incredibly daunting! But he was right, in that it felt very quickly like a much more natural fit for me and I loved it from the very first moment.
Publishing is a great mix of ideas and business: it’s very much about the content of the books you produce but it’s also very commercial because you’ve got to understand the gaps in the market, what readers and audiences want, and how you can make something new and special. You’ve got to have great relationships with authors, art historians, artists, and agents. And then you’ve really got to be able to look at a manuscript and say, ‘This is working,’ or ‘This isn’t working, let’s tweak it like this.’ I enjoyed that whole process from beginning to end.
Photo as MA student (2000-01)
RK: Can you tell more about the broadcasting and television part of your career?
JK: Everything that I’ve done – curating, publishing, writing, and broadcasting, has all been about wanting to communicate my knowledge and passion for art history to as wide an audience as possible. Broadcasting is a great way to do that because you tend to get much bigger public audiences than you would for a book or even a blockbuster exhibition. A few years ago, I started to make short online films for the Art Fund, helping them tell stories of major new exhibitions or creating short art history films. Then I got picked up to co-present the first series of BBC4’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. I have done a lot of radio reviewing for BBC Radio 4 on their arts show Front Row. And I’ve presented livestreams on major auctions for Christie’s, coming back full circle in a funny way to where my career might have started.
I’m in the process this spring of setting up a new digital broadcast platform with my sister Suzy Klein, who is a music broadcaster, trying to help fill the sadly widening gap in public service broadcasting around the arts and culture. Broadcasting is something I feel really passionately about. It’s a natural extension of a lot of the public-facing talks I did in galleries and museums.
Because I came to art history quite late, I felt growing up that this was a world which was totally closed to me. We never really went to museums or galleries when I was a kid, either with family or school. I think in a way, I was scared of museums: feeling like many people that they weren’t for me, that I didn’t ‘get‘ them, that I was intimidated. When that door was suddenly opened for me, it not only gave me an amazing feeling but it’s made me want to do that for other people.
RK: Who opened that door for you?
JK: I did this amazing course during my gap year, the John Hall Venice course. It’s still running and funnily enough I now teach on it in a rather lovely turn of events. There are probably some students right now at the Courtauld who went on it in their gap years. The course runs in Italy for about two months in the spring. Now they teach you about environmentalism, engineering, history, and all sorts of things, but when I did it, it was very focused on art, music and culture, specifically in Venice.
There was an initiation week in London and most of it was at the National Gallery. It was there, sitting in front of Titian’s painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, that I had my revelatory moment. Nicholas Penny, curator of Renaissance painting at the time, was talking about the work, its history, the mythology, the painted surface, the incredible life of the artist behind it – and that was the lightbulb moment for me. I could suddenly see that a painting wasn’t some strange secret but a world of knowledge, ideas and sensations – and that art history was the means to understanding and experiencing it. Even now, every time I go to the National Gallery, I spend time sitting in front of that picture: it’s become one of the key works in my personal, imaginary museum.
RK: Like a pilgrimage. It’s nice that you have a moment you can pinpoint.
JK: I think it’s because I was such a desert of knowledge beforehand that it was very memorable when that suddenly did happen!
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
RK: How have you stayed involved in the Courtauld?
JK: I have felt incredibly connected to the Courtauld since 2000. I came back from 2002 until 2004 as the assistant curator of the gallery collection, which was lovely. Since then I suppose it’s because there seems to be no part of the art world in which you don’t come across Courtauld graduates! I have been employed by people who went to the Courtauld, I have employed people who went there, I have made lifelong friends from my time there.
I even ended up editing a book by Chris Green, my tutor! It was great fun taking out the red pen and being able to gently get my own back on all his – albeit entirely justifiable – critiques of my writing.
I feel much more connected to the Courtauld than I do to Oxford, even though I was at Oxford for three years and at the Courtauld for only 9 months. It’s lovely to be coming back this spring, covering for Martin Caiger-Smith who’s on sabbatical and helping to oversee his students in their summer exhibition project. I can’t wait to meet them and get going.
RK: You just captained the Courtauld alumni team for the Christmas 2020 University Challenge. How was that experience?
JK: University Challenge runs all year round with proper students and it’s really difficult. At Christmas they do a more lighthearted version with alumni from various universities and 14 teams competing. It was a daunting experience, and stressful to try to have speedy memory recall while under the scrutiny of TV cameras, but I had a fantastic and fun team: Tim Marlow, director of the Design Museum, the artist Jeremy Deller who won the Turner Prize a few years ago, and the poet Lavinia Greenlaw.
It was lots of fun, though I must say mostly in retrospect! It feels like a nice little boost for the Courtauld in what’s obviously been a terrible year for all of us and for students. And a good opportunity to show a wider public that an art history education is a great thing!
RK: What advice would you give to current Courtauld students?
JK: The advice I'd probably give is to keep your mind open as to what direction you might take if you want to work in the art world. There is a wealth of different possibilities, from curating, research and conservation to marketing and PR, education, digital and many more. Some may seem more glamorous than others, but they're all essential to the workings of the art world and any one of them could be right for you, so explore all the options until you find one that feels the right fit for you.
Courtauld Alumni University Challenge Team 2020-21
To learn more about Jacky Klein, please go to her website.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This December, the Courtauldian Alumni Spotlights series traveled across the pond (via WhatsApp) to speak with Zachary Small. Based in New York City, Zachary has held staff positions for Hyperallergic and The Art Newspaper, and is currently a regular contributor to the New York Times. They graduated from the Courtauld MA History of Art program in 2018, after studying the avant-garde with Professor Sarah Wilson. We chatted to hear more about their career as a journalist.
Rachel Kubrick: Can you tell me about your Courtauld experience?
Zachary Small: When I applied for my Masters I had already been writing art criticism and reporting in the art world for several years. I had known based on my previous research that I wanted to focus on public art and the bureaucracy and the politics around that. Under Sarah’s guidance, I learned more about how monuments work in the public realm, focusing on several large projects like Thomas Hirschorn’s Gramsci Monument (2013) in the Bronx and Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Vienna (2000). What interested me about these projects is how they always required a buy-in from everyday people, which I think is at the crux of the projects and organizations I cover as a journalist.
RK: Did you write for The Courtauldian or other London based publications?
ZS: I didn’t write for The Courtauldian but I did write for a number of publications during my time in London. I was still writing for Hyperallergic when I was there. I also wrote for the Financial Times and the Times Literary Supplement.
RK: How has your experience at the Courtauld impacted your journalism career?
ZS: My first article for the New York Times, which ended up being something like 3,000 words, was on public art. That couldn’t have happened without the lessons I learned in the classroom and the research I did for my Masters thesis.
RK: You were already writing for several publications, so what prompted you to pack up and move to London for the Masters degree?
ZS: The art world is a place that constantly gatekeeps people, especially on the basis of education. I wanted to make sure that those barriers didn’t stop me from pursuing whatever path I wanted in the industry. But at the same time, I was also genuinely interested in continuing the research I was doing as a journalist in a space where I could breathe a bit easier.
RK: What advice would you give to current Courtauld students looking to get into arts journalism?
ZS: When I first started writing, I created all these barriers for myself. After my first article was published in Hyperallergic, I told myself, “I’m not allowed to do anything more.” Those self-imposed rules hindered my progress. “I can’t pitch to the New York Times yet because I’ve just written one article.” Or, “I should wait another month so they don’t get sick of me.”
In my experience, it’s less about having a stack of clips than having good intuition and the confidence to tell editors that you have found a story that is in the public interest. Pulling that off also requires taking a step back and considering how something immediate relates to the larger history around whatever industry you are covering. In the art world, that often means looking at gatekeepers and the people who have been excluded from the broad strokes of culture.
RK: What made you originally get into journalism?
ZS: When I was at Columbia University for my undergraduate degree, I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. I was initially focused on becoming a curator, but the fact that my family has no background in the arts meant that I was starting at a disadvantage in an industry that primarily hires based on who you know. When I graduated from Columbia, I started to think about how to stay involved in the art world. Analyzing culture from a political perspective had always interested me and I found that writing was the most democratic way of getting into the fray.
RK: What made you decide to follow a journalistic path rather than art criticism?
ZS: I started primarily writing art criticism, but over time it became clear that the field was changing. Being a critic is oftentimes about expressing your own opinion, but as a reporter you’re often providing a platform to others—giving a voice to the voiceless. In a moment when museums and galleries are just beginning to reckon with their long histories of racial discrimination and classism, I think that my efforts are better spent helping other people tell their stories.
RK: You were saying that you write for a lot of different publications. Today I saw that you published for NPR. How do you navigate what you pitch to different people?
ZS: There is a slight difference between writing for national outlets versus trade publications. The benefit of writing for trade publications is that you can dive a bit deeper into the weeds because your audience has a broader understanding of the industry’s players and how they operate. But what I really love about writing for somewhere like NPR is that your mandate is to explain the art world to the general public. It’s about the impact of culture on daily life. The best advice I’ve ever gotten from an editor is a reminder to ask subjects how art makes them feel. Working in the industry, we often forget that critical aspect of art.
But my pitches for both types of publications look the same. Right now, it’s typically about presenting research on communities that find themselves in difficult political situations or artist groups not typically covered by the press. I’m proud that in the last few months with the Times we have been able to cover the intersection of Black Lives Matter and culture; we have spotlighted artists in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Portland, Oregon, handing over the microphone to artists in those communities to tell us what’s happening.
RK: I originally came across your career on the @cancelartgalleries Instagram, which shared your Pace Gallery series from Artnet News. I would love to hear more about that story. How have you seen your role in breaking this story and how have people responded?
ZS: There was a frenzied period of the summer when I was reporting about the mass layoffs and furloughs happenings across the industry. My coverage included what was happening at Pace Gallery, which was important because of its top position in the commercial sector. After one of those articles, a source told me that we had underreported the number of furloughed staff. Then it became clear that a spokesperson at the gallery had initially misled me about the numbers. Misleading reporters is extremely common in the art world, but it’s a short-sighted strategy because someone always knows the truth. That mistake led to more than 20 interviews with current and former employees and the discovery of evidence that abuse and discrimination has proliferated at the gallery for decades.
Investigative reporting has always been a core component of my work. I approach stories like Pace Gallery or the one we published at the New York Times in January about allegations of sexual misconduct at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the same way. We are extremely careful and meticulous in our reporting. If it gets to my desk it’s pretty serious and it usually means that multiple people have made multiple attempts to alert their managers about an issue; usually, they have been silenced. In the aftermath of the Pace Gallery story, I had dozens of people private message me about their own experiences there—more feedback than I have ever had for a single article. And it was kind of stressful, to be honest, because it indicates that there is a wide swath of the art world that recognizes discrimination and abuse as part of the industry’s identity. As a journalist, I see my role as helping sources find the courage to bring their stories to the public and hold leaders accountable. The problem is larger than just one museum or one gallery. The commercial art world has expanded in such a way that family-run businesses are suddenly operating like multinational corporations with millions of dollars being transferred between some of the world’s most powerful people. That’s very high stakes in terms of reporting.
There are multiple avenues for people to vent their frustrations on social media, but journalism can be a stronger advocate of accountability. After our reporting, Pace Gallery has now launched a legal investigation on the company’s two top presidents. One of them is on an indefinite leave of absence from his job. The results of the investigation remain to be seen, but the article has certainly forced a reckoning for Pace executives that has impacted their relationship with artists and collectors.
RK: I’m just wondering, how old are you?
ZS: I am 27.
RK: So obviously you’re early in your career and it’s been pretty successful! But what do you see as the next step for you?
ZS: For now, I’m going to continue reporting and advocating for arts publications to broaden their coverage and the voices they represent in their pages.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
For our first Alumni Spotlight, The Courtauldian looks close to home with Alixe Bovey, Head of Research and our new Dean and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. Bitten by what she calls the “Courtauld bug,” Alixe returned to the Courtauld 15 years after completing her PhD in illuminated manuscripts in 2000. Before that she also earned her MA at the Courtauld, with both degrees supervised by Professor Emeritus John Lowden. Originally from Canada, Alixe has been around the UK medievalist block, curating at the British Library and teaching and researching at the University of Kent. We caught up with Alixe over Zoom to hear more.
Rachel Kubrick: Can you tell me a bit about your career since finishing your PhD?
Alixe Bovey: My first job was as a curator in the manuscripts department of the British Library where I spent four years. From there I went to the University of Kent where I was in the history department for the best part of a decade, and then I came back to the Courtauld. It’s a fairly simple career path in a lot of ways.
I specialized in art history but I’ve actually had quite an interdisciplinary career. The long spell in a history department probably suggests that, and I think a certain amount of that is attributable to the kind of research that I did as a graduate student but also to my undergraduate degree in Canada which was in history and medieval studies. In some ways the benefit to me of my Courtauld years was incalculable and hard to tease apart given that I’m back here now and have been since 2015. So I had 15 years of freedom (laughs) in pursuing other things before coming back.
RK: How do you think being a Courtauld student has impacted your career?
AB: The thing that helped me get the British Library position was that I focused in my PhD on medieval illuminated manuscripts and I had spent a huge part of my time as a researcher in the reading rooms of the British Library. The Courtauld was hugely enabling and so was John [Lowden] himself. In any career you have to play the hand you’re dealt and one of those hands that I dealt was a strong sense of network and an understanding of the kind of critical institutions in my field which certainly the British Library is the mainstay. It was really valuable. When I was a curator at the BL I remained involved with the Courtauld through a research group that John set up called the Research Centre for Illuminated Manuscripts. As a curator my capacity to undertake creative research was a little bit hampered. You’re a servant of a collection rather than independently formulated research questions. By maintaining a strong link to the Courtauld I was able to simultaneously exercise some of that. We put on some good and interesting conferences and some publications came out of that. That again was very enabling.
In a funny way I think the BL enabled me to get the job at the University of Kent – my experience at the BL helped me to move there. But I’m certainly not alone in moving from the Courtauld to a history setting. Some of my peers also have had really impressive careers outside of art history but within the academy. Art history: the anchor for me has been “history”, and there can be a pretty permeable boundary between these fields depending on how you position yourself as a scholar. Being able to work in a history department was partially a function of my time at the British Library and partly because I think the nature of my work at the Courtauld meant that I could hop between disciplines. I would say that the Courtauld enabled me to open a lot of doors and I think the thing for everyone is whether you want to walk through them.
With PhD students learning how to make enamel from grinded glass
RK: How has the Courtauld changed from when you were a student?
AB: In some significant ways it hasn’t changed in that as an organization its primary commitment is to research-driven teaching and curatorial practice. That is a primary foundation of the Courtauld. The fuel in the tank is research. When I was a student, the Courtauld was not an independent college of the University of London; it had a much tighter relationship with the University of London and certainly after I graduated it became an independent college. That was a major structural change but I think for most of us on the research/teaching/curatorial end one of the biggest developments was the innovation of the Research Forum which didn’t exist when I was a student. It came into being around the time of our independence 18 or so years ago. That allowed us to have a much sharper focus and a hub for the research activity that we undertook originating research projects and supporting them, and having a platform for people to share their research and progress it. From my vantage point that is one of the most significant changes and an incredibly positive development.
When I came in 1995 from a western Canadian university context what I was astonished by was its pretty unqualified focus on European and European diasporic art. As a student I found this really arresting. I came from an art history department which was much smaller than the Courtauld but had specialists in Japanese art, Indonesian art, First Nations Canadian art, so it was a bit of a culture shock. One of the most important changes over the past 10 or 12 years has been a return to the Courtauld’s roots in having a much more global engagement with art history. There are some interesting historical reasons for why the Courtauld retreated to Europe. Immediately and in the years after WW2 when SOAS came into being there was almost a sort of “do not compete” and our library collections in Asian and African art were given to SOAS. I think the way that the two organizations grew up that became harder and harder to justify from an educational perspective. Since I was a student there have been lots of appointments of specialists who couldn’t meet the description of European and European diasporic art history. That’s something that during my tenure I’ve really tried to progress and grow. It’s an ongoing and very motivating project.
RK: What made you decide to return to the Courtauld?
AB: It was a big decision to come back from University of Kent but also the most amazing professional opportunity. I came back as Head of Research which was a fantastic opportunity to refocus on art history and visual culture which attracted me to the Courtauld in the first place. As Head of Research I saw a real opportunity to extend the activity of the Research Forum so that it nourished not just advanced research and advanced researchers, but also shared art historical research with a much broader audience which is essential to the survival of our subject. That has been a main preoccupation of mine over the past five years and continues to be.
In one of her favourite places, the print studio
RK: Your most recent position is that of the Dean and you came into this position at a tricky time. How has that transition been and what are some of your aspirations for your tenure as Dean?
AB: I’m quite new in the role as well – I started at the beginning of September and a huge amount of bandwidth has been occupied by the really significant challenges of the present. What I want is for art history and conservation at the Courtauld to continue to be world leading in every respect. I think that we need the subject of art history to grow and change. We need to understand our subject as an interdisciplinary venture. We have an opportunity to foster a universal recognition that art history is everybody’s history and that every human endeavor that you can think of has a relation to art history and visual, material culture. Generally speaking, art history has accepted a narrative of itself as a discipline on the edge with a problematic and elitist history that is by nature Eurocentric. But I don’t see why the history of art should any less central than literature or history. In my role I suppose my biggest ambition is to nurture our research and teaching practice so that it can be interdisciplinary and international in its reach.
Sometimes it sounds like I’m playing Risk- we want this territory or bring me this other hemisphere, but there’s whole massive areas of inquiry that we haven’t really participated in. As a Canadian I think the most telling for me is contemporary Indigenous art, or indigenous art at all, which I would like us to have in the curriculum and on our radar. One way to do that is to bring it in through the Research Forum program to develop an appetite for it and to develop our own understanding.
RK: You’ve said before that you wanted the Courtauld to become more like an “art school” and I’m really interested in that idea. Can you share some of your thoughts on this?
AB:Okay so a few observations – art history as it’s generally practiced in academic departments is fundamentally a historicist and literary enterprise. It’s a literary practice- we conduct our arguments principally through words. We investigate the past, usually the human past.
One of the things that we do in the Courtauld in the conservation area is understand through making. I think that there is a very strong argument for a practice-based approach to art history. We’ve all been in a situation where someone has uttered a critical word on how an artist has failed to foreshorten the limb or made good or not good aesthetic judgements. I have a steeply rooted impulse to hand the art historian a pencil and say, “show me how they should have done it!” At the same time there are a lot of art historians who started out in art school.
Art history is taught in art schools as well, it’s just not taught with the same ends or by the same means that we teach it in our classrooms. Almost every studio practice that I’ve encountered covertly or overtly has a critical engagement with the art of the past often trying to understand - maybe not through asking social, historical questions or the sorts of questions that art historians ask - but questions that are serious historical questions none the less. There’s a curious gulf between the kinds of art histories that artists are interested in and the kinds of art histories that art historians are engaged in and maybe a kind of mutual misunderstanding.
I feel on some level that there is rich territory. There’s something to be gained by thinking creatively and dynamically. The other thing is that all artists are historians one way or another. The more that we can understand that the better. You can learn about art through the practice of making and the discipline of making. Sometimes ultimately what you learn is a greater sense of respect for what has been achieved by the art makers that we study. I have often developed my own interests by trying to understand how things are made. So when I think about what we can do at the Courtauld in terms of bringing a little bit more of creative practice into the curriculum, I suppose I have all of those agendas running through my mind.
One of the challenges we have a subject and certainly at the Courtauld is that it is a subject that doesn’t attract as many students from the whole of society. Why is that? I think there’s a lot of reasons for it. It doesn’t have a major presence in most high school curricula. That’s true in Canada, in the United States. That’s true here. Where people do learn art history is when they study art and design and maybe incidentally through history and literature. Most state schools in the UK don’t teach art history but they do have an art room. How do we create pathways for people into our subject who can’t find a way in? If we forge a tighter link with creative practice that might be one way.
Teaching stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.