The teacher, historian, curator, and artist looks to a new chapter for the storied art school
STORY UPDATED: 3/31/2022
Editor's note: Tufts University is deeply saddened to report the passing of incoming School of the Museum of Fine Arts Dean Margaret Vendryes. The story below, which recounts highlights of her career, remains a testament to the excitement the Tufts community felt in anticipation of her arrival in Academic Year 2023, and its sorrow at her untimely loss.
When she starts her new post as dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in June, Margaret Vendryes will take the helm of one of the oldest art schools in the nation. The art historian, curator, educator, and visual artist said she plans to build on that legacy, while also embracing the school’s need to evolve.
“I'm hoping that I can be the face of change,” she said, “and that I can be the one that shows that the school is entering a new era and that there is something new to learn about what the school is doing and why it is doing it.”
Key to that will be leading the way on the school’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, things she has championed throughout her long career in the arts and academia, most recently as chair of the Department of Performing and Fine Arts at York College at the City University of New York (CUNY).
“As a Black, queer practicing artist, historian, and curator, I openly represent, and advocate for, these groups and professions,” she said. “But my work also encompasses the full spectrum of the visual arts and all who claim a place within them.”
Vendryes first claimed her spot in that world as a fine arts major with an art history concentration at Amherst College in the 1980s. Making art was her passion, but one of her professors, seeing her interest in the history of African American art, encouraged her to continue in academia. “He said you can always paint, but you’ll forget how to write, you’ll lose touch with research,” Vendryes recalled.
She went on to pursue a master’s degree in art history at Tulane University. There she discovered an archive of personal papers from Richmond Barthé (1901-1989), the Black American sculptor, that no one had yet gone through; she volunteered to process them. Vendryes continued her studies of the sculptor during her Ph.D. at Princeton, and eventually became one of the foremost scholars on Barthé, publishing the definitive biography Barthé: A Life in Sculpture in 2008.
Vendryes admires Barthé not only as an “absolutely exquisite craftsman,” but as someone who would do whatever he needed to keep making his art. “He worked odd jobs, traded his work for groceries,” Vendryes said. “He was a very proud person, but he took charity to stay at it. He knew that that was what he was sent here to do: to make the art.”
Vendryes never gave up on her own art. Since 2005, her studio time has focused on the connection between popular Black female performers in the United States and traditional African art. Inspired by the movements of the masquerade dancers she saw during a trip to Mali, she began painting Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Mariah Carey, and other stars wearing African masks, and the African Diva Project was born. “It's about cultural continuity and cultural retention,” she said, “If you look at Beyoncé throwing her body around on stage, that's exactly what African dancers do when they mask.”
As important as her work in the studio is to her, some of her most satisfying moments have been as a teacher and a mentor. As a professor of art history at York College and the CUNY Graduate Center, where she has taught for two decades, she takes pride in the seminars she created on topics such as post-Black art. Some of her students went on to work as artists, curators, and art educators. In her five years as department chair, she guided 10 junior faculty members to promotion or tenure by helping them promote their accomplishments.
At the same time, she expanded the college’s role in its community. As curator of York College’s Fine Arts Gallery, she inherited an underutilized, outdated venue. “I took it as my project to bring the gallery back to life,” she said. She started a York College Foundation fund, seeded with her own money, to raise funds to renovate the space. Then she invited artists from the local community to show their work, founding the Southeast Queens Biennial, now in its third year.
Because of the many roles Vendryes has played, “she brings with her a comprehensive understanding of the field from the perspectives of an art historian, a visual artist, a curator, and an educator,” said James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s an extraordinary combination.”
Vendryes’ ability to forge connections was one of the things that struck Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries, who chaired the dean search committee. SMFA at Tufts has a long history with the broader Boston art community, a relationship she expects Vendryes will cultivate. “The art ecosystem is complex, and she seems to be especially talented at navigating that complexity with a deep understanding and generosity,” Deitsch said.
Vendryes, who served as advisory board chair for the Africana Studies Center and the LGBTQ+ faculty liaison at York College, will continue SMFA at Tufts’ work toward diversity, equity and inclusion. And she would add another goal: access.
“There are students who wouldn't even consider applying to the school because they don't feel like they would be successful,” she said. Expanding access will mean reaching out to the kinds of students who may have been overlooked in the past, “so that they can feel that they are welcome and that they will be supported—that their work will be looked at seriously.”
Vendryes recognizes that not all potential artists are like Barthé—willing to sacrifice everything for their art. Especially for those from lower-income backgrounds, an art career may seem financially unfeasible. As dean, Vendryes hopes to better present the potential of an SMFA at Tufts degree “so that students who are talented and have skills,” she said, “can feel like they can make something of their life through that talent.”
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.