Douglas Fordham: Educator
Associate Professor, UVA Art Department
WFU Class of 1995
Double Major: Art History & Economics
Douglas Fordham arrived at Wake Forest without any prior exposure to the arts. In the four years that followed, Douglas would realize his interest in both art history and creating in the studio. Now a professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, Douglas explains how his path has unfolded since undergrad.
DeacLink: Tell us about your current role at University of Virginia.
Douglas Fordham: I’ve been teaching at UVA for the past twelve years. I am an associate professor in the art department, which contains the studio and art history programs. My main field is Eighteenth Century European Art with a specialization in British art. My primary job requirement is to teach four classes a year, both undergraduate and graduate courses, and advise undergraduate and graduate theses. I’m also finishing up a book on printmaking and the British Empire in the Eighteenth Century.
DL: That all sounds fantastic. Could you take us through your journey to professorship since leaving undergrad at Wake?
DF: I graduated in 1995 and had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I wasn’t done learning and taking courses, and my experience in London studying art history had been particularly significant. I stayed in Winston to work in Wake Admissions for a year, and during that time I researched and applied to programs. I was grateful to have Professor Harry Titus’s guidance during this process, because I pretty much went into it blind. Looking back I believe the unique combination of my double major at Wake (Art History and Economics) helped me stand out; my undergraduate thesis combined the two and was a bit offbeat compared to the majority of applicants. Yale ended up being an obvious choice for me, given the funding opportunity and their incredible center for British Art.
The first few years at Yale were really hard, honestly. Compared to my peers my art historical background wasn’t terribly strong. However, the interdisciplinary work and research training that I received at Wake prepared me extremely well. It’s probably true for many people; you have strengths and weaknesses, and find a way to work it out.
I completed my graduate degree with Yale after seven years, and although they had career services it was still very stressful and difficult finding that first job. I applied to numerous positions. Anything that was remotely relevant. After interviewing for a few different posts, I was thrilled to accept a two-year Postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia in New York. While I was at Columbia I interviewed with UVa and received an offer to teach there.
DL: How much did your studies or Wake in general inform or drive your career path?
DF: I went to London with an Art History course led by Professor Bob Knott as an undergrad student. I had taken a few other courses in Scales before this point, including sculpture, and my semester in London ultimately sold me on the field of Art History.
Equally influential were my friends at Wake, many of whom I met through Dr. Tom Phillips, the Director of Scholarships. We all came to Wake on various scholarships, and were it not for these opportunities I doubt that I would have gone the route that I did. It’s interesting how many of my friends from that period are still working in the arts, including Phil Archer, Seth Brodsky, and Jude Stewart. A number of us started a fine arts house on Polo Road which served as an extension to the creative activities we were engaging with already. We did poetry readings, created artwork, played music… Seth was a phenomenally gifted guitarist (and now a teaches Musicology at University of Chicago) and held informal music lectures for all of us. He married Jude who was involved in the English department and is now a successful freelance author.
That Polo Road space was very important for us; it was an encouraging place. I actually had zero engagement with the arts prior to Wake Forest. I was raised in Jacksonville, Florida and attended high school in the suburbs of Atlanta. Nothing about my background had exposed me to art; in fact I think I had only been to one art museum before coming to Wake!
DL: It’s great that you discovered your passion during undergrad. Do you feel that Wake could do more to prepare undergrads like you for your next steps when they graduate?
DF: I think that Wake’s art department has done an extremely good job hiring junior faculty. Adding new fields and continuing to bring in quality people who are really connected to their field is the number one thing they can do for the success of the students who want to go on. The Venice and London houses also made a big impression on me, and helped to prepare me for a career in the arts. It is also beneficial for graduates to see a track record of success in the arts; I don’t remember such a resource for that while I was there.
DL: You mentioned the difficulty of getting that first job out of Yale. What resources were there for you during this job search period?
DF: Yes, I was on the job market for two years. Yale did have some career service help, but they also had a pretty grandiose sense of themselves saying, ‘Just apply and you’ll be fine.’ They’ve now devised a much better support system, from what I understand. People with PhD’s in the arts and humanities are getting jobs in all sorts of fields now, and they’re helpings graduates find employers who look for those credentials.
I essentially searched for jobs through CAA (the College Art Association), which is the professional organization for studio art, art history, and museums in North America. Jobs are listed by academic specialization, which can be quite narrow, so you apply to whatever makes sense. The CAA has an office in NYC but hosts annual conferences, sponsors publishing and research grants, and other programs. It’s kind of like the American Medical Association… a lobby, promotional, and conference organizing group.
DL: Now that you’re happily stationed at UVA, how do you like living in Virginia? What is your favorite institution to visit for exhibitions?
DF: I have to say the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) in Richmond. I love that museum. They have an amazing permanent collection, host wonderful visiting exhibitions, and have a great team of curators. It’s such an underrated museum, and I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. I take my classes there whenever I can schedule it.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?
DF: There are no guarantees in the arts. You do this job because you love the research, the writing, and mostly because you love the people involved in it. I feel incredibly lucky to be in this area where every day I’m dealing with students and faculty that simply love thinking and talking about art.