OpEd | HECAA at 25 Conference Recap

Posted in conferences (summary), opinion pages by Editor on November 6, 2018

Back home from the HECAA at 25 Conference in Dallas, I feel my mind still whirling from what was perhaps the best conference I’ve ever attended. As strange as it may sound, a previous contender for me had been CSECS 2001 in Saskatoon, which included an extraordinary panel on ‘Post-Mortem Investigations: Then and Now’, organized around Samuel Johnson’s autopsy, a session that included not only Anita Guerrini, Helen Deutsch, and John Bender but also medical doctors and a dissected corpse(!), all with an eye toward anatomical similarities and differences across the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. The HECAA at 25 Conference brought the past and present into conversation in no less compelling ways, even with no cadaver. Indeed, I’m left with a clear distillation of something like pure vitality.

Having edited Enfilade since 2009, I’m aware of how irregular it is for me to chime in with anything more than a few words introducing a posting. From the start, I was keen to build a platform for the sharing of news related to the long eighteenth century with a very light editorial voice. In 2009 blogs were often derided as self-indulgent means for sharing breakfast and shampoo preferences, and I was set on staying out of the way. If it was clear to me that there were lots of exciting things happening in the field of eighteenth-century art, architecture, and visual studies, it was equally true that we as scholars were doing a particularly bad job of telling others (even ourselves) about those exciting things. Building out that communication piece seemed like a useful service to HECAA.

Rather stupidly, I hadn’t grasped that the nature of the web would very quickly transform a communication mechanism built for a small organization into one with a world-wide audience. And yet, if HECAA members constitute only a small minority of Enfilade readers, the connection between the platform and the organization remains important. And that’s why I feel compelled to report back about the conference. The views shared here are entirely my own as I am in no way speaking for the organization. And crucial, I think, for everyone reading—even if you aren’t a HECAA member—the successes of the conference readily pertain to other academic events.

Three things stand out for me: coherence of the program, communicative opportunities thoughtfully embedded into the schedule, and connections with extraordinary works of art and artifacts added not simply as incidental after-thoughts. First, the very simple decision to include no concurrent sessions meant that participants had a shared experience over the course of the three or four days. It meant that sessions unfolded as part of an ongoing conversation. It meant that the usual conference chaos resulting from choices (where am I trying to go? What did you just hear? You should have been in that session!) was entirely abrogated. Revelatory plenary addresses by Melissa Hyde and Daniela Bleichmar weren’t exceptional events that brought everyone together but extended versions of the kinds of talks others gave (amazing talks actually), with all of us engaged together. Second, time for good conversations, in a variety of settings, was carefully planned. Along with the usual coffee and lunch breaks, there were lively receptions, a boisterous evening of food and drink (with the restaurant all to ourselves and dinner served family style), and as an experiment of sorts, structured break-out sessions with preassigned groups. The efficacy of the group discussions presumably varied, but the activity stands out for me as hugely successful. Some of the most interesting ideas I heard discussed all weekend came out there (thanks goes not only to my group’s facilitators Amber Ludwig and Susanna Caviglia but also Aaron Wile for asking an opening question that couldn’t have been more effective). Third, time for looking at art was built into the schedule, with opportunities for exploring the strong holdings of the Meadows Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Kimbell Art Museum. How many art historical conferences have I attended where actual art was absent from the schedule? Too many.

All three qualities are widely applicable, and organizers should consider them. But there’s another crucial point to all of this, and it’s central to why I’m writing: the conference worked because HECAA is an amazing community of scholars. The final session on Saturday was aimed at thinking about the future of the field of eighteenth-century art studies. It was thought-provoking and (interestingly) the point at which some of the most significant points of difference emerged. To that conversation, I would like to add a modest addendum. For any discussion of what the ‘field’ might best do in the next five, ten, or twenty-five years is necessarily premised on there being a community to do that work. And here, I’m careful not to conflate HECAA with the whole study of eighteenth-century art and architecture (readers of Enfilade prove the point). But it’s no small matter to build a vibrant academic society characterized by goodwill, intellectual hospitality, and the nurturing of scholars along all stages of a career.

That should be celebrated, even as it also bestows responsibilities, obligations to both the present and the future. Organized by Amy Freund—brilliant and indefatigable—the conference underscores the impact an individual can have for a community (with thanks to all who served on the organizing committee). Taking a long view, HECAA has benefited tremendously from founding members who have remained committed to the organization for decades. The impact of Mary Sheriff was profound. I also can’t help mentioning Michael Yonan, who deserves the lion’s share of credit for what the organization has become; he was an enormously effective president at a time when things could have taken a rather different turn. Other officers—treasurers Jennifer Germann and Christina Lindeman and our current president Amelia Rauser—have been adept and sagacious. J18, an online journal affiliated with HECAA, launched by Noémie Etienne, Meredith Martin, and Hannah Williams offers another example of a few people making a huge contribution.

My point is that scholarship—whether conducted by the university professor, the museum curator, or the independent scholar—is a communal activity. My plea as we think forward to the future of HECAA is how to further cultivate that conviviality. I want to say very clearly that HECAA’s health didn’t just happen; examples of numerous academic organizations, big and small, in decline reinforce the point. As conversations happen around delineating future goals and projects, I would here note just one priority that resonates for me (admittedly one among several): widening the membership base with an egalitarian eye toward inclusion. The future of higher education will depend not only on tenured-track positions but ever growing numbers of affiliated faculty and adjuncts. I deeply want HECAA to be an intellectual home for independent scholars, for instructors at community colleges, a welcome place not only for curators at large museums but also directors of small house museums and members of the heritage community, for scholars who will have limited travel budgets for conferences. The goal is perfectly aligned with the core values of the organization. Conversations, for example, about how or why everyday museum visitors may feel comfortable or uncomfortable, at home or alienated by eighteenth-century exhibitions go directly to questions of higher education and the museum landscape broadly conceived. I want the field to matter not only for students at a prestigious liberal arts college or an R1 university, and part of that project means building out a wider community of scholars and museum professionals. Addressing how the eighteenth century matters today requires us to attend to questions of audience, constituency, and sociability.

The HECAA at 25 Conference manifestly demonstrated the organization’s capacity to be a profoundly supportive, stimulating community. Thanks to all of you who have helped forge that community. Thanks to all of you who were there in Dallas for such an extraordinary conference.

Craig Hanson

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