Ronald Stefanski (BA 1982)
On Majoring in History of Art
I started out at Michigan pre-law and a political science major. By sophomore year I was taking literature courses and art history. My first history of art class was the survey course, taught in a big lecture hall by Graham Smith, who had this amazing Scottish accent and was a riveting lecturer. We used Jansen’s History of Art survey book. I was putting myself through school and I remember thinking, "the book is $20!" (in 1978). I also remember memorizing the great artists and works. I can still name them 40 years later!
Graham did a great job of connecting art to the big social and historical forces underway. I had spent the previous year in Europe as an exchange student and it was extraordinary to have this broader understanding of what the artist was trying to convey.
Nowadays I think about some of the perplexing social issues today, and realize I’m still hooked on interpreting what I see and translating it into broader social change. And that happens through education. I work for Penn Foster, a social purpose organization focused on providing greater access to affordable education. I’m totally hooked on the work of improvisation just as I was as an undergrad — marrying technology, and creative teaching techniques into scalable solutions for second chance learners.
I’ve been in the education and technology industry for the past 35 years. I took a year off after co- founding The Michigan Review my senior year. I wanted to save up for law school and landed a textbook sales job with Macmillan. I couldn’t believe they were paying me to walk around on college campuses and talk with professors! I ended up being Rookie of the Year and never looked back or went to law school. I’ve been in a variety of marketing and business development roles in education since.
In my current job, my background studying History of Art is directly relevant. I think of solving the skills-gap in places like Detroit and bringing greater access to affordable education, and I think of it like a big canvas. It needs to be scaffolded, blocked out, and then apply color!
The education gap in this country has become the civil rights issue of this millennium. And learning how the best and most creative folks tackled the world is critical— think of people like DaVinci, not only as an artist but as an engineer, innovator and entrepreneur. This is how History of Art is directly relevant.
The Merits of History of Art
My study of History of Art gave me a bigger life. I married another liberal arts/fine arts student. In 30 years of happy marriage we have pursued interesting careers, traveled broadly, lived intentionally and raised two liberal arts Millennials who’ve in succession launched successful careers in their 20s. History of Art gave me a vision of what was out there in the world for me to explore, investigate and understand. It also brought me full circle home to the place of my birth in Detroit, where we returned in 2012 on the heels of Detroit’s bankruptcy.
As a concerned citizen, I watched the conversations regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts unfold. We learned as a community that we care deeply enough about the arts to fight for them when everything is on the line and at stake. Just as working class Detroiters came out in droves to see the unveiling of Diego Rivera’s murals during the Great Depression, working class Detroiters showed up in droves during the worst economic time in recent history to preserve the legacy of our extraordinary DIA collections.
Nowadays, there is a groundswell of effort underway to fix Detroit’s education challenges - not only in K12, but overall. It’s a crazy irony: 50% of adults in the city don’t have a High School diploma, and three million jobs are currently unfilled because people don’t have the necessary skills. I have a chance to contribute to solving this problem for thousands of people. That’s how History of Art impacted my life and direction.
Would you recommend History of Art to undergraduates?
Yes, absolutely. College may be the only time where you have unbridled energy and time both in abundance simultaneously. Best to take full advantage. Take one course in History of Art with the best professor teaching it.
During my time it was Graham Smith in History of Art, Conrad Kottack in Anthropology, Tom Toon and Bob Weisbuch in English, and Sidney Fine in History. Each one of them exemplifies my philosophy: Find your passion. Pursue it diligently. Lifelong.
My passion for education and helping those in need and those gated in pursuing their education started with the sparks ignited during my undergraduate years.
Being passionate about what I am learning from strong people is remarkably similar from my days as a student.
Scarlet Batchelor (BA 2000)
Sneakers as Art: A Conversation with New Balance Product Manager-Turned Tech Entrepreneur Scarlet Batchelor (BA History of Art, 2000)
On Majoring in History of Art
I fell in love with history of art as a freshman when taking Art History 102. It was the first time in my scholastic career that a subject made perfect sense and fluency came easily. The subject was fun, fascinating and for the first time school work was a joy rather than a grind. Later my favorite class was an upper-level Asian art course with Martin Powers. The subject matter gave me a view into a culture that was very unfamiliar and new. In my work, many years later, at New Balance on the Global Kids business when we were expanding stores and products in China, it became a significant focus for me and my team. I believe that course served as a powerful base for my further exploration of Chinese culture many years later.
History of art was the first opportunity I had in my academic and professional career to merge right brain (creative) and left brain (analytical) thinking. This combination of skills and approach has been my signature style and means to thrive and excel in all my experiences since. In addition it taught me that objects (art, product, etc.) can serve as vehicles for describing a society or culture. And because I’m a visual person, it’s my most immediate way into understanding something foreign or new. My career today is built on the foundation of left brain/right brain skills combined with a passion for understanding culture and communities.
By the time I finished my degree at U-M I realized I wanted to apply my passion for the creative and analytical together in a fast-paced career. After some networking conversations someone suggested that marketing could be a good route for me, so I started as a temp receptionist at Digitas (now DigitasLBi) in Boston. I made connections, learned more about the industry and was eventually hired on as a permanent employee in account management.
I spent almost 2 years at Digitas and, while I thrived in the fast-paced, competitive environment, I missed the art world. After a short stint in retail management I got married, moved to Seattle and landed a job in sales and marketing at a small gallery. I loved getting to know the clients as well as the artists and bridging the gap in language and concepts between the two quite distinct parties. I sold to top executives at Microsoft and Starbucks among others, so it was also a position where I learned to speak to and influence top executives.
While I did truly love the art world, it was a tough life and I was ready to get back into consumer marketing and possibly entrepreneurship. Without a strong network or business skill set I decided to get my MBA and chose Babson given their focus on creativity and entrepreneurship.
My MBA experience was energizing and compelling and I loved that the first year curriculum started with a four-week creativity module. It quickly became clear that I was a true marketer as I worked through my coursework and I landed a summer internship at Ocean Spray. During my time there, Ocean Spray launched their “Straight from the Bog” campaign featuring two humorous growers in the bog talking about their products. The campaign was a smashing success and Ocean Spray moved into a dominant share position in the category as a result. It was in this experience that I realized my passion for team cultures undergoing change.
I entered New Balance in product management, then was promoted to lead the Global Kids footwear team, and then the then-new function of merchandising for North America. In merchandising we serve as the connection point between the Global product engine and the regional sales organization, so my skills in speaking many “languages,” understanding distinct cultures (both internal and external), served me very well.
It was a long journey from art history major to general merchandising manager, but the themes of left brain/right brain thinking combined with cultural understanding and communication served as a bridge between the two experiences. I believe that sneakers in today’s society are akin to art in Renaissance Italy (I studied abroad in Florence my junior year so I think about this quite a bit). Sneakers reflect society, ideals, and culture. In urban areas they have deep connections to music and art. They are prized possessions and at times hard to access. So in many ways being a footwear merchandiser is perhaps closer to being an art historian than many would realize.
A New Tech Startup
I left New Balance in the spring of 2017 to launch an app-based platform called Coeo Fitness that brings together boutique fitness studios, instructors, and clients with a focus on the instructors as a powerful backbone to the ecosystem. I recently went through yoga teacher training and become a certified yoga instructor. I realized through this experience that there’s a market opportunity to create a platform that allows instructors to aggregate and elevate their personal brands and bring together a market that is currently pretty fragmented.
Art History for Life
History of Art is a beautiful way to think both creatively and analytically. It’s also a great way to understand people and cultures for those of us who are visually inclined. It was such a gift for me to be a liberal arts major at Michigan where I learned to consider things deeply, explore alternatives in logic and meaning, and take risks. I consider myself very lucky to have had this time to learn to think and analyze. It was a very powerful complement to the MBA I earned later and together the BA and MBA allow me to be quite valuable and impactful in my business career as marketer, strategist and leader.
Art history also allows me to understand and explore many ways of thinking and expressing an individual or collective identity. In addition to the career impact outlined above it has also influenced me as a mother to have greater empathy and curiosity. As a mom of three young children today I very much value each of them as individuals and am both curious and excited to see how they express themselves—in art, writing, music, math, sports, and everything under the sun. Art history teaches us understanding, encourages us to not fear what is foreign, and tells us to ask questions and analyze. That is powerful to me as a business person, member of the community, wife, and mother.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Justin Wong (BA 2016)
My academic record shows me changing my major no less than ten times in my first three semesters at U-M. Spanning theatre, architecture, and English, among others, I was needless to say a very confused 18 year old.
After graduating in 2016 I landed two part-time internships in New York City. One was with a new music venue, National Sawdust, as a production intern, where I helped to coordinate some of the larger performance projects at the venue. The second was with the electronic music record label Ghostly International (which was actually founded by a U-M history of art alum back in 1999) where I helped with marketing and publicity.
In September 2016, National Sawdust offered me a position as production manager of their in-house record label VIA Records, which focuses loosely on contemporary classical music. It was a miraculously smooth transition between work at the two companies—I don’t usually get this lucky.
There’s absolutely no way I would have felt equipped to fill this position without my studies in art history. In my case, it wasn’t necessarily the specific region or time period from which the art we studied came from—though it certainly contributed to a much wider understanding of the world. Rather, it was through the intensity with which I looked at single objects that I discovered how mountains of meaning could be made with a single brush stroke. The department showed me how to see with a profoundly critical eye, how precise one can be with language—both visual and textual—and urged me to question everything, especially what has been concretized as normal.
While I was still deciding on my major, one thing my parents kept telling me was that many people end up working in something very different from what they majored in. Though not entirely far off, my studies in the art history department have served as a kind of cross-training program for me: the way I interact with music and music makers now is deeply informed by the open mindedness, critical thinking, and methods of interpretation my professors encouraged in each class I took.
The humanities seems to be in a constant state of existentialism: there’s a need for artists, musicians, and academics to justify the existence of their fields and place them in a “real world” context. This might make some sense: art making of any kind can be a very introspective, personal profession that can have a direct effect on a limited number of people. But what I’ve learned is that the arts and humanities serve as a means to explore and understand, most effectively on this microscopic level, what it means to be alive. Looking through this intimate lens can lead to much bigger conclusions about how we live and how we could better understand ourselves and our environment.
Kyle Medley (BA 1999)
My introduction to the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan was on an elementary school field trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Art. A museum docent sat our class in front of a large, beige, abstract painting (it may have been Ocean Park No. 52, by Richard Diebenkorn) and asked our group why this painting was hanging in the museum. I immediately raised my hand to answer and the docent looked delighted that there was a volunteer – until she heard my answer: “To make the other art look better!” My classmates thought this was very funny. The docent was not amused.
Years later as a freshman at Michigan, I took an introductory survey course in history of art and was hooked. I managed to keep my wisecracks to myself in that course, as well as many others, and double-concentrated in history of art and French, earning the Henry P. Tappan Award for Outstanding Student in a Double Major. After graduating from Michigan, I worked for the French Government teaching English at a French high school near Paris. The pay was terrible, but the hours were great, and the job came with an excellent perk—free admission to all French national museums. I would often go to the Musée D’Orsay, the Louvre and others an hour or so before closing time (when the hordes of tourists had gone for the day) and wander around the galleries. I was once in the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre with one other person (the guard, of course) for about five minutes.
After a year working in Paris, I went to law school in New York and have been a practicing attorney ever since. I am a partner in the New York City office of the Chicago-based law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. While my law practice is quite varied, I primarily represent insurance companies in disputes with other insurance companies over coverage of large-scale, multi-million-dollar losses. I had not planned on becoming an attorney when I started at Michigan, or when I decided to concentrate in history of art. On reflection, I believe that my undergraduate studies at Michigan did prepare me very well for a career as a litigation attorney. Litigators require many of the skill sets that were taught and honed in my courses at Michigan, including critical and creative thinking, excellent writing, and debating viewpoints. My studies at Michigan, and particularly my history of art courses, more than prepared me for the rigors of law school and the courtroom.
When I have described my educational path to others, there is sometimes surprise that a history of art and French major went on to become an insurance litigator. However, if I had to go back and do it all over again, I might have changed my childhood answer to the docent’s question, but I would not have changed my pre-law educational path. Go Blue!
Lauren Halilej (BA 2015)
Lauren Halilej (History of Art major, 2015) is currently working as a Product Support Specialist with Collectrium, a digital collection management platform. She writes:
Growing up, family vacations always included stops at famous and not so famous museums. What struck me, even from a young age, was not necessarily the forms of the art mounted on the wall but the circumstances in which that work of art was created: what was the artists’ background? Where did they come from? Why did their art look a certain way or evoke a certain feeling? And how, by geography or time period alone, could artworks be classified and quantified as a part of history simply by an artist’s picking up a paintbrush? The decision to study the History of Art at Michigan came easily to me and after enrolling in my first art history course with Professor Howard Lay (HISTART 271: Origins of Modernism) my interest only grew stronger.
After graduating, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the arts so I searched for jobs in New York City that had an art-related component. I worked for a small art advisory called ArtW that promotes women artists (www.artw.org), and in January 2016, was hired as an intern in the South East Asian Art Department at Christie's. What I value most about History of Art as a major is that it is completely interdisciplinary and stresses breadth. Undergraduates are required to broaden their studies beyond a particular region or time period and as a result, the major produces well-read and worldly students who have a robust and diverse knowledge of art. I didn’t have a background in South East Asian art, but I had taken a class on the depiction of yoga in Indian paintings and sculpture (HISTART 304 Art of Yoga) with Professor Nachiket Chanchani that gave me a solid foundation to leverage during my interview for the departmental internship. After working at Christie's for five months as an intern, I was hired to work at Collectrium. The great thing about Collectrium is that we are a Christie's company -- we were acquired by the British auction house in 2015 – but we continue to operate independently, while utilizing our relationship with Christie's to reach a larger range of clientele.
Collectrium is a company that markets a digital collection management tool specifically designed to help collectors organize their art and luxury collectibles. The Collectrium platform is able to integrate the whole experience of collection-care and management through a tool that is comprehensive, engaging, mobile, and secure. In my position as Product Support Specialist I assist clients and orient them in the use of the platform. I interact with clients all over the world. Being a History of Art major at Michigan not only encouraged my love of learning about other cultures, but also gave me the skill-set to work with and understand the interests of our global clientele. I am able appreciate our collectors’ desire to find pieces they are passionate about, while at the same time I can assist them with maintaining their records of the items already in their possession. My appreciation for art, and my ability to think critically and quantitatively is a product of my time in the History of Art department at Michigan.
Working at Collectrium has made me realize there are many other types of collectors besides fine art collectors (we support non-fine art categories such as wine, watches and automobiles). It has also afforded me the opportunity to view firsthand the inter-connectivity of art and technology. The partnership between new technology companies like Collectrium and storied art institutions like Christie’s makes me excited about the future, and if I will always find the art aspect of what I do to be the most interesting, there is no doubt in my mind that technology will play a role in art’s future. Whether it is through increasing availability of information on art like the website and education tool Artsy.com, or expanding the scope of how technology can benefit collectors like Collectrium, the paths of art and technology will continue to intersect and I feel fortunate to that my degree in History of Art at Michigan has afforded me the opportunity to be a part of this growing phenomenon.
Rachel Bissonette (BA 2016)
A few months after graduation from UM, at the end of the summer 2016, Rachel Bissonette landed a position as a conservation technician at the Library of Congress. The LoC's Conservation Division is the oldest and largest conservation lab in the United States for the care of book, paper, and photographic materials. Fully aware that art conservation is a highly competitive vocation which requires years of lab experience and intensive coursework in art history, chemistry, and fine arts, she sees this position as the first step in her chosen career as a conservator of eastern manuscripts. Pre-program experience is essential before a prospective student even thinks of applying to prestigious conservation schools.
Rachel sees her work in Washington D.C. as a natural extension of her undergraduate studies at UM. She knew she wanted to study art history even before she applied, one of those rare students ready to declare her major upon arrival. Four years of studying with “passionate professors” and taking challenging courses, she says, only affirmed and deepened her original love of the field. She learned how social and political information can be unlocked through the study of material culture. A decisive moment came when, to fulfill a distribution requirement, she enrolled in the survey of Islamic Art taught by Prof. Christiane Gruber. After this class, she was completely hooked on Islamic Art. Her favorite course on this subject was HISTART 689 which focused on the Islamic Book Arts. A graduate level seminar offering instruction in codicological method, it was jointly taught by Professor Gruber and Evyn Kropf, the curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the UM libraries. Each class was split into two parts: the first was devoted to discussion and the other was spent at Hatcher Library where students were able to work with original materials firsthand. Rachel remembers she frequently lost track of time and would stay past the end of the class period to continue studying the manuscripts.
Rachel’s focus on Islamic Art led to the opportunity to work as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art) in Washington, DC. The UM History of Art Department and the Freer|Sackler have longstanding relations – including joint publication of Ars Orientalis, one of the premier Asian art history journals in the country. Rachel took up the task of investigating the infancy of the journal and used the Tappan Archives, as well as materials at the Bentley Historical Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts to explore its early history. She discovered that the core of Ars Orientalis was owed to Mehmet Aga-Oglu, a professor at the University of Michigan in the 1930s. Aga-Oglu was responsible for establishing “The Research Seminary in Islamic Art,” making the University of Michigan the first institution in the United States to have a special unit devoted to the study of the history of Islamic Art. Rachel brought her research to D.C. and shared it with the staff at the Freer|Sackler.
The knowledge Rachel accrued from her classes and research experience helped as she embarked on a senior thesis concerning an Islamic text on medieval automatons preserved in many illustrated manuscripts. She participated in the two-semester History of Art honors colloquium instructed by Prof. Howard Lay. Rachel believes undergraduate students who want to pursue careers in academia should try writing senior theses. The process involved a massive amount of work and stress, but was ultimately the most rewarding part of her undergraduate career and confirmed her interest in the career she is now pursuing.
Emily Canosa (BA 2006)
From arts & ideas to farming & sustainability: how one alumna
applied her liberal arts education to a career in sustainable living.
Assistant Director of Sustainable Living Experience, U-M
Lecturer in Liberal Arts College for Creative Studies
Board Member The Agrarian Adventure
BA History of Art
Double Major: Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (Residential College)
MA Japanese Studies
For many people, the path from college major to dream job is not a straightforward, linear one. Along the way, there can be twists and turns, starts and stops, and even a jump or a pivot. By threading together an array of acquired experience, and keeping an open mind alumna Emily Canosa created her own path as she proceeded from a double major in History of Art (LSA) and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (RC) to a career in farming and sustainability. In the course of an interview with her, it emerged that Emily has come to feel that the major and the career need not necessarily align, but that a liberal arts education makes many things possible. In her case it was her UM training as part of a multi-faceted journey of self-discovery, which involved experiential education, informal, learning and co-curricular opportunities, that led ultimately to a deeply satisfying career.
How did Emily move from a liberal arts B.A. to her current role as Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience at UM? One of the earliest steps came when she enrolled in a basic introductory survey, Renaissance to Modern Art, taught that year by Rebecca Zurier. Here Emily was surprised to learn that the study of history of art fostered the investigation into complex social structures and political movements. It was not just a matter sitting in a dark classroom looking at slides of pretty pictures; close analysis of works of visual art provided revelations about social change over periods of time and across cultures. She enrolled in more art history courses, not only because the content and subject matter were interesting, but also because the coursework was intellectually challenging. She remembers with pleasure learning about the impact artists and writers had on society in Howard Lay’s seminar Baudelaire’s Paris. It was inspiring to follow the ways in which works of art could shift the terms of social dialogue and effect political change.
After graduation, Emily decided on the path of adventure. She traveled to Japan where she taught English as a second language. It was during this period that she began to discover and cultivate her passion for sustainability while working on a permaculture farm. She fell in love with farming and when she returned to Ann Arbor, she continued this work, although in a different capacity, by participating in community garden projects and doing youth programming at Avalon Housing. Simultaneously she kept up her work with the visual arts and secured a position at UMMA as a graduate researcher for the Asian Arts curatorial team. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in the M.A. program in Japanese Studies at UM. It was then that the “twist and turn” came, but from Emily’s point of view, the switch from liberal arts study to farming was not as great as it might appear. Work on sustainability and issues around agrarian history and the supply of food enabled Emily to engage directly with topical concerns, involving her in social movements around ecology and community and allowing her to maintain her deep interest in effecting change. While working on her M.A., she returned to Japan to study the sustainable food movement in the Kanto region. Upon her return, she managed to keep up her dual interests. After completing her graduate program, she moved to Detroit to teach Asian art history at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and there found a working urban farm on her block. Her time as a farmer-owner at Singing Tree Garden – where she worked alongside a small group of her neighbors and RC graduates – ultimately led Emily back to her present career in Ann Arbor.
In 2014, Emily accepted a newly created position at UM as manager of the Sustainable Food Program, where she acted as the organizational lead working with 13 student organizations, to monitor the activity of several campus gardens and the Campus Farm, thereby ensuring that knowledge would not be lost in the shuffle as students graduated. She served in this capacity for three years before being selected as the Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience on campus which “strives to function as a microcosm of diverse students whose actions have generative and innovative impacts on the development of a more just and sustainable world.” In addition to this role, Emily continues to teach at CCS, is co-founder of The Hive, a sustainable living cooperative, and a board member of The Agrarian Adventure, a local non-profit that works with K-12 students to connect food, environment, community and personal health.
At a time when the liberal arts are under siege and people frequently question the relevance of degrees in precisely such subjects as History of Art or “Arts and Ideas,” Emily defends her training. She points out that even though she only teaches art history part-time, she utilizes the core skills she developed as an undergraduate on a daily basis in her sustainability work. History of Art provided the context in which she was able to strengthen her abilities in critical thinking, analysis, and communication: the rigorous coursework and classroom discussions honed her powers of observation and taught her how to articulate her own ideas and defend her arguments. She left the program with a strong ability to focus on small details without losing sight of the big picture. As any organizational leader or project manager can attest, these are crucial skills for success. On the surface, the steps along Emily’s path may seem to be somewhat tenuously linked, but she herself is acutely aware of the common denominator: the skills and ideas acquired through her liberal art studies and her history of art coursework.