Courtney J. Martin is interested in the roles of people who populate the world of art: critics, historians, curators, conservators, collectors, dealers, and the artists themselves. She is also very clear about where she connects: “Art historian. That is who I am. It is the only thing that I have ever wanted to do.”
Her first monograph is about Rasheed Araeen, a Pakistani civil engineer-turned-artist, critic, editor, and curator. “He was central to my dissertation as the founding editor of a journal called Third Text. We read a lot of Third Text in college in the 1990s, when post-colonial studies had arrived in the academy. I thought I knew a lot about him, but when I went to graduate school and started looking at the things he was writing about, it dawned on me that he always called himself an artist.”
For that monograph, Martin researched the sculpture that Araeen produced from his arrival in London in the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, when he began speaking more prominently about the voice of non-Western artists in British cultural institutions. “He was a minimalist sculptor who moved from sculpture into performance. His practice changed from one of art to politics. It was much later that he called himself a curator and began to be recognized for his curatorial work.”
Curators are recognized for their work more often now, including curatorial credits for exhibitions, but it is a fairly recent term. “Many museums in Europe did not widely use the term ‘curator’ until well into the 1980s,” Martin said. “In the U.K., there is still a position called ‘keeper,’ which is the literal sense of the term. The British Museum, for one, has keepers.”
Curatorial credits are not entirely a matter of recognizing creative contributions, Martin said. “With those credits comes the loss of invisibility. Invisibility allowed institutions to say that this is just the way that it is, when in fact there were choices being made. I think it is important for institutions not to act as if they are omniscient and their decisions are right. There are buying practices at stake, decisions at stake. What artists get to be in museums and what artists do not? Why do certain things get to be called art rather than artifacts? Someone has made a choice. Accountability goes with that crediting.”
Art culture, Martin said, is extremely important to the way a society functions and the way a society understands itself. Among the tasks of an art historian is to place works in their historical, intellectual context — in her case, modern and contemporary art.
“I’ll be teaching ‘20th-Century British Art.’ It’s a very new field; I am one of only a few scholars to identify as a 20th-century British specialist. British art is usually thought of as an 18th- or 19th-century field, but contemporary Britain is a large and interesting place.
“I also do sculpture studies — sculpture as a discrete object that requires its own discipline outside art history. I am hoping to teach a 20th-century sculpture course that will examine the discipline through materials: bronze, metals, plastics, paper, gold, wood. I try to take students to artist studios to see how these things are made. We will visit foundries, public art, museums, and private collections.”
Martin is an Oberlin graduate with a master’s in art history and criticism from SUNY–Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in the history of art from Yale. She comes to Brown from Vanderbilt, where she was assistant professor of art history. Prior to entering graduate school, she worked in the media, arts and culture unit of the Ford Foundation in New York. Brown, she said, always looked to her like a place that valued ideas and thoughts, a place that instilled a sense of thoughtfulness in both students and faculty. Even a faculty session on syllabus development, she said, was less about technique and production than about the major ideas that would define the semester.
“What I really liked was when people found out I was coming to Brown. The reaction was always positive: ‘Ah, Brown. That will be a great place for you.’”