Gathered in the Art Institute of Chicago’s conservation examination room, art history graduate students from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University watch closely as the Art Institute’s Assistant Paintings Conservator Kelly Keegan (second from right) and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist Francesca Casadio (far right) reveal fascinating details from Francescuccio Ghissi’s “The Crucifixion” (c. 1370) tempera on panel. (Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded three grants totaling nearly $1.3 million to three of the Chicago area’s premier institutions — Northwestern, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago — to enhance the study of art history through a focus on working with art objects.

This unprecedented, four-year, inter-institutional pilot effort, known as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chicago Objects Study Initiative (COSI), will provide doctoral students in art history from both universities with new or significantly enhanced coursework and training in objects-based art history research. It will also increase their access to works of art drawn from the Art Institute’s renowned permanent holdings — works both on view and in storage — as well as fully leverage the expertise of the museum’s curatorial and professional staff.

“We are very grateful to the Mellon Foundation for encouraging us to think creatively,” said Jesús Escobar, chairperson and associate professor in the department of art history at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Our three institutions work collaboratively in a number of ways, but the planning of the Chicago Objects Study Initiative alone has sparked so many new ideas. I look forward to seeing how the program will enhance the graduate student experience of studying art history at the doctoral level in Chicago.”

Thanks to this new initiative, emerging art historians will receive rigorous training in the techniques, materials, and physical properties of works of art as part of their curriculum, as well as develop related research skills. By emphasizing curatorial practice and providing in-depth exposure to conservation and conservation science approaches to objects and materials, the program addresses a professional need for broadening instruction in the discipline of art history.

The program will prepare Northwestern and UChicago graduate students to consider works of art as primary sources for original research; it also will give students the tools, skills and experiences needed to prepare them for positions in museums, libraries, or other research settings involving collections.

Students will be given direct access to works of art through visits to the Art Institute’s art storage areas, to be overseen by a newly created position — the Mellon Academic Curator — and supported by a dedicated art-handling technician. The two universities also will have expanded access to classroom space at the Art Institute where faculty can hold on-site sessions for graduate-level classes in addition to an objects and materials seminar.

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