FAA Faculty Awarded Prestigious Mellon Grant for Collective Projects

Friday, September 16, 2022

Led by M. Cynthia Oliver, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation and professor of dance, a research-practitioner team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Fine and Applied Arts has received $594,500 from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation to support a collection of projects to drive awareness and action towards disrupting institutional inequities.

The grant is one of six from Mellon’s Higher Learning Program awarded specifically in the area of intersectional studies. The Higher Learning Program is “dedicated to creating equitable broader access to humanities higher learning opportunities” for students and for faculty, centering more complete and accurate narratives representative of the US demographic.

Oliver is joined by co-primary investigators Christopher Robert Jones, research assistant professor in FAA and affiliate faculty in the School of Art and Design, Liza Sylvestre, curator of academic programs at Krannert Art Museum and research assistant professor in FAA, and Sandra Ruiz, associate professor in English and theatre, and the Sue Divan Associate Professor of Performance Studies. All three recently started new roles with FAA to support their growing applied research projects.

The collaboration also received funding from the University of Illinois’ Chancellor’s Call to Action to Address Racism & Social Injustice Research Program which recognizes the critical need to “prioritize research focused on systemic racial inequities and injustices” and to provide support for “the expansion of community-based knowledge” that advances these efforts.

Collected under the title, “Minoritarian Aesthetics: Collective Practices Across Difference,” the projects center the voices and experiences of historically excluded or “minoritized” populations. They seek to reappropriate the terms “Minor” and “Aesthetics” and in doing so, recognize, value, and prioritize the creative practices of women, queer, disabled, and people of color.

Crip*: Cripistemology and the Arts is a project co-led by Sylvestre and Jones that focuses on applying Crip/Disabled epistemologies and experiences to arts practice and pedagogy through both course development and curatorial practice.

The Minor Aesthetics Lab: Experiments in Performance and Politics, led by Ruiz, serves as a space to explore social constructions like race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and class through collaborative experimentation using arts such as theatre, photography, music, curation, dance, poetry, and sculpture.

The two projects are unified by their dedication to practices in intersectionality. With this joint funding, both programs will become essential components of a Minoritarian Aesthetics Certification Program and the establishment of a Minoritarian Aesthetics archive and library. The certification program will offer practice-based classes that may result in exhibitions or performances that use the “minor aesthetic” to reconsider knowledge production and art-making practice. Public programming will also serve a key role in the project and may range from performances, artist talks, round table discussions, studio visits and workshops, as well as the development of a manuscript that will draw from the foundational work of the Minoritarian Aesthetics archive.

Collectively, the funding allows the team to create infrastructure to expand their work beyond the college. “Both projects were already existing and developing,” explains Ruiz, “this funding is giving us the opportunity to bring them together in conversation and collaboration as we think outside of the unit, unrestricted by discipline.”

Organizing this effort at the level of the college, rather than within individual departments, allows “[us to think] about accessibility in a different way and how those considerations are coming into play,” says Sylvestre, “a huge population of students identify as having a disability, but it can be really difficult for students to navigate university processes for accessibility. How can access be integrated into everything from conception rather than after the fact. How can we do that outside the unit? How do we create an access culture and ecology where everyone feels more welcome?”

Jones elaborates: “The way we all approach our respective projects and what we do goes beyond attention to subject matter and gets into methodology and how this work is formulated. We are bringing in the research and exposing the college culture to these ideas, but also brainstorming the possibilities of what the structure of this kind of study might be.”

Mellon’s Higher Learning Program awards in intersectional studies were also awarded to New York University, University of Southern California, University of Virginia, University of Utah, and Georgia State University. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is one of the nation’s largest supporters of the arts and humanities.