The practice of visual arts began to play a larger role at the University of Chicago in the mid-’40s, when the University acquired Midway Studios from sculptor Lorado Taft. At that time both studio and art history classes were incorporated under the Department of Art.
Taft briefly served on the studio faculty, which over the years grew to include notable artists such as Ruth Duckworth and Virginio Ferrari. Meanwhile, the art history faculty was based in Goodspeed Hall, moving to the then-new Cochrane-Woods Art Center in 1974.
Like art departments everywhere at the time, UChicago’s department had no special emphasis on contemporary art. The faculty was accustomed to reviewing dissertations, not MFA student work, and for both sets of faculty it was difficult to compare MFA to PhD candidates when it came to student funding. “I don’t remember it as being extremely tense or anything like that,” says Charles Cohen, the Mary L. Block Professor of Art History and an expert in the art of the Italian Renaissance, who arrived at UChicago in 1970. “It’s just it was apples and oranges.”
To separate the apples from the oranges, in 1975 a committee chaired by faculty from across the Division of the Humanities recommended that the studio faculty form a “semi-autonomous subsection” of the art department, to be known as the Committee on Art and Design (CAD).
Created, Cohen says, to be “forward looking and interdisciplinary,” CAD featured studio faculty as well as more traditionally academic faculty, including Cohen, as well as anthropologists and philosophers. These faculty members, and the committee’s requirement that students take courses outside the studio, were “intended to give a kind of support and clarity to the activity of the studio,” says Cohen, who chaired both the department and the committee from 1976 to 1982 and 1986 to 1989.
In 1996, the beginning of Cohen’s third term as chair, CAD became the Committee on Visual Arts (CoVA) and the Department of Art officially became the Department of Art History. Ten years later visual arts became its own full-fledged department: the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA). Over the next six years Laura Letinsky—the most senior appointment in DoVA—with the help of Elizabeth Helsinger, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the Departments of English Language and Literature, Art History, and Visual Arts, and DoVA chair from 2009–2011, worked to build the faculty in DoVA, and the the department began to attract notice.
The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which opened in 2012, was the first successful effort in more than 80 years to build a dedicated, multidisciplinary arts building on campus. The center was an added attraction for faculty hires, including interdisciplinary artist William Pope.L and DoVA chair Jessica Stockholder, who came from Yale in 2011 to join what she termed a university community “full of conversation and energy.”