Art History curriculum moves forward

For NYU Abu Dhabi, September brings not only changes in policies, courses and demographics, but also a new city. Abu Dhabi’s rapid evolution replaces ...

For NYU Abu Dhabi, September brings not only changes in policies, courses and demographics, but also a new city. Abu Dhabi’s rapid evolution replaces the old with new and shiny buildings; between finals and Marhaba week, the city redefines itself. In place of the old monuments and buildings, skyscrapers grow, hotels are redesigned and new restaurants populate the city. Although it is exciting to be living in a city with so much change, it can also be unsettling.
For junior Kalina Georgieva, it is not the rapid expansion that is unnerving but the lack of conversation surrounding the development of the city.
“Monuments [are] popping up here and there, or disappearing … they just appear and go,” Georgieva explained.
Between Abu Dhabi’s 2030 urban plan and the museums opening on Saadiyat Island, the city and its urban and aesthetic landscape are drastically changing. Although most European cities defined themselves over centuries of transition, Abu Dhabi’s yearly shift goes arguably unnoticed.
“That is not human for me,” said Georgieva. “I want to be talking about [it], I want to be part of the creation.”
Although Abu Dhabi’s plans move forward, some faculty members and students believe NYUAD’s own curriculum is lagging behind. They believe the university is lacking a major critical to studying the transitory image of the UAE: art history.
Currently, NYUAD offers a major in visual arts that, according to the NYUAD website, “integrates studio art, art history, and critical theory.” The multidisciplinary major “guide[s] students to think critically about the past and present of the visual experience,” as well as “allow[s] students to explore a range of different media and techniques.” The visual arts major combines both theory and practice under one umbrella curriculum, which can be a drawback or a benefit for students.
Georgieva said the lack of differentiation between theory and practice is worrisome.
“Art history started … [with an] interest in knowing what were the ideas that an artist encountered in his own time and the choices he made to represent them,” she said. “It has close to nothing to do with the person who is an artist taking a brush and creating a piece of art.”
The creation of a new visual culture in Abu Dhabi, Georgieva argues, must be studied through an artistic and historical lens and is crucial to the NYUAD curriculum.
NYU arts professor Shelley Rice has a different take on the current visual arts major. After studying a combined art history and studio major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Rice joined the faculty at The Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch. She indicated that her experience studying art history was enhanced by working alongside artists and photographers. Rice said she wants to replicate this combined experience for her students.
"All of my classes at NYU mix photographers and art historians," she said.
However, the discussion at NYUAD could boil down to semantics. Although the major is called visual arts, senior Cassandra Flores said that she has been able to take many courses in art history both at NYUAD and at NYUNY.
“I have had a lot of freedom to do art history classes,” Flores said. “I think in general our arts practice is a little bit weaker, which I think is not good … the major visual arts implies art practice more than it does art history.”
For Flores, the major’s title and the emphasis in classes do not match.
Although students who wish to major in art history are petitioning for their own major, those who are currently in visual arts may be missing critical studio time. A search through all courses that have been offered at NYUAD in the past three years reveals an emphasis on courses surrounding visual culture and art theory rather than the practice and creation of art.
The emphasis, argued Flores, may be due to the lack of adequate space for arts creation in the current NYUAD facilities.
The move to Saadiyat will certainly provide more opportunities for students interested in both art history and practice to further their intellectual pursuits.
Vice Provost of Intellectual and Cultural Outreach Reindert Falkenburg detailed the expansion of the arts program on Saadiyat.
“[Once there] we will have a very substantial gallery,” he said. In addition, the university hopes to establish strong relationships with the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, which are planned to open in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities Shamoon Zamir said that the current goal is to hire faculty with various strengths in both art history and arts practice students. Zamir and Falkenburg have acknowledged the student push for an art history major and are co-teaching an introduction to art history course this semester.
“There is always a lag between what the students have begun to discuss and what we are doing,” said Zamir. “[Because of student interest] we are pushing for this further development of the art history program.”
Although a new concentration in art history has been made available, the option to major in the subject has not yet been confirmed. For Georgieva, the potential of an art history major, however, opens a personal dialogue about how students are relating to the city as well as the creation of the campus on Saadiyat.
“The UAE exists, it is questionable to whom it is a home, to whom it is an opportunity, to whom it is just like another transit in the airport, but if we as people are committed to its existence then we have to start taking care,” she said. “There is no way we are going to feel attached to Abu Dhabi and feel at home if we don’t care [about] what is being created in it.”
Nicole López Del Carril is a staff writer. Email her at 
A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized Shelly Rice. She does not teach the practice of art. 
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