Q & A: UM-Flint’s Dr. Sarah Lippert on Art, History, and Community

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Dr. Sarah Lippert
Dr. Sarah Lippert

The 5th Annual Art & Art History Student Symposium showcases the talents and research of UM-Flint students April 10th at the Flint Institute of Arts. The symposium is from 1:00 to 3:30 p.m. at the Flint Institute of Arts. It is free and open to the public.

Dr. Sarah Lippert, an associate professor of art history at UM-Flint, founded and organizes the initiative. In this Q & A, she discusses why this project matters to students and the public, her art initiative at the Thumb Correctional Facility, and the vibrancy of the Flint arts scene.

Can you describe the setup and background for the Art & Art History Student Symposium? Why did you start it and how has it evolved?

 The symposium first began in March of 2012, and has steadily grown over the last 4 years. The idea came from the desire to showcase the importance of the Flint Institute of Arts as a cultural and academic resource in learning for the region. The Flint Institute of Arts is a world-class museum, with a rich permanent collection and highly productive temporary exhibition schedule. Not only does the University of Michigan-Flint benefit from the museum’s collection and curatorial practice, we benefit directly from the quality of staff at the FIA, who, along with the Mott Applewood Estate and GFAC, offer support to our academic programs in art and art history that is invaluable. Each year art and art history students are invited to present on topics from art history, or if artists, on topics about their own works and inspiration. Because art and art history are inseparable in the context of training the new generation of scholars and creative thinkers, our presenters represent both aspects of learning in the visual arts.

How important is public outreach and input to scholarly work?  Why is it important for the community? How does it benefit students and their research?

The symposium allows students to connect with the community by sharing their work and soliciting feedback. Too often the community has no idea how hard our students are working, or how important their work is to the future economic and cultural integrity of the community. This event showcases the highest quality of student work, but in a manner that is enjoyable for a public audience. Students who participate do so solely for the professional development opportunity that it affords. They do not receive academic credit for their work. However, participating in a symposium, which is a professional activity, helps to prepare them for careers in a broad variety of areas by strengthening research, writing, and public speaking skills.

Most of our presenters come from the Master of Arts in Arts Administration, the Bachelor of Arts in Art History, and the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fine Arts or Art & Design. The event also helps to educate the public about the value of a liberal-arts and arts education. Few people know how central the arts are to the state and national economies, how many jobs and opportunities are available, and how important these cultural traditions are to the quality of life in a given community. Flint residents are die-hard art fans, and are amongst the most supportive and engaged arts patrons of any city in which I’ve lived or worked. It is this vitality in the arts sector that helps to make a community a desirable place to live or work, as Flint surely is.

A liberal arts degree is still the area in which most graduates are afforded the greatest job security and upward mobility, because of its focus on the key aspects of learning how to communicate, think critically, and adapt to new challenges makes it an area of study that provides for the greatest flexibility and success as students become career professionals. Many of the jobs of the future don’t even exist yet. A liberal arts degree prepares students for how to adapt to changing markets and opportunities.

Art history is uniquely placed within this area because it prepares students for additional study or careers in arts organizations, such as museum studies. Art history combines history, philosophy, and many other disciplines to teach students about the world through visual culture, which includes present-day design and visual experience. The more our world becomes a digital/visual world, the greater art history’s relevance becomes.

When did you start working with the Thumb Correctional Facility? Can you describe the evolution of this initiative? Are there future changes planned?

 I started working with Thumb in 2014. It began as a program inspired by the Prison Creative Arts Program in Ann Arbor at U of M. The idea is for faculty and students to conduct workshops in the prison on creative or art-historical topics. The artists in the prison participate in discussions on given topics, like African-American art, or perspective in the Renaissance, and they apply what they’ve learned to their own work as artists. In my teaching practice, my students then are able to curate work that emerges from the workshop experience through holding exhibitions of work from Thumb in the Flint community. This is an extraordinary opportunity for members of the incarcerated population to feel connected to the ‘outside,’ to share their productivity and insights with family and friends, and to grow as a person.

Some people can be intimidated by art and art history. How does outreach like this help expand understanding to the general public?

 Art history is a lot of things: museum studies, curating, conservation/restoration, study of the past and present, study of all visual media, etc. It helps us to understand the way that images of the past have functioned, and have informed the present, while helping us to understand our own visual world. These kinds of events demonstrate to the public how much the knowledge of the past and visual communication enriches their lives in the present. Art historians help us to understand the world we’ve inherited, and in which we live. It brings understanding of unfamiliar cultures, and helps us to come together as global community. This is all done by looking at artworks and visual media together.

Robert is a staff writer in University Communications & Marketing. Contact him with comments, questions, and story ideas.