Knowledge Is Power for Stony Brook Professor Michele Bogart
Michele Bogart has a strong opinion and she’s not afraid to voice it.
Nothing gets the Stony Brook professor of art history more fired up than the topic of public artwork being removed for no reason other than ignorance of a piece’s historical significance. The subjects in dispute vary — portraits of government leaders in City Hall in New York City, or most recently, mosaic murals in an office building in midtown Manhattan — but one thing remains constant: Bogart will go to great lengths to educate others about the artwork in question, using the media and her expertise to win others to her side much of the time.
“Particularly in the public realm, I think it’s important to fight the good fight for art in general,” said Bogart, who is on the board of directors of the New York Preservation Archive Project and a member of the Public Design Commission’s Conservation Advisory Group. “Art makes you think — it presents reality in a way that text, media and other forms of communication do not. It is important to oppose or defend art on the basis of knowledge.”
To be sure, it is Bogart’s vast knowledge that gives her leverage. She has decades of expertise in urban design and commercial culture and has published extensively on public art, memorials, animation, landscape and garden history, photography, illustration and advertising. She is the author of several books, one of which, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890–1930, won the Smithsonian Institution/Museum of American Art’s Charles C. Eldredge Prize and was named “a pioneering work” by the Archives of American Art. Bogart also has been the recipient of fellowships from the Smithsonian Institution, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
When it comes to conserving or removing a specific piece of public art, not everyone shares Bogart’s viewpoint, but few could dispute that she exhibits incredible passion for the artwork she defends.
“Michele is one of the most intelligent and ethical art historians I have ever met,” wrote Sandra Langer, a book reviewer at Women’s Review of Books. “What she knows about public sculpture most people never knew…She also has the courage of her convictions.”
Bogart’s enthusiasm carries over into the classroom at Stony Brook, where she has taught undergraduate and graduate classes since 1982 on topics such as sculpture and public art installation and the history of parks and parks politics. Students who post on Rate My Professors consistently give her high marks, citing her passion and knowledge for the subject matter.
“I bring some of my interests into the classroom, so that when it comes to talking about public art or preservation, for example, I try to impart some of my enthusiasm to others so that they will take action,” Bogart said. “My passion comes from knowing that there are very few people who are going to get out there and try to protect a much-maligned piece of artwork, for example.”
Although most of the public artwork Bogart defends is in New York City, on occasion she opines about out-of-state matters.
“If somebody asks me for help on something, I try to learn more about it,” she said, citing a case several years ago involving a public official from Maine and the surreptitious removal of murals in the middle of the night.
“The murals represented labor, not business, so this official had them removed. Next thing I know, I got a call from somebody in Maine doing an article about what happened, so I weighed in on it.”
Between teaching at Stony Brook and working on personal projects — she is finishing a book about municipal sculpture in New York City from 1955 to 1995 and preparing for an upcoming fellowship at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany this summer — Bogart has precious little time to defend public artwork. Yet she comes across new cases all the time through her connections with the Parks Department and Landmarks Conservancy and by scouring newspaper articles and blog posts.
If she feels strongly about a specific piece, Bogart finds time to advocate for its preservation. It’s all part of her plan to educate the public — and herself.
“Knowledge about history — which memorials and monuments are part of — is a way of understanding the world as it was and getting a better understanding of the world as it is,” Bogart said. “The more you learn about a certain piece of art and its history, the more interesting it gets. Every single work has some kind of story, and every story is about humans.”
— By Susan Tito; photos by John Griffin