When I started this series in December last year, I wrote my introduction about my long journey to find art, and specifically art history, podcast that I would love. I mentioned then just about three or four art related podcast I truly felt fulfilled by – counting my two interviewees, The Art History Babes and The Lonely Palette. Little did I know that while I was longing for more Good Art History Content™️, somewhere in London, Art UK’s Social Media Marketer and modern Chinese Art Historian, Ferren Gipson, was preparing to do just that.
In February 2018, Ferren started Art Matters, the podcast for Art UK, the online platform of the UK’s public art collection. Drawing on the website’s 200, 000 (and counting) artworks, Ferren invites a new guest each episodes to discuss a crossovers between art history, popular culture, and our everyday lives. Since Episode 1, she has covered topics as diverse as queer art history, tattoos and art, art in the Simpsons, mermaids, Beyoncé, food, fashion, and more. On top of handling Art UK’s social media marketing, and running the Art Matters podcast (which she writes, produces AND hosts) Ferren is also a modern Chinese Art historian, and has recently started her PhD at SOAS, University of London. Before that, she has worked with institutions such as the Tate and the Ashmolean Museum on marketing and events. So, yeah! Interviewing her about art history and podcast is really, very exciting – to say the least. And because Art Matters is just that good, I’ve included a list of my favourite episodes to start with at the bottom of the article. Their last episode, all about stolen artworks and forgeries, is available here.
How did you come to art history?And how did you come to podcasts?
I discovered art history by accident in high school when I had an open slot in my schedule I needed to fill. I liked world history and I thought art could be a visual way of exploring history. Later at university when I needed to declare a major, I wanted to pick a topic I enjoyed so I’d stand the best chance of finishing.
I’ve been loosely interested in the idea of podcasts for a couple of years but settling on a topic felt a bit daunting. Somehow, when Art UK decided to try out a podcast series, it seemed really obvious to me that I’d like to look at art from more non-traditional angles – looking at the everyday things that we all love, and how that connects to art.
You’re starting your PhD at SOAS this year, so I’m curious as to the relationship between making the podcast, and being / becoming an Art Historian.
The podcast is an excellent exercise in building research and interviewing skills. With almost every episode, I start out with more questions than answers, which is the best way to carry out research. I think if you go into research with the solutions in mind, you run a risk of missing out on important learning opportunities.
Continuing on your practice as an art historian – what was your route into art history as an academic practice? What kind of barriers did you face, and, aside from the academic knowledge, what have you learnt from studying art history?
After doing my MA, I entered the work force and was put off of working in art in some ways. There have been people in the course of my career who’ve ‘othered’ me, and that feeling of needing to justify your worthiness can wear a person down. After detouring from art for a while, I reprioritised what I wanted for myself and came back to the sector. I worked for a couple of years to refresh my skills and get my PhD proposal in order, and it’s nice to feel like I’m back on track with my goals. The most important gift that art gives me is the ability to connect with people. Maybe a person doesn’t like art, but they like Hitchcock (a recent episode) – we can connect on the place where those things overlap. There are so many things like this
Do you think your perception of Art History has changed since you started the podcast? If so, how?
Art history, for me, is about seeing into cultures. I don’t think my perceptions have changed, but the podcast has revealed more to me about the ideas I already had. When I look back on it, I realise that I’ve always been fascinated with how popular culture is reflected in art. My MA dissertation, for example, was about Pop Art, Chinese propaganda, and how these things intersected in the 60s and 70s. I would much rather study things on a topical level and find out how that is informed by a society’s everyday interests.
Lastly, what do you think is Art History’s greatest challenge today?
Art history programmes are under threat, which is such a shame, and I think art history is often the butt of jokes about being an easy/useless degree. Let me tell you – art history is a very rigorous discipline! I think it’s important to help people have a better understanding of how art applies to their lives. Some have the feeling that art is a lofty, posh subject that’s hard to understand – that shouldn’t be the case. Through art, we can record the history of our communities, we express ourselves, and we can relate across communication barriers.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I am conducting this interview almost a year after the first two. Originally, I had some thoughts about podcast I didn’t find any way to find into a question per se, so I kind of just left them as observation to comment on – These are revised, more question-y takes on them!
Having studied Art History as an academic discipline, I’m interested in the ways the historian “objectivity” has been questioned in and out of the practice over the past decades. Do you think that the contemporary digital media that have been used to popularize and discuss art history in the digital age (ie podcast, social media, youtube, etc etc), have been problematizing and questioning the validity of objectivity? And do you think they will influence the academic practice of art history in the future?
Digital media invites more people to the table, which is a good thing – more people can get access to art and it’s easier to discover more artists than it was when we were constricted to what could fit in a textbook. It also makes it easier to join the art conversation. With that said, there’s not much accountability on the internet, which can make it the Wild West and lead to misinformation/poor quality information, amongst other issues.
A lot of the art history podcast and history podcast I listen to are women-led. I think that’s partly because I’m seeking out women’s voices, but it’s also super exciting, because even though my course was a majority women, and taught mainly by women, most of the “mainstream” discourse of books, exhibitions and documentaries were / are led by white men, and there was such a tone policing culture in the field even at an undergraduate level, that I didn’t even realize until much later my peers and I had completely internalized. It’s so important for me as a young art historian to hear other women talk intelligently about art history, at any academic level, but also just … have fun with it, and not worry about how they sound, or if the references they are drawing are “good enough.” Do you feel your relationship to your own voice has changed throughout making Art Matters? Has it influenced your non-podcast projects?
I get this comment around the disparity between the presence of men and women professionals in high-level academic and museum institutions a lot. I think a lot of women find it nuts that we were in classes FULL of women at university, yet there are somehow more male professors, etc. Thinking about my university classes, it doesn’t surprise me that there are a lot of female voices in art history podcasts because I think we are a majority in the field.
I’ve become very aware of how I sound as I’ve edited the podcast. I’ve picked up on my quirks and it’s been odd to hear people have opinions about my speaking voice – thankfully they’ve been nice so far. In terms of my metaphorical ‘voice’ as a person speaking on the subject, that’s harder to say. My job in Art Matters is to research, ask questions and pull a story together from what I learn. I’m there to facilitate the telling of a story in a way that represents my guests and the topic in an accurate light. If my voice comes through in anything, it’s probably through the topics I choose.
You can find Ferren Gipson on her website, twitter and instagram, and you can listen to Art Matters wherever you get you podcast. Check out the podcast’s section on the Art UK website to find all episodes, including all resources to learn more about the artworks discussed. And don’t forget to tag Art UK on Twitter and Instagram, when you share your favourites.
TabloidArtHistory was the guest of two of Art Matters podcast: Celebrity Culture, and What To Know For The Met Gala 2018 Theme of Heavenly Bodies.
So where to start? Here are some personal favorites to get a grasp of all the things Art Matters is about:
WORDS BY MAYANNE SORET
Photograph of Ferren Gipson: courtesy of the interviewee