Published: Jan. 29, 2019 By

Art history will be investigated through a non-colonial lens in a new Arts of the Americas PhD program at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

The PhD program aims to redefine art, art history and the Americas, helping to “de-colonize that legacy of art history that’s still with us today,” one faculty member says. One way it will do so, she says, is to focus on the Americas beyond national borders, which have generally dictated how art has been studied.


Kirk Ambrose, Annette de Stecher and James Cordova are professors of art and art history. 

The program, which will welcome its first incoming students in fall 2019, is the first art history PhD program in Colorado. The CU Department of Art and Art History offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history and art practices.

The new program is geared toward professionals working in museums or cultural institutions who already hold an MA in art history or an equivalent degree, and will offer its students opportunities to collaborate with the Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, CU Boulder Museum of Natural History, CU Art Museum and CU Boulder’s Special Collections, Archives & Preservation. 

Professor Kirk Ambrose, chair and professor of art and art history, says PhD students will work closely with these local museums and pursue “radically understudied materials … that are just waiting to be tapped.” 

Professor Annette de Stecher has her PhD in cultural mediation with a focus on cultural and visual studies, and is a leading specialist in historical Native North American art. 

Professor James Cordova, who focuses on Pre-Columbian and colonial Latin American art history, describes the program as “creating specialists that speak across disciplines.” 

This program is not intended to foster scholars in the traditional sense, but rather aims to build scholars working in museums and museology who can bring an interdisciplinary understanding to their communities and foster discourse there. 

Ambrose adds that the program aims to foster an environment in which “the scholar is not in an ivory tower” but is fully engaged with her or his local community. 

One mission of the program, according to Cordova, is to “dismantle arbitrary divides in academia across fields or entire disciplines that can prevent meaningful communication.” The program also “takes a holistic approach to studying art production across the diverse political geography of the Americas.”

Colorado and the West have a rich history of cross-cultural exchanges among indigenous people and from pre-colonial times to the present. This creates “troves and troves of material objects and archival materials available in the region,” Ambrose notes.

He mentions that the program aims to “take advantage of place and awareness of the local and regional history” of Colorado, and to leverage that “positionality” to produce an engaged and social-minded project.

Professor de Stecher emphasizes the importance of making the program and also the field of art history “as equitable as possible,” and of bringing diverse communities into museums “to tell their own stories.” 

According to de Stecher, this endeavor is already underway; institutions partnering with the program have emphasized indigenous voices in their exhibitions.

Cordova says the program emphasizes collaboration of scholarship and dissolution of borders. To look at the Americas as a whole, “rather than little silos of fields and sub-fields” helps to generate analysis of how art fosters cross-cultural communication, he adds. 

As for de Stecher, shesays this interdisciplinary method is key to the program’s foundation, and is excited to work closely with other scholars.

These discussions provide an “opportunity for shared scholarship to look at how the forces of the colonial project worked out,” says de Stecher, mentioning that she and Cordova are often struck by the parallels in their fields.

These parallels present themselves most notably in the ways those colonial encounters were “mediated” by indigenous communities. 

“The new program will challenge traditional and mainstream understandings of art by unpacking, contextualizing and decolonizing the term (art),” Cordova says.

“We’re not just here to appreciate art,” he says. “We’re here to analyze and to be critical of the forces that surround its production, consumption and interpretation.”

At the top of the page is a painting by Eve Drewelowe, American (1899-1988), The Tetons—Wyoming, 1936, oil paint on canvas, 32 x 38 inches composition, Gift of Mary Rogers Thoms, CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, 85.1744, Photo: Jeff Wells, © CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder.