La Trobe University Cuts Art History Program

Katrina Grant

It is a sad day for the discipline of art history in Australia with the news that art history is to be cut from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University along with gender, sexuality and diversity studies, Indonesian, linguistics and religion and spirituality. The restructure was released to staff yesterday. In addition to slashing the number of subjects and disciplines available the Faculty will also cut forty-five jobs.

It is one thing to see disciplines shrink in terms of staff and subject offerings but once a discipline disappears completely it seems unlikely that it will return. The University of Melbourne is now the only university in Victoria to offer a dedicated art history program (a few other universities offer some art history and theory in their visual arts departments). The La Trobe art history department, established by Professor Peter Tomory in 1972, was once one of the strongest programs in art history in Australia teaching subjects in European and Australian art history from Classical to Contemporary. Its graduates have gone on to hold senior positions in the discipline in such institutions as the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of St Andrews, the British Museum, the British School at Rome, and many art galleries around Australia.

More recently, reduced art history offerings have been flourishing within the History Program, where it has encountered and encouraged a real thirst for knowledge of the visual arts among undergraduate students, as well as booming postgraduate enrolments.  The incorporation of art history into the Faculty of Education curriculum was also underway, as art history is an important subject in schools. The cutting of art history shows all the signs of the managerial strategy of picking off individuals for the perceived difference of their research specialisms, even though, organisationally and academically speaking, La Trobe’s art historians form part of a much bigger program.

Although a financial black hole has been presented as a reason for these changes, this has nothing to do with cutting art history. Essentially, what is proposed is to replace the current joint art history/history major with a new joint major with History called ‘Mediterranean Studies.’

The cutting of art history seems particularly short-sighted for a university that has its own art museum and in a climate where public interest in art is climbing, as is evidenced by rising visitor numbers for art museums and exhibitions around Australia (‘Record attendance for reopening of Museum of Contemporary Art of Sydney‘, ‘GoMA ranks 42nd in the world for visitor numbers‘, ‘NGV in 25th spot on the international art museum attendance list‘). In addition the example of MONA in Tasmania has demonstrated the value of art (and art presented in a smart and challenging way) as a tourist drawcard with thousands of visitors flocking to Hobart specifically to visit the museum. Without art history programs there will be no expertise developed to inform these galleries and their collections. Moreover, with fewer departments offering art history it seems likely that our brightest graduates will disappear overseas for PhD study and for work.

Whether anything can be done to save art history at La Trobe at this stage is uncertain, but what we can do is make sure that it doesn’t simply sink quietly beneath the waves. I would hope that our national professional body AAANZ and our various state galleries, museums and other arts organisations will add their voices in protest at this loss.

Further Links

The Age ‘La Trobe cuts 45 jobs in the humanities’

The Australian ‘La Trobe spells out job cuts’

NTEU statement on the cuts

Details of the restructure on La Trobe’s website (pdf document)

La Trobe student union is organising forums for students on the cuts see their facebook page for details and also for details on how students can respond to the university.

We welcome your comments below.

© Katrina Grant 2012

Disclaimer: Lisa Beaven is one of the directors of the Melbourne Art Network and also a lecturer in the Art History department at La Trobe. Her partner David Marshall is also a director of the Melbourne Art Network.