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Online resource highlights undervalued difference-makers in art's long history

NC1March 11, 2021

With an unlimited online database of articles, videos, and educational resources, Community College of Rhode Island Professor Natalie Coletta is working to shine light on an underrepresented slice of art’s expansive history.

A project nearly two years in the making, Coletta, a professor of Art History and Visual Studies, recently launched ArtxHistory, an open educational resource (OER) which she describes as a “radical reader” or collective resource designed to “offer a more inclusive art history balanced with the work of women, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ persons, intersectional makers, and the self-taught.”

OERs are freely-accessible, openly-licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing, as well as for research purposes. ArtxHistory is licensed as “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” on the international network Creative Commons, which means readers are allowed to copy and redistribute the material in any format in addition to transforming or rebuilding. The “x” between “Art” and “History,” Coletta said, is a multiplier – or placeholder – for inclusion between the two fields, and even a mark of affection.

In many cases, including Coletta’s Art History: Modern through Contemporary course this semester, an OER can replace an outdated textbook by virtue of its constantly-updated well of resources. The material on ArtXHistory is free and can be researched and accessed in any order depending on the reader’s preference, which, Coletta says, is an attractive option for students who prefer to learn at their own pace.

ArtxHistory is a hub of information, categorized by decades – the bulk of the material focuses on art history beyond 1940 – with each 10-year span featuring a variety of newspaper and magazine articles, videos, and photo galleries referencing important historical innovations and milestone achievements from those whose contributions, Coletta said, aren’t always widely recognized in mainstream academia. 

“Each nugget of information does not need to be digested in order. You are free to jump around, and, while the information about one artist is paired with a few links, each link does not need the other survive,” said CCRI student Erica Chick. “Learning this information in this format has been the most successful way for me to learn”

A tour of the 1970s includes a link to David Bowie’s music video for “Life on Mars,” branded as a “social” and “cultural” resource with Bowie – an iconic figure in the LGBT community – focusing on the point of view of a young girl and her desire to escape reality. The fall of the Berlin wall is featured as a “seminal event” during the 1980s, a decade also highlighted by the rising popularity of Nancy Goldin, an American photographer whose work focused largely on LGBT culture. Fast forward to the 2000s and you’ll find a gallery featuring the work of American painter Kehinde Wiley, known for his highly-realistic portraits of noteworthy African-American figures, including former president Barack Obama, whose portrait he painted for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery "America's Presidents" exhibition.

While the official launch of the site is timely during both a worldwide pandemic that has placed a stronger emphasis on remote teaching and learning and our current period of civil and political unrest, Coletta really began envisioning the framework for her OER during the spring of 2019 after she switched textbooks for one of her courses and found the new material “exclusive” and “outdated.” With so few artists of color, female artists, etc., represented in these course materials, Coletta was determined to create an inclusive, equitable timeline providing space to artists previously downplayed or excluded in publications.

“We’re in a time of reckoning in our field and this sort of fast-tracks that in the decades we are addressing in ArtxHistory,” she said. 

As an activist dedicated to affordable, inclusive education, Coletta also created ArtxHistory with socioeconomic concerns in mind; open access to a free resource such as this eliminates the need for her students, and others, to purchase course materials they might otherwise have trouble affording.

“This is really something that I’ve been working on for a very long time, and now the project itself is coming to fruition at a well-timed moment,” Coletta said. “The work I’ve been prioritizing is now able to find a voice, which might not have been the case prior to 2020.”

Coletta put in long hours outside of the classroom cultivating material for the site and also leaned on others for assistance, including Library Department Chair and Associate Professor Jim Salisbury, an early advocate for the database, and student facilitator Halima Ibrahim, who is the Knight Campus Student Government President and Rhode Island’s Youth Poetry Ambassador. As an Egyptian American student and Art History major with an interest in Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) history, Ibrahim provides a unique perspective that Coletta says has helped her further understand SWANA as the site continues to grow. Consequently, the development of ArtXHistory has been a learning experience for Coletta, and she encourages her current Art History: Modern through Contemporary students to participate in discovering resources.

“They have a seat at this table, too,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in including students in its development, not just in their feedback, but in their work, and giving them a space to participate in that development by actually contributing resourcing for review and possible inclusion in its construction.”

Upon launching ArtXHistory, Coletta participated in a panel discussion entitled “Three Views on Open Educational Resources,” hosted by Vancouver-based educational platform Open Art Histories. The mini-conference featured art historians from Open Art Histories and, the world's largest repository of art history learning content in the world, while focusing on the use of open educational resources (OERs) in teaching art and art history. Coletta described her participation as “a great moment for myself, for ArtxHistory, and the Community College of Rhode Island.”

With the site’s exposure on the rise this semester, Coletta’s ultimate goal is to enhance it as a portal that will be considered for “continued application” in and out of the classroom because of its ability to “grow and change” as contributors unearth new resources. It can also be a useful learning tool in disciplines beyond Art and Art History – “something that can enrich us and allow us to continue to have conservations while encouraging participation from others,” Coletta said.

“I’m glad to share it with the college and see how others find it useful,” she said. “It’s a labor of learning and a labor of commitment. I care about my students, as we all do at CCRI. That’s where this is coming from.”

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