On May 20th, 2021, Graduate Program Coordinator Alice Sullivan arranged a virtual reunion of more than 20 U-M History of Art PhD alums. From there, we were able to reconnect with people, learn about their lives after Michigan, and discuss ways to keep connected. We talked with Dr. Elizabeth Otto on her experiences with the department, her career, and more.
About: Elizabeth (Libby) Otto is Professor of modern and contemporary art history in the department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her 2019 book, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (MIT Press), received the Northeast Popular Culture Association’s best book of the year award. She is also the author of Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt (Bauhaus-Archiv, 2006) and the co-author of Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2019). Otto has co-edited five books including Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School (Bloomsbury, 2019), Passages of Exile (edition text + kritik, 2017), and The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s (University of Michigan Press, 2011). Her essays and reviews have been published in journals including Artforum, October, and History of Photography, and her work has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships from institutions including the American Association of University Women, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Getty, and the National Humanities Center.
What is your history and relationship with the Department of History of Art and U-M?
I came to the History of Art PhD program in 1996, specifically to work with Matt Biro. Even though I was his first student, he already knew how to strike that crucial mentorship balance of pushing a student and supporting her. Additionally, I took classes with quite a range of faculty from that era, Maria Gough, Pat Simons, Martin Powers, and Celeste Brusati; while I was not able to take a seminar with Betsy Sears, she became an influential mentor and friend who would later save me from abandoning my most recent book project! Parallel to the PhD degree, I did a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies and worked closely with faculty in History and German Studies including Kathleen Canning and Helmut Puff. Among my cohort members was Yao-Fen You.
What is your current role and how did you end up there?
I am Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was hired into the Art History Department in 2004; a few years ago I moved my line to our Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, where I recently have served as Director of Graduate Studies. Additionally, I served as the Executive Director of my university’s Humanities Institute. During the next two years, I will be on fellowship and working on my next book, Bauhaus Under National Socialism; first I will be at the Getty for the coming year, and then I will hold a fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung for the 2022-23 year and a short-term fellowship from the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC.
What are the most important skills you learned because of the study of History of Art?
This is a great question and difficult to answer because there is just so much that I learned during the course of my doctoral studies at the U of M. Probably the most important thing that I learned—and it took all of the years that I was there—was to fully take ownership of my writing, to know that it wasn’t done until I knew why each word was where it was. I also learned the power of a turbo charged intellectual community! It was just such a pleasure to be immersed in a place of such engaged art history.
What advice would you give to undergraduates who want to pursue advanced degrees in the field of History of Art?
We’ve been through a number of years now during which art history and other humanities degrees are so often cast as a luxury or even as “useless” or “selfish.” I would say: don’t believe that hype! It is simply not true. Art History prepares students for the critical thinking and visual literacy that are useful in almost any career path. But just as important: the subject matter is so rich and exciting that it’s just so fun to study. And an art history degree from the U of M can also prepare students to continue with an advanced degree in art history, in which case the fun never stops!
How has the last year of COVID & quarantine affected your work?
So many have suffered such losses through the pandemic; as an academic, it was ridiculously easy to transition to remote work and to live in seclusion from the world, in a bubble with my family and the neurotic COVID puppy who we adopted (and continue to love). In that sense, the impact of COVID has been extremely minor. I have been unable to go to the archives, but I’ve done more research online, and that has been productive. This past spring I co-taught a new course online titled “The Art and Practice of Fashion,” together with a history professor at my university. While Zoom gets a little old for both students and professors, we were able to try out some new tech and take advantage of more web-based materials in this class, including a live gallery visit.