Smart to the Core: How the Feitler Center Brings Academic Inquiry to the Forefront of Fine Arts

April 1, 2019

Most people on campus are probably aware that the University is home to the Smart Museum of Art, a renowned fine arts gallery. However, not everyone realizes the extent of the resources the museum has available to faculty and students, and that some exhibitions are designed exclusively with the UChicago curriculum in mind.

In February 2018, the Smart announced the establishment of the Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry, which is dedicated to integrating object-driven inquiry into the University’s academic programs. Issa Lampe, the Smart’s Deputy Director for Academic and Curatorial Affairs, also serves as Director of the Feitler Center. Lampe came to the Smart in 2018 from the Yale University Art Gallery, where she was the Bradley Senior Associate Curator for Academic Affairs.

“Our mission is to increase the use of Smart collections and exhibitions across disciplines of the University,” Lampe explained. “We do this in three ways: by developing curricular exhibitions that support or result from the teaching of courses, facilitating UChicago course visits to study our collections in the museum’s classroom, and coordinating a variety of student engagement opportunities.”

Every two years, the Smart will curate an exhibition in partnership with faculty directly tied to the UChicago College Core Curriculum, known as the Smart to the Core series. The current Smart to the Core: Embodying the Self exhibition blends both modern and contemporary art by exploring the visual construction of selfhood across a range of gender, sexual, racial, ethnic, and intersectional identities. The exhibit was created to serve as primary source material for the social sciences course sequence “Self, Culture, and Society.” Books and other reading materials from the course are available in a sitting area located at the center of the exhibit, along with an invitation for students to mark up the materials as they reflect on the content.

Faculty from the Department of Sociology (and any other discipline) are invited to bring their classes into the museum to view this show or the museum’s other exhibitions, and to explore additional pieces of the Smart’s vast collections that may not currently be on display. An encyclopedic art museum with a collection of more than 15,000 objects in storage, the Smart is also equipped with a classroom. Faculty are invited to teach with objects from the Smart collection. Feitler Center staff can offer guidance about which works to select and will even lead course conversations with and for faculty in the classroom and galleries. 

Lampe generally meets with faculty members in advance of a class visit to get a sense of how the material ties into the course syllabus. When the student visit occurs, Lampe gives a brief introduction to the pieces, shares some background on the artist and subject matter, and facilitates an interactive discussion. Students are then given a group activity prompt and asked to analyze a piece of art in context of some texts they have read during the quarter. During the final portion of the session, students share excerpts of their prompts with one another.

Lampe said that the response to the first Smart to the Core exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The entire process has been fantastic,” she said. “It’s helped more faculty realize that works of visual art—when closely linked to their course themes—can really enhance their students’ text-based learning experiences. And it’s always exciting for me to see students having ‘aha’ moments when they discover that that the visual arts really matter, really move them.”

Smart to the Core: Embodying the Self runs through May 19. The next exhibition tied into the Core Curriculum will have a humanities focus and is scheduled open in late 2021 or early 2022. Faculty interested in setting up a class visit to the Smart or who wish to learn about other engagement opportunities may contact Lampe directly at 773.834.3886 or