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Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and the Future

In October, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University brought together art historians, non-profit professionals and art publishers for a symposium not only on the new phenomena of publishing traditional art historical scholarship online, but on how it relates to publishing digital humanities in art history online. Organized by the online art journal, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide and funded by the Samuel Kress Foundation and the NYU Center for Humanities, the symposium was wide reaching and certainly a worthy and necessary discussion on the progress art history is making to catch up to other disciplines in this arena.


“Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and the Future,” held on October 21st at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, began with an introduction by Professor Patricia Rubin. A professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, Dr. Rubin began the event with a mission statement. She stated, “What the new technologies has done to our practices as writers, researchers, publishers, and readers is something that has to be contended with.” The event that proceeds, an event that includes a keynote address by Getty Publications’ Greg Albers, and two roundtables parsing the effect of the new digital tools on the writing and publishing of art historical scholarship, deftly dissects the issues and ways that art history has lagged behind the social sciences in utilizing technology, how it is catching up, and how it will go about preparing the next generation of art historical scholars to best publish their work.

Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, Elizabeth Buhe, digital humanities editor at Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, a scholarly e-journal that centers on nineteenth-century art and one of the organizers of the event, echoed Dr. Rubin statements. She then thanked the “invisible labor” that is often associated with digital publishing before introducing Dr. Jonathan Hay, a professor of art history at the Institute of Fine Arts who is spearheading an effort to expand open access to digital publishing.

Dr. Hay’s comment highlighted the state of “digital art history,” beginning with what he felt is the definition of digital art history. According to Dr. Hay, digital art history is “whatever we choose to make of it,” meaning that a definition is not as integral as the work this early in its development. Digital publishing, he states is similarly open ended in its definition and important to the progress of digital art history. Hay also makes the point that digital art history and digital publishing will only be allowed to flourish and define itself if it is allowed to by “the academy.” Humorously, Dr. Hay points to the academy’s rush to establish rules and definitions on digital art history and digital publishing and warns that universities and professional organizations will rush to assess the new technology. He urges young academics that might be reluctant to take risks on digital publishing and alternative modes of presenting research and who might be tempted to simply replicate print methods digitally. In the end, he urges young academics to be innovative and allow the traditional publishing method to “organically” adapt to the digital and he also urges collaboration between senior academics and younger scholars.

Dr. Hays remarks served as an introduction for Greg Albers, Digital Publications Manager at Getty Publications, and an advocate for digital publishing having created The People’s E-book, a web application used to create e-books, and founded Hol Art Books, an independent digital publishing house. In the opening moments of his talk, he declared digital publishing the future and proceeded to go back to the beginning, tracing the technological advancements in publishing from paper to e-books. He urged the audience of mostly academics and publishers to learn to code, as the material for books have evolved from paper to coding languages. Albers’ talk touched on the ways in which digital publishing in art history can evolve from one-off projects to become the norm. He poses the philosophical question of how the “objectless” digital book can retain the qualities of a physical book. Albers’ talk also touched on distribution and digital preservation, but it boiled down to the fact that digital publishing is the future not just of art historical scholarship and scholarship in general, but of publishing as a whole.

Albers’ keynote was followed by a panel discussion entitled “Writing, Creating, Editing,” and participants included Anne Helmreich, Dean at the College of Fine Arts, Texas Christian University, Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe, Academic Technologist for Instructional Technology at Carleton College and a Ph.D. Candidate at George Mason University, and Christopher Howard, Managing Editor at the College Art Association. The discussion is marked by the question of how the new digital and technological modes of publishing has affected the their process of writing and editing. Anne Helmreich, who co-authored an article entitled “Local/Global: Mapping 19th Century London’s Art Market” with Bowdoin College’s Pamela Fletcher that was published at Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, utilized network analysis early on in their process. Helmreich asserted that a digital environment felt more appropriate for the project and that network analysis allowed them to answer more questions. Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe was writing a born digital dissertaition entitled “They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945-1980” stated that the traditional dissertation structure was restricting in that her work encompassed many fields outside of art history including disability studies and visual culture that the digital nature of the project allowed her to cover the full scope of the topic. Christopher Howard, a blog publisher, offered that the digital publishing tools that being used have existed for years. The panel touches on collaboration (Tường Vy Sharpe, discovered early that her research would have to involve archivists and librarians), peer review, and how to teach digital humanities to art history students.

The second and final panel was entitled “Publishing” and included panelists Colby Chamberlain, contributing editor at Triple Canopy, Martina Droth, Deputy Director of Research and Curator of Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art and Editor at British Art Studies, Betty Leigh Hutcheson, Director of Publications at the College Art Association, Meredith Martin, Associate Professor of Art History at NYU and editor of Journal18, and Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director of Research at the Paul Mellon Centre and Editor at British Art Studies. The panelists all touch on their projects they have worked on, but the major theme that emerges is open access journals and the issues it addresses including preservation, aesthetics and user experience.

The event in its totality provided a wealth of first hand testimony relevant to scholars who utilize digital humanities and to DH students. Art history, due to its visual nature, is finally catching up to other disciplines in this respect and it was eye opening for scholars, writers, and publishers in art history to reckon with the new digital landscape. According to Michael Greenlaugh in “Art History” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, “Although computing for art historians is considerably simpler now than it was ten or twenty years ago, many problems remain, and they still revolve around communication, expertise, and finance.” A recurring sentiment, echoed throughout the event is that of willingness on the part of older scholars to learn new techniques, younger scholars to risk their careers, and the academy as a whole to consider digital humanities and digital publishing as worthy.

Funding, user experience, open access to journal articles, and digital preservation are also some major topics that were discussed that are also relevant to any conversation on digital humanities, regardless of discipline. For the panelists, many working in non-profit organizations, funding is central as is the question of open access. In “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” Todd Presner urged “the democratization of culture and scholarship.” For many in the arts, as indicated by the panel, that means seeking grant funding or, in the case of the College Art Association and the Paul Mellon Centre, aligning with publishers and university presses. How users interact with the site on their laptops, tablets or iPads, and even smart phones was also discussed as was the preserving scholars’ work which is significantly complicated by the fact that a website is harder to maintain than a book made of paper.

While any one of these issues can be the subject of their own nearly three hour discussion, the Institute of Fine Arts provided an informed overview of these issues as it relates to art historical scholarship. As Greg Albers declared in his keynote, digital publishing is the future of publishing and it is no longer a question of if but when that will be a reality. For the arts non-profit professionals, students and academics who participated and attended, this question is important to their work and “Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and the Future” smartly added to the conversation surrounding digital humanities and art historical scholarship.

Link to the live streamed event here

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