WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews:
I am pleased and honored to present feminist art historian Margo Hobbs, who served as president of WCA from 2018 to 2020. Dr. Hobbs initiated and organized the Art Writers Committee, which is how I met her and experienced her exemplary leadership. This interview is part of the WCA Leadership Project in celebration of the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, one of the initiatives of the Art Writers Committee, and part of her WCA legacy. In our conversation Dr. Hobbs shares her memories and experiences about her career and WCA.
Dr. Hobbs is Art Department Chair and Professor of Art and Art History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. She teaches courses in modern and contemporary art, women and art, and African American art. Prior to teaching at Muhlenberg, she taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bucknell University, the University of Notre Dame, Illinois State University, and the University of Vermont. Dr. Hobbs earned her B.A., at St. John’s College, an M.A., from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her Ph.D., from Northwestern University. Her research focuses on feminist art and artists of the 1970s and 1980s, with a particular interest in representing identity in photography. She has also written about graffiti art and public sculpture.
MKM: Were you always interested in art?
MH: I was always interested in art, but I realized early on that I didn’t have the discipline needed to really master a medium and work independently. I was interested in talking to my artist friends about their process, and I thought working in a gallery would be fun. (When I was in college, the ambitious young art dealer Mary Boone was on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. My roommate and I decided we wanted to be her.) After college, I moved to Santa Fe and found a job as the registrar of a gallery selling sophisticated paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by local artists. I loved the small city art scene but after a few years I wanted more intellectual stimulation. I decided to pursue an MA in modern art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Working as a TA for the art history faculty, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching along with the research and writing, and so I applied to Northwestern to pursue a Ph.D. to become a college professor.
MKM: Do you have any memorable teachers, mentors, role models?
MH: Artist Tee A. Corinne took me under her wing early in the process of researching my dissertation on vaginal imagery in 1970s feminist art. She was the author of The Cunt Coloring Book—published in 1975 and still in print—which was a key work for my analysis. We met on the Feminist Art History listserv and she graciously shared her own archives, talked through my ideas with me, and connected me with other lesbian feminist artists whose work I would discuss—she knew everyone. I remember her introducing me around at a reception for the CAA Queer Caucus, “This is Margo, who I believe is heterosexual…” Her seal of approval was crucial for me to make connections with artists whose work was barely archived, much less the subject of much scholarship in the mid-1990s—such as Harmony Hammond. After completing my dissertation, I published an article on Tee’s graphics made for lesbian feminist ‘zines in GLQ: The Gay and Lesbian Quarterly which pleased her. And she was the impetus for my recent research on the feminist photography annual The Blatant Image (1981-1983), which originated in the feminist photography “ovulars” which were held on women’s land in Southern Oregon where she lived.
MKM: How has your work changed over time?
MH: My work has changed over time in two important ways: I have embraced my identity as a queer woman and consequently my research feels more personal, and I have learned from the examples of other queer art historians to have more confidence in my scholarly pursuits.
It might seem odd that a straight woman would take up the topic of vaginal imagery for her dissertation topic. One of the faculty on my dissertation committee, responding to my thesis proposal, scoffed that to study 1970s feminist art without taking up so-called “central core” imagery “was just pussy-footing around” (“so to speak,” said my advisor). I took his advice, and developed a thesis that the act of looking at vaginal imagery destabilized a straight female viewer’s identity in a performative sense. Little did I know. A little more than 10 years after finishing my thesis, I fell in love with a woman, realized I had been yearning for that experience my whole life, and never looked back. My desire to make visible artists working at the intersection of feminist and queer art feels urgent and deeply satisfying.
In the midst of that existential crisis of sexual awakening, I began to work on an article on The Blatant Image and the representations of lesbian identity scattered through its pages. I think the draft I sent the editors, Christopher Reed and Jongwoo Jeremy Kim, was a mess of half-baked, theory-driven analysis. They tactfully focused my thesis, offered more nuanced reads of the images, and suggested cuts. From Chris, I learned to think about archives as places where ideas could germinate, not as repositories of illustrations for preconceived notions. From Jongwoo, I was encouraged to think more queerly and creatively as I formulate ideas, to resist fixing meanings.
MKM: What work do you most enjoying doing – teaching or writing?
MH: As much as I enjoy researching and writing, I earned my degree in order to teach and I’m passionate about that. I want to share my conviction that works of art are inexhaustible. In talking about an artwork, you necessarily limit yourself by attending to certain issues or questions while excluding others. Words and visual expression are incommensurable—otherwise artists would just explain their ideas. I want my students to get excited about what art can do aesthetically, culturally, politically. I want them to be able to mine the past for creative solutions to persistent problems, to find themselves in historical works. Over time, I’ve become less invested in imparting art historical knowledge to students and more interested in teaching them the skills to find information, analyze visual evidence, and generate their own ideas.
MKM: I think the talent and skills that make you a successful teacher also made you a great leader. For you, what was the most important thing you accomplished as WCA president?
MH: The most important thing I accomplished was after my term as president, when I reached out to all the self-identifying art writers in the member directory and organized the Art Writers Committee. I didn’t have a particular agenda in mind beyond figuring out how to make the organization more relevant for people like me—feminist art historians working in the academy. To be honest, I’m not sure that WCA is my best fit as an academic and the faculty members of the AWC have participated less over time. But the group has accomplished a compelling reboot of the WCA blog, Art Insights, a transformation in process of the WCA publication Art Lines, and the WCA Leadership Interview Project for our 50th anniversary. My part in this has been to convene regular meetings, facilitate constructive discussion, identify initiatives and steps toward accomplishing them, and stay out of the way. Moving forward, I believe that the AWC will be the place where members engage with important developments in the contemporary art world while maintaining a commitment to highlighting women’s voices.
MKM: Art is the focus of your professional life, at home do you maintain any collections or live with other artists’ artwork?
MH: When I worked at the gallery in Santa Fe, I did a quick favor for one of the artists we represented, and in return she gifted me a small monoprint of hers. Several artists graciously allowed me to choose a small work from their solo exhibitions at the gallery, and some works I purchased over time from my employer with deductions from my small paycheck. These gifts and purchases from artist friends are precious reminders of that time in my life when I was beginning to find my way. Working as a professor in various art departments, I’ve acquired works from my brilliantly talented colleagues and students. And during my time on the WCA Board, I’ve added to my collection works by artists whom I admire tremendously—Linda Stein, Margaret Parker, Rosalind Bloom. Nothing makes me happier than looking at the art in my home and thinking about the connections I have with the people who created it.
To learn more about Margo Hobbs and Art History at Muhlenberg, visit: https://www.muhlenberg.edu/academics/art/facultystaff/margohobbs/