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Interview: Professor Joanna Woodall, or how to be in the world as an academic

Joanna Woodall is a leading expert on Early Modern Netherlandish Art, with a strong commitment to teaching students about methodologies and the theoretical foundations of art history. Joanna read History and Art History at the University of York and The Courtauld Institute, and held research fellowships at the Universities of Cambridge and Leiden during her PhD. She also worked as a curator for three years at Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford before becoming a Lecturer in Netherlandish Art at The Courtauld Institute in 1986, where she completed her PhD. Since her student years, Joanna has tried to be ‘in the world’ as she says, and so she has been. This piece is based on two long discussions with Joanna who, very generously, answered our questions in detail and told us what it has been like for her to be an academic at The Courtauld since the 1980s.

Can you describe your arriving at The Courtauld Institute as a Lecturer in seventeenth-century Netherlandish Art? It seems surprising since during your PhD you focussed more on the sixteenth-century Habsburg court?

I was appointed as a lecturer to teach in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Art at The Courtauld before the end of my PhD. This already shows you how things have changed. I had been doing research as a Leverhulme Fellow in the Netherlands in 1985-6 and I spoke Dutch but my PhD was on a sixteenth-century Dutch painter at the Habsburg court, Anthonis Mor. So seventeenth-century Dutch art was not really my speciality. I suppose I was offered the position more on the basis of my potential. This conception of wider fields of expertise corresponds to the way of teaching in the USA but it was unusual in The Courtauld at the time.

During your PhD you travelled abroad and worked as a curator for a few years. Why did you choose to do so and what challenges did you face?

When I was working on my PhD, I was also attracted by curatorial work. I felt it was important for me to be in the world, to address an audience, to communicate and share ideas. Writing little exhibition catalogues at Chirst Church was good for that. I strongly believe that we should help PhD students to be emancipated, to enable them to become our colleagues with professional skills. In those years, PhD students were more independent as researchers because they were allowed more time to complete their theses and the scope of their projects could be wider. Supervision was much lighter, maybe three times a year, rather than twice a term as now, and there was no formal research training. Today there are more applicants and less money – about 12% of the population went to University in the 80s – and during my PhD I was very lucky to receive the Speelman and Leverhulme Fellowships as well as government funding! On the other hand, once I started at The Courtauld, no quarter was given and it was very hard to find the time and mental space to write a book from my research. I published my thesis only much later - Antonis Mor: Art and Authority - and by then my thinking had changed so it was not easy.

2015 saw the publication of ‘Picturing the Netherlandish Canon’, as a Courtauld Book Online. After its success, we would like to know whether you have more online projects in the pipeline.

I have always had an interest in portraiture and the idea of presence in works of art so after the book on Mor, I turned towards a series of portrait prints of Netherlandish artists published in 1610. I felt they were used in a restricted way because of the challenging Latin inscriptions so the initial idea was to ask a neo-Latinist, Daniel Hadas (King's College London), to translate the texts. Then Stephanie Porras and I realised this would be useful for everybody, and so we thought of making a publication. The idea of learning how to do this online and creating a more interactive tool for research soon attracted us. We received a £7,000 British Academy Small Research grant and support from The Courtauld to build a website and the project was undertaken in-house at The Courtauld by the website manager Eva Bensasson. I particularly like the way the website encourages thinking in non-narrative ways thanks to its layered structure. That really suits my way of thinking. It is fundamentally a resource for people to use as they wish. Stephanie and I contributed essays on the series and these, together with an introduction, were ultimately published as an online book by The Courtauld but we kept it closely linked to the website. This was a one-off, unconventional project but I really enjoyed it. (you will find Joanna’s website here)

So much must have changed since you began teaching in 1986. In your opinion, what have been the biggest changes? Is there anything you particularly miss?

In the 1970s Leeds University was the centre of a radical challenge to traditional art history; The Courtauld responded to it in the 1980s. The academics who arrived at the Institute at about the same time as me were shaped by ‘the new art history’. These included David Solkin, the former Dean, Caroline Arscott and Tamar Garb, who is now a Professor at UCL. Some of their work was controversial, for example David’s exhibition on Richard Wilson, and there was a lot of tension and even animosity between colleagues because people ‘personalised methodological differences’. Academics were not professionalised in the same way as they are today, and The Courtauld supported intellectual autonomy rather than promoting a party line. On the other hand, there has always been a strong tradition of caring about our students and establishing relationships that enable each of them to fulfil their individual potential. The animosity gradually evolved into a positive, liberal environment that celebrates the diversity of approaches within the Institute.

Today we see the need for building a closer community, with Courtauld Connects for example, and the Research Forum also helps in that sense. Many more women have joined the staff since the 1980s and a general professionalisation has taken place – by preparing detailed course documents for example. In the last ten years, The Courtauld, like any other university, has shifted more towards being a business, something that was unconceivable in the 1980s. The Institute moved to Somerset House in 1990 and the number of students has increased dramatically. This year the BA curriculum has been redesigned to respond to these new circumstances, whilst maintaining our traditional commitment to research-led teaching and student-centred learning. When I give a lecture, I try to engage students to think for themselves and not take what I say for granted. The growing number of students and the monetarisation of teaching pose a great threat to all universities and I think the understanding that there are values apart from money is in danger of being lost. Today, what is being bought and worked for is more a set of skills, a way of thinking. Teaching in age of the internet is not so knowledge-based anymore; it is about critical thinking and the inculcation of professional standards. That has influenced my way of teaching as well.

In the Courtauld you play a valuable role as a personal tutor, what have been the difficulties of juggling with many responsibilities as well as your research?

Looking back, I have worked hard. I only took a few months off when I had my two children and more recently there have been periods when I have felt the threat of burning out. There are times when everybody in the Courtauld, as in other universities, works more than their contracted hours – the legal limit on working hours in the UK is 48 hours per week. My job includes research, teaching and administration work, so it is quite varied. We also have the huge advantage of flexibility and control over our own time. During the ‘vacations’, for example, we concentrate on research. I have never taken all my annual leave as holidays, as I am sure it is true for my colleagues. That said, I believe that we, academics, need to put boundaries to the internalised pressure always to work and publish more. In response to the Research Excellence Framework - a periodic audit of higher-education institutions, which get star-rated and receive government funding according to the quality of the research their academics have published – each one of us wants to contribute to the Institute’s future. So it is really important to have a ‘vocation’ when becoming an academic, but also to keep a sense of personal identity outside one’s job. This is why I think we need to train PhD students to learn how to be professionals, to gain the necessary skills.

I was Deputy Director of The Courtauld for three years from 2002 and that was a very heavy administrative load, albeit much less than the Dean’s job is now. People tend to enjoy administrative tasks less than research or teaching but it is part of the job; and now recognised as necessary to be promoted. Personally, I find it quite creative; it is another way for me to be in contact with people, to improve and promote the institution. Historically, the tradition of individual scholarship within The Courtauld meant that it has been a challenge to develop large collaborative projects for external funding, but since the advent of the Research Forum in 2002, there is much more internal support for developing such applications.

This year, as well as two MA courses, you teach and have designed the BA2’s Frameworks lectures. The latter includes a discussion of feminist issues. Do you feel that your gender has affected your career or approach to Art History?

I do not think of myself as an explicitly feminist academic but ‘I work from them’ and an awareness of gender informs my analysis. The publication of ‘Manifestations of Venus. Art and Sexuality’ edited by Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott in 2000 was important to me. It was a collaborative project with a political dimension, produced by Courtauld Women Teachers, a group created to discuss what it meant to be a women teacher at The Courtauld in the late ‘90s. My personality and approach to teaching is inseparable from the fact of being a woman. When I was first appointed, I felt that the concept of the Academic was implicitly masculine, rather like the concept of the Artist. ‘I couldn’t identify with it.’ In a way, my feminism is more a practical one.

I regard it as positive that I have lived and taught in a different way from the way in which I was taught, because the conditions are different. I strongly believe Art History contributes to the world being a better place and for me it helps people connecting with one another. It is a tool to be in the world. Art is extremely valuable for that. I feel that it has become more and more important to state this explicitly today.

What would you consider the highlights of your career and is there any encounter or exhibition that has particularly influenced you?

Most of the less conventional projects I undertook were quite accidental. I learned a lot from them and enjoyed them enormously. They often involved a collaborative experience. In 2005 I co-curated an exhibition at the National Gallery called ‘Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary’ with Anthony Bond, and I decided to design the MA I was teaching that year around the exhibition. The students got involved in thinking about the hang and writing entries for the catalogue and they really loved it. It was a fantastic experience, with a lot of risk-taking. Likewise, I have been a member of the editorial board of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek for ten years. The journal has an annual theme and one of its functions is to support young scholars in preparing their work for publication. Seeing these projects come to completion has been hard work, but truly rewarding.

I feel to belong to a community of scholars working on Early Modern and Netherlandish Art and History. My colleagues at The Courtauld and University College have introduced me to new ideas and materials and have influenced my way of thinking. As for exhibitions, it is impossible to choose, but ‘The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700’ at the National Gallery And ‘ATLAS: how to carry the world on one’s back?’ in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, are memorable for me. At the moment, William Kentridge’s current exhibition at the Whitechapel is really astonishing.

Lastly, how do you see the future of higher education and research and how they can be influenced by current affairs?

Today values and beliefs I have taken for granted are increasingly challenged. I have great faith in people’s rational, creative and critical potential but I am beginning to wonder whether in future this will be centred in the humanities in traditional universities. We need to be clear about why we are doing what we do and to talk about this with students. It is not enough to teach them a ‘body of knowledge’ and receive fees from them. We need to discuss these things with them. When the government decided to raise the tuition fees to £9,000 a year, The Courtauld student body strongly reacted and a real sense of community emerged. Today I think we are facing fundamental challenges; we need to decide how we will respond to them.

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