“The best undergraduate department of art history in the country”: This is how New York Times art critic John Russell once described the Art History program at NYU. The Department was established to provide a rigorous and wide-ranging education in the many facets of the history and theory of art, a mission that its faculty continues to enthusiastically embrace. Students become familiar with global art from antiquity to the present. The Department offers courses in Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern, Contemporary, East Asian, South Asian, Islamic, Latin American, African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and Native American art, treating not only painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography but also graphic media, manuscript illumination, the decorative arts, and aspects of urban design. The Department is one of the few undergraduate programs in the country that also features extensive offerings in conservation and museology. The myriad museums, galleries, and local architectural sites make New York City the ideal place in which to study the visual arts on site, in the flesh. Beyond New York, art history courses are offered at the university’s various abroad sites, such as Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, and Prague.
The Department offers two undergraduate majors and minors, one in Art History and another in Urban Design and Architecture Studies (URDS). The specific course requirements are outlined in detail on the Department’s website. Since an education in the history of art can be enhanced by a firsthand understanding of its making, Art History majors also are allowed to minor in Studio Art through courses offered in the Steinhardt School. The Department publishes its own student journal (Ink & Image) and has an honors program, which culminates in the writing and oral defense of an honors thesis during the student’s senior year.
Art History graduates have proven exceptionally successful in securing positions in museums, commercial galleries, auction houses, and nonprofit organizations. Those who go on to undertake graduate study typically pursue careers as curators, conservators, and academic art historians at the university and college level. Students majoring in URDS are well prepared for graduate study in architecture, urban planning, and historic preservation. For more information, please contact the Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies.
History of the Department
The modern history of our Department began with the arrival of Professor H. W. Janson in 1949. As a young man studying art history in Germany in the 1930s, he found that the Nazi government made it impossible to work with the leading scholars in the field, many of whom had been fired from their university posts because they were Jewish or because they were political opponents of the regime. Many of the dismissed scholars emigrated to the United States, and Janson followed them here. After earning his Ph.D. at Harvard he began to teach at Washington University in St. Louis before arriving at New York University. He became chair of the undergraduate art history department at Washington Square (then known as the Department of Fine Arts) and also taught graduate courses at the Institute of Fine Arts on East 78th Street. Janson was a leader in the profession of art history, serving as chairman of varied organizations and committees, and editing numerous publications. In addition to his scholarly books and articles, mostly devoted to sculpture, he published in 1962 his superb History of Art, now in its seventh edition. He was also a distinguished photographer, especially of sculpture.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, all undergraduates in the College of Arts & Science were required to take a course in art history or music. A substantial majority of students elected art history. The students enjoyed learning the basics, art history became a popular major, and the Department grew to meet the increased demand for advanced courses. Janson assembled a faculty distinguished for its combination of serious scholarship and committed teaching. This combination has remained a hallmark of the Department ever since. Among the distinguished art historians whom he brought here were Jane Costello, Anne Coffin Hanson, Isabelle Hyman, Sarah Landau, Irving Lavin, Robert Rosenblum, Lucy Freeman Sandler, Gert Schiff, Marvin Trachtenberg, and Guy Walton. (As this list suggests, Janson hired women to teach at a time when art history was largely a masculine profession, except at women’s colleges.). Present and former faculty members have published seminal books and articles in every area of art history, curated exhibitions at important museums, edited scholarly journals and books, and consulted on educational television and film. (Some of their publications are on display in the vitrines outside the departmental office.). They have served as presidents of the College Art Association and the Society of Architectural Historians and are Fellows and Academicians of leading scholarly institutions.
The 1970s were years of dramatic change at New York University. The new Bobst Library, on Washington Square South, was completed in 1973. NYU consolidated its resources at the Square, selling its University Heights campus in the Bronx to City University. Phyllis Pray Bober, who had been in charge of art history at the Heights from 1967 through 1973, left NYU to become dean at Bryn Mawr College. Before leaving, however, she contributed to an Urban Design and Architecture Studies Program, originally conceived by Carol Krinsky, that would combine architectural, urban, and political history with studies of decision-making, technology, planning, landscape, and historic preservation as they affect the built environment of cities. After Bober’s departure, her colleagues at the Square, with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, developed the program into a full-fledged major.
Meanwhile, having seen NYU professor Peter Chelkowski on the TV program “Sunrise Semester,” Mrs. Abby Weed Grey of St. Paul, Minnesota, decided to give NYU her collection of modern Iranian, Turkish, and Middle Eastern art. In 1975, a generous endowment from Mrs. Grey allowed the university to create the Grey Gallery on the ground floor of the main building (now Silver Center) and to begin refurbishing the art history department on the third floor of the building. Hitherto, students had attended class in uncomfortable rooms on the building perimeter, with the windows painted black so slides could be shown. The lecture and seminar rooms were now transferred to the interior of the building, while the professors’ airless offices were traded for comfortable spaces with views of Washington Square. The Department’s renovation culminated in 1979 with the opening of The Grey Fine Arts Library and Study Center, where students could work in a well-lit, well-equipped room with comfortable furniture, reference works, slide tables, and now computers. Students have also benefited from the opportunity to learn about museum work by serving as interns at the Grey Gallery, which has mounted many important exhibitions.
When Professor Janson took over the Department, “art history” generally meant Western art history, although we did offer some courses on Far Eastern art, taught by Penelope Mason. During the distinguished chairmanships of Janson’s successors, Lucy Freeman Sandler (chair 1975-1988) and Edward Sullivan (1990-2003), we expanded our course offerings to include the arts of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the South Pacific. The requirements for the major were changed to include at least one course on non-Western art. Exciting progress has been made in diversifying the Department's course offerings and faculty hires during the chairmanships that have followed: Kenneth Silver (2004-7); Pepe Karmel (2008-10); Kathryn Smith (2011-13); and Dennis Geronimus (2014-present).
The Department anticipates further growth and change under the current chairmanship of Professor Geronimus. NYU’s continuing expansion presents us with new opportunities and challenges. Attracted by the excitement of the New York art world, many NYU students are eager to learn about art history. As the College becomes more closely integrated with other parts of the University, we are welcoming students from Tisch, Steinhardt, Gallatin, Stern and numerous programs in the college itself (Anthropology, Classics, History, East Asian Studies, the German, Italian, and Spanish Departments, to name a few) into our courses. We share faculty with Tisch Photography and with the Museum Studies Program. An increasing number of our students write senior honors theses, taking special seminars on methods of research and writing, and meeting regularly with a faculty advisor. Each spring, the student-run Fine Arts Society organizes a Career Day at which professors, alumni, and friends of the Department explain What to Do with an Art History Major, discussing their experiences working in museums, galleries, auction houses, public relations firms, historic preservation organizations, architects’ offices, real estate companies, and other organizations. Meanwhile, the Department is adapting to 21st-century technology: transforming our slide collection into a digital image database, designing web sites to accompany our courses, taking full advantage of social media (blog, Instagram, and Facebook), and producing a documentary film as a first step in maintaining a visual archive that preserves and celebrates our program's institutional memory.