John Tyson is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. He received his Ph.D. in modern and contemporary art history from Emory University in 2015. Tyson spoke with the Wheel about his work at the National Gallery and what he learned at Emory.
I thought it was a real disappointment and quite an embarrassment, really, that James Wagner eliminated our fine arts program at Emory… I would encourage [President Claire E. Sterk] to reconsider what has happened to the path of arts on campus. We want to encourage creativity and encourage new forms of thinking. Studio artists are great people from other disciplines to have in classes … you need to creatively solve problems in labs as well. But I think having that freedom that art can provide is a really positive thing.
I took some [art history classes] my senior year and then decided, “Oh, actually maybe this combines all of my interests.” … I liked doing these very naturalistic and very realistic types of images in mostly prints. But I’m glad I did do all the printmaking, because I’m now in a department of prints and drawing at the National Gallery, so having that knowledge as a maker of things has subsequently come in quite handy.
[At Emory], I really learned to do academic research … as a result of seminar courses, with great faculty members like Walter Melion [and C.] Jean Campbell, [who] were all really important [in] showing methodological models [and] working closely with students through their thinking in seminars. That, I think, was probably the most important thing from my Emory coursework. It really showed me how research could be done.
I think it’s definitely important to get as much practical experience as possible. On campus, as an undergraduate, certainly there are opportunities in the Carlos Museum but Atlanta also has other great institutions. The Atlanta Contemporary would be an interesting place for students to try and do an internship. The High Museum, of course, is a very important Southern Institution. I would recommend students try as much as possible to have contact or do internships in those types of places.
You need to think about a well-educated generalist as your audience. I think it’s important to make sure that the idea behind the exhibition is not too esoteric and that it’s not too caught up in particular art-world debates, or if it is caught up in those, at least you should think about how you can communicate that to an average person.
I think art can provide people with information that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter and maybe new ways of thinking about the world. [Artists] produce objects that are different to normal things or approach normal things from a different viewpoint… so I think about the value of art as kind of an engagement with those problems. What exactly is this person wanting to communicate with me? … Maybe seeing the numbers [on global warming] in an academic paper might convince you of one thing, but approaching it or even getting ambushed with it when you go to an art institution might prompt you to think about it differently.