November 16, 2016
David Hart opens doors to art history
By John Campanelli
Ask David Hart what he enjoys doing away from galleries, studios and the classrooms at CIA and he leans forward. “I admit,” he says, smiling. “I am a foodie. I love to cook.”
Yet tying on a kitchen apron is not escapism for Hart. If anything, it proves his passions for history and education are infused in his marrow, like seasonings in a hearty stock.
“Culinary experiences have stories behind them. It's a story about history,” says Hart, an associate professor of art history in the Liberal Arts Department.
While the rest of us might turn off our minds, combine ingredients and sautee the worries of the day away, Hart ponders the “culinary anthropology” of the dishes he prepares and eats.
Take Hoppin’ John, the savory Southern staple he first enjoyed from his grandmother. She brought her version of the black-eyed-peas-and-rice dish up to Detroit from South Carolina during the Great Migration.
“Hoppin’ John is this dish par excellence about cultural mixture,” Hart says. “Scholars use the adjective ‘syncretic.’ It involves a combination of rice dishes that Africans were expert at making, along with the rice dishes that people from the Francophile world brought to North America through North African influences. It's a kind of pilaf, a pilau, a perloo.
“I think that's fascinating. That's the kind of thing that I think about.”
Hart’s passions for history, art and education were factory-installed during his upbringing in the Motor City. Both his parents were educators: his mom was a kindergarten teacher for more than 40 years and his father was a vocational instructor and later a principal and district administrator.
Family vacations with his folks and two sisters in a 1973 Ford Country station wagon always involved cultural stops.
“Everywhere we traveled, we went to museums,” Hart says. “My dad's family is from Washington, D.C., so every few years we would drive there. We went to the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museums, the big Natural History Museum. When we took our first trip to Europe, we went to Spain and visited the Prado Museum. I remember those giant Rubens paintings to this day.”
Of course the education came at home, too.
“My father learned ceramics in college. He could throw a pot,” Hart says. “He had a very nice potter's wheel in the basement, and we threw pots, all of us, in the house.”
“We also had art in our household.” He remembers being enthralled by a print by Antoni Tàpies that hung on his parents’ wall.
Still, when it came time to finally choose his major while studying at the University of Michigan, Hart wasn’t sure what to do. He balked — and balked. His father applied pressure.
“My father, he was afraid that it would never happen,” says Hart, laughing. “He said one day, ‘Well you know you like social issues and politics, why don’t you go into political science?’ His idea was that I would be a diplomat on the international stage, very prestigious. So I thought, OK, all right, fine.”
But Hart also took art history classes — many of them.
After graduating in 1981, he worked for a couple of Detroit-area elected officials. It didn’t take long to realize politics wasn’t his calling. “There’s this ideal about what political involvement is supposed to be, and I found sometimes that some elected officials just fell short of the mark,” Hart says diplomatically.
He then became assistant to the president at the prestigious Cranbrook Educational Community near Detroit, which features an elite prep school, art museums and a science institute on its historic campus.
“It exposed me in a much more direct way to art and culture, design, architecture and so forth,” Hart says.
A career in art beckoned, yet he “pretty quickly” ruled out being a visual artist. He made up his mind to earn a doctorate in art history. After nine years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with several internships at museums mixed in, Hart knew what he wanted to do.
“By the time I got my Ph.D., I realized that if I were a college or university professor, I would be able to teach, I would be able to curate exhibitions, I would be able to write, I would be able to make presentations to the public and educate the public,” he says.
Hart arrived at CIA in 2003 as an assistant professor of art history. In 2011, he became associate professor. His expertise includes African-American art, Latin American art, the art of the African Diaspora, critical race theory and modern and contemporary art.
In his 13 years in Cleveland, Hart has seen a change in the makeup of students at CIA.
“There are more students of color than when I started teaching in 2003,” Hart says. “More African-Americans; more international students, including students from Asia; more students who are Latino and Latina. So that's great."
“A diversity of perspectives is something that's really important,” he says. “I feel strongly about that.”
Gary D. Sampson, chair of the Liberal Arts Department, believes Hart deserves some of the credit, and that he has brought the power of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to the CIA faculty as well.
“He always asks really good questions when nobody else is asking them,” Sampson says. “As a person of color, and being in the minority in terms of the faculty, David has really added a lot of great insights into how to be more sensitive."
Sampson marvels at Hart’s determination and energy. He cites The Cuba Project: Cleveland Institute of Art at MOCA, a 2011 exhibition and symposium that Hart shepherded to success.
“An overwhelming task,” Sampson says. “Just the fact that he agreed to do it and that it was successful tells you a lot about him, his willpower and energy and perseverance. With just a couple of other colleagues, they really pulled it off beautifully.”
Sampson also credits Hart with contributing to the depth of the CIA curriculum.
“When I first came, we didn't have anyone who was teaching African-American art or the art of the African Diaspora,” Sampson says. “I think he really filled a gap there.
“He has been a real great boon to our faculty. Using his knowledge of contemporary art, he's worked up a variety of courses that we didn't have on the books.”
In addition to foundation classes in art history, Hart teaches courses on African art and visual culture. He also created a popular class called Race and Representation in Contemporary Art.
“We talk about how it is that race is conceptualized for all kinds of racial groups and how it is manifested in artwork,” Hart says. “We also look at advertising, we look at film, and we read material that I think is some of the best, most-challenging ideas on the subject. And students respond.”
When asked to describe his teaching style, Hart brings up actor John Houseman’s character as the Draconian Professor Kingsfield in the film “The Paper Chase.”
“He was this stuffy, imperious person who embarrassed and humiliated students,” Hart says. “That's absolutely not the way I approach things. I'm the opposite.
“What I try to do for my students is give them the kind of experiences that were most important and helpful for me,” he says. “Rather than say, ‘No, that's wrong,’ my approach is to say, ‘Well, how can we think about this another way?’”
Hart likes to emphasize positive reinforcement while challenging students. His mission, he says, is much bigger than teaching students about artists, genres, styles or eras. “An education allows you to see the world, what's going on, whether it's in food or politics or the visual arts,” Hart says. “It’s a set of tools that gives you a perspective.”
If his students can leave his classes with a full tool belt, including an open mind and critical-thinking skills, then, he says, he’s done his job.
“What distinguishes an excellent college-level education from one that’s mediocre is exposing students to and teaching them those critical-thinking skills,” Hart says, “We work very hard, all of the faculty here, to give the students not only a rigorous education but one that prepares them to be thinkers, that prepares them to use their talents in ways that employ these tools, to make their way through the world, to solve problems, to figure things out.”
And to cook dinner with curiosity.
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