Newest member of the art and art history faculty, a New York Times critic and essayist, hopes to forge a path between the creator and the analyst
For art students, it can feel like the pathway into a career should fall into one of two strictly separate categories: art maker or art historian.
Starting in the spring of 2021, however, this divide will be challenged with the arrival of the University of Colorado Boulder’s newest art and art history faculty member, Megan O’Grady, who is also an art critic and essayist for The New York Times.
As an adolescent growing up in Kansas City, O’Grady found herself influenced by the novels she read, and the art found in the museums of her childhood.
One of the most profound early interactions she had with art occurred when she first saw photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series,” which depicts scenes from a woman’s life around the titular table: with her daughter, with her friends, with a lover, and finally alone, self-possessed and powerful.
Seeing Weems’ photography made O’Grady realize that art was not restricted to the domain of the white, European male. For the first time, O’Grady believed that art could reflect her own life and experiences.
“This is still more or less the same approach that I take when I look at art today,” explains O’Grady.
While attending New York University for her MA in literature and MFA in creative writing, O’Grady’s views on art and writing were further challenged. In a class on craft taught by the American novelist E.L. Doctorow, she was pushed to look at an author’s work differently than in her literary theory classes, to consider its intent and craft.
This sparked something in O’Grady, who was also interested in art’s potential to challenge the way we see ourselves in the world, to connect us in an empathic way with another’s experience.
Taking this approach, O’Grady decided that she wanted to write about art in a more intimate and experiential way, grounding her artist subjects in not only their personal biography but also a larger cultural context, “moving from micro to macro, from detail shot to whole.”
She has written many long-form artist profiles for The New York Times, including one on Weems—“a dream subject,” she says—as well as Barbara Kruger, Frank Stella, Arthur Jafa, and the performance artist Pope.L, who is known especially for his public interventions.
In her time with Pope.L, it became clear that the artist’s drive to create was not fueled by a mystical bolt of creativity and inspiration, but rather by a deep-seated rage and shame—and an urgent desire to call attention to our country’s deepening underclass.
Along with the artist, O’Grady traveled to Flint, Michigan, for a project that dealt with the area’s ongoing water crisis. It was during this trip that O’Grady realized an artist profile could speak to much larger issues with very real stakes.
In addition to her profiles and critical essays—most recently, on Patricia Highsmith and the American fascination with impostors—O’Grady created a column for T, The New York Times Style Magazine, titled Culture Therapy, which she now co-writes.
An advice column that addresses readers’ problems through the prism of fine art, Culture Therapy can be seen as central to O’Grady’s main thesis: that art can have a real impact on both our public and private lives and that it shouldn’t be presented as the domain of elite insiders. Recent installments have focused on the aftermath of loss, on how our sense of beauty changes as we age, and on the risk of having children in uncertain times.
O’Grady’s work aims at the possibility of art writing to expand art’s impact across social boundaries. While her practice involves a heavy amount of scholarly research, it is her approach that makes her a creative in her own right.
She was attracted to CU Boulder’s Department of Art and Art History because of the impressive colleagues on both the scholarly and art practice sides, she says. One might think of her, as a critic, as a kind of bridge between these two sides.
There are so many paths to the well, and you have to find your own."
“It’s so tough to be an artist at this time, in this country, where there is so much scrutiny of art, and yet so little public funding for it,” says O’Grady when asked about what it means to her to be teaching now.
“I have so much admiration for artists and students who are able to forge ahead, to reflect and react, during this time—to make art in the midst of crisis, and when so many essential, long-overdue conversations are being had.”
She hopes that she can support CU Boulder’s art and art history and journalism students by challenging them to bring more critical context into their creative practices and helping them create narratives around their work and others in courses such as arts or cultural reporting and criticism, which she will teach this fall.
O’Grady realizes that this can be an especially isolating time for students but is hopeful that she can help students feel connected to each other and to a larger art world.
While much of O’Grady’s work contends with socially engaged art and issues of representation, what she most wants her students to understand is that, above all, “there are so many paths to the well, and you have to find your own.”