SCAH Graduate Advocacy Committee Position Statement



Position Statement, Summer/Fall 2012


In the contemporary climate of escalating professional and market demands combined with the increasing instability of universities, museums, and the economy, what is the role of a Graduate Student Advocacy Committee?

As universities seek to make the PhD more efficient and profitable by “nudg[ing] students out the door” more quickly, graduate work is ever subject to new measures of efficiency, and graduate students are under increasing pressure to tailor their first scholarly projects to the ends of job and publishing markets we are told will be bleak, competitive, and volatile. We have all become accustomed to living, working within, and preparing for what Louis Menand has called an academic “‘culture of realism,’ in which exogenous constraints are internalized, and the very conditions that make doctoral education problematic are turned into elements of that education.”

“Temp work” is a pervasive condition of this contemporary. The academic labor market continues to undergo a decades-long process of “casualization” which makes “temporary (and cheap, and controllable)…work that used to be secure (and more expensive, and more difficult to manage).” If the process continues unchecked, it would seem that more of us look forward to careers of keeping (temporary) appointments than holding tenured jobs. This process is not confined to the academy: the art world’s unpaid intern is its prototypical product, and stands at its frontlines. And art workers of all kinds share in similar challenges and threats.

While (con)temporary workers in the academy and the arts become more contingent, the category of “the contemporary,” as has been much discussed, is becoming enshrined within institutions: museums devote new wings and departments to its exhibition, and universities create new positions for its research, study, and teaching.[1] Such changes may offer additional opportunities to young scholars of the contemporary, but they likewise subject art historical, critical, and curatorial work to the glut and swells of an excited market. Furthermore, these developments in “the contemporary” are unfolding within what Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie have recently called a “crisis in cultural funding,” when museums move toward corporate and for-profit structures that are alienating the artists they supposedly serve, as epitomized by recent events at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Critics and theorists of the contemporary have turned to the word “precarious”—a word with a longer history describing labor conditions like those outlined above—to telegraph the feelings of political and social instability that have shaped the art of the last decade.[2] Graduate students are uniquely embedded within the processes and pressures of casualization as we attempt to build our work and launch our careers on shifting and unstable ground. We might have some of the best contracts available right now, yet our liminal position between pupils and professionals can make the status of our labors unclear, its value difficult to quantify, and a collective voice difficult to muster.

But we are also uniquely positioned to adapt and to shift discourse. The Graduate Student Advocacy Committee of the Society of Contemporary Art Historians encourages graduate students to identify, understand, take positions, address, and create alliances with each other and with other art workers in the face of the various “precarities” shaping the ways we work, think, and pursue professional identities. We contend that the study of contemporary art provides a unique opportunity to assess and understand our own contemporary conditions and positions within them.

We aim to shape conversations among graduate students about these conditions that neither succumb to mute acceptance of them nor paralyzing exasperation before them, but productively imagine new ways to ally and collaborate, to survive. We can put to use our flexible schedules and intellectual openness to redirect energies and to create alternative paths. We need to collectively and positively articulate—to ourselves and to others—the value(s) of the work we have chosen to do.

While the landscape may be “bleak,” we see little value—and, in fact, danger—in repeating that adage and internalizing the constraints. Instead, we ask: What can we change, and how? What, on the other hand, must we learn to survive, and how? What material conditions and level of stability should we expect and demand to support and remunerate our work, and how? At the same time, what unique resources or reserves—immaterial or otherwise—does our type of work provide us, and how might we draw upon them in the face of mounting challenges and threats to it? In this sense, we follow the impetus of contemporary art projects like Time/Bank, which seek to create new possibilities for exchange, trade, interaction, and reciprocal valuation among cultural workers, even as we seek ways to articulate our value to the outside.

Most immediately, we seek to combat the isolation that threatens graduate students at a number of levels by enabling emerging contemporary art historians to connect and create inter-institutional alliances and support structures within the field. For the moment, we intend do this by opening spaces for discussion, debate, and learning: reading groups and writing workshops; discussions and panels; a website and facebook group that distribute information about art events and advocacy issues; and, eventually, online platforms for sharing syllabi, teaching materials, and bibliographies. Each event we organize is designed to be potentially replicable by students in other cities.

Our definition of “contemporary art historian” is broad, and so inclusive: the moniker may apply equally to the historian studying the objects of the present moment as to any art historian or critic of the present moment, seeking an understanding of the contemporary conditions in which they work. As Miwon Kwon has asserted, “Producing contemporary art history is not qualified by the date stamp on the object under consideration but a methodological outlook that risks the dismantling of the discipline.”[3]

Some of the most pressing issues facing today’s graduate students, which we hope to engage through our programs and projects, include:

 the transitional position of the graduate student between between pupil and paid professional; graduate funding structures; TA unionization; living with and as contingent labor–teaching assistantships, adjuncts, lectureships, postdocs; the measure(s) of academic productivity and efficiency; the effects and pressures of technology and the internet on the academic labor market, teaching, the museum, and publication practices; the uses and abuses of online and distance learning; how the rising cost and consumer model(s) of education shape our teaching and research; the development, marketing, and publication of theses and dissertations; academic versus museum careers; the possibilities and benefits, the challenges and vulnerabilities, of self-structured scholarly time, of being “cognitive labor” or “immaterial labor”; (un)paid internships; persistent class and racial inequalities in access to graduate education and art jobs; and the particular challenges facing women in the academy and art world.

By partnering with student representatives, universities, non-profits, other organizations, and graduate student networks, and other committees within CAA (such as the Student and Emerging Professionals Committee, Women in the Arts Committee, and Committee on Diversity Practices), the committee will work on the following, far-reaching goals:

TO ASSESS the conditions shaping the practice, study, and display of contemporary art.

TO IDENTIFY and UNDERSTAND the most pressing issues and challenges specific to graduate students of contemporary art history, as well as to identify those challenges we share with other art workers.

TO ADVOCATE for graduate students’ needs and concerns to other organizations, including SCAH and CAA, and within our own departments.

TO CONNECT and ALLY graduate students studying contemporary art across programs and to cultivate relations between graduate students, MFA’s, artists, curators, and other cultural workers.

TO ORGANIZE events that foster local communities around contemporary art. Events might include moderated discussions and contemporary art reading groups.

TO GROW and DEVELOP projects in response to current conditions and to the interests of committee members.

TO HELP graduate students to navigate and to improve the current conditions of contemporary art history.

What issues or topics would you like us to address? We encourage any contemporary art historian (broadly defined) who wants to get involved with our organization, or has comments, questions, feedback, or ideas to contact us at You can also connect with us via our facebook page at:
Members of the SCAH Graduate Student Advocacy Committee, Summer/Fall 2012

Ruth Erickson Co-Chair
Tessa Paneth-Pollak, Co-Chair
Shana Cooperstein
Michael Maizels
Jennifer Quick
Martina Tanga

[1] Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary.’” October 130 (Fall 2009), 3

[2] For recent theoretical perspectives on the precariazation of labor, see the work of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2008) and the response by Silvia Federici, Precarious Labor: A Feminist Perspective (2008). In his account of the art of the decade, Hal Foster cites Judith Butler who mobilizes precarity (in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, 2006) not as a labor concept but, following Emmanuel Lévinas, as a more general condition of living things, and the basis for an ethics of intersubjectivity (in which subjects would recognize one another’s precarity). In doing so, though, Foster makes apparent the potential relevance to contemporary art of the several valences the term has accrued in postwar and contemporary theory.

[3] Miwon Kwon, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130 (Fall 2009), 14