Art history program at Centre thinks outside the box

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Art History 08 Apr 2016

galleryThe study of art history at Centre College can be decidedly untraditional. Assistant Professor of Art History James Bloom proved this recently when he was awarded a Mellon undergraduate research Outside the Box grant to develop a Centre-specific gaming platform.

The grant also allows Bloom to continue work he has done for his current course “Arts and Markets: Economic History of the Arts,” which has allowed students to understand the industry side of art.

Throughout the semester, students enrolled in the course are randomly assigned artworks and put in the position of collectors. They are then given a fixed amount of money—“fantasy guilders”—and are turned loose to create their own market, in which they can buy, sell and trade among one another.

Three auctions take place over the course of the semester, with new works of art introduced to the market. Prior to the auctions, the students must do research on each object in order to learn how to best compel and incentivize their fellow classmates to purchase their respective items. They are not permitted to bid on the auction unless they have submitted research to Bloom.

“The psychology of the experience has been fascinating,” says Bloom. “The students take the fake money so seriously—the gasps over large bids are amazing.”

The students also utilize a class website and social media to generate interest for their collections among their peers.

The third and final auction of the semester will take place during the last week of class, and students will present their collections and explain the rationale behind their choices. Each collection will have an established financial value based on the prices paid for previous auction items, and the “winner” will be determined by the financial value of their portfolio as well as an evaluation of how compelling their presentations were.

Bloom believes this course holds appeal for an audience wider than art history students. Economics majors in particular could benefit from taking the class, especially considering the auction “game” Bloom created is modeled on investment portfolio competitions for business students, which require developing mock portfolios.

“These days, we look at art as a commodity,” he says. “That gives us a very different understanding of art history, which in turn leads us to ask different questions and learn different things.”

Auctions and sales are one of Bloom’s specialties, and he notes the recent trend of record sales as indicative of the commodification of the modern art world. Picasso’s “Women of Algiers” sold at Christie’s in May 2015 and brought $179 million, the highest price ever achieved at auction for a work of art.

Over the summer, Bloom will work with students to elaborate on the auction game through his Mellon Outside the Box grant. He specifically plans on imbedding and utilizing items from collections at museums such as the Speed Museum and the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts in Louisville.

Bloom is also currently working on a project for the upcoming Centre College bicentennial in 2019. It will feature an interactive 3D campus map with the capacity to view the campus virtually at any stage in its 200-year history.

A scrolling tab will allow viewers to see the campus footprint at specific times between 1819 and 2019, and each footprint will have related imbedded content.

Bloom is applying for a digital grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is collaborating with faculty and staff from all three divisions for the project. He believes it could act as an important demonstration of Centre education in the 21st century.

“It’s not about changing the education,” he says, “but translating it to visual modes of expression, apprehension and acquisition of knowledge that are compelling and important.”

by Mary Trollinger
April 8, 2016