How She Did It: Alumna Amy Raffel Started 2021 With a New Job and a Book on Keith Haring

Amy Raffel

For Amy Raffel (Ph.D. ’17, Art History) the new year has begun auspiciously. In January, she published her first book, Art and Merchandise in Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, with Routledge, based on her dissertation. It is one of the first academic monographs on the artist. 

In March, she started a new job as head of content at CAA, the College Art Association, one of the oldest membership organizations for academic art history, art, design, and architecture, whose members are leaders in pedagogy and professional development. 

“Right now, CAA is in a really interesting transition period to expand outwards from its annual conference and serve its members all year round and make its content more accessible and engaging,” Raffel said. “I am excited to become more involved in academia again, and to connect back to my art historical roots.”

In addition to her doctorate, Raffel has a master’s in contemporary art from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Before CAA, she worked at the Queens Museum, developing and leading interpretation initiatives to increase audience engagement. 

Raffel spoke to The Graduate Center about her new position, her research on Keith Haring, and what advice she has for other doctoral students who want to publish and plan a career. She was candid about the challenges of pursuing a career in her field while doing research as an independent scholar. 

The Graduate Center: Tell us about your job and your plans at CAA.

Raffel: My new role as head of content at CAA is in line with my career-long pursuit as an educator and an art historian: to make art and history more accessible and engaging. Especially after this past year, all cultural institutions — academic or otherwise — have had to surmount unthinkable challenges with limited resources and are constantly adjusting to new normals and shifting parameters.  

At the same time, many also have been rightfully forced to acknowledge systemic racism and their role in perpetuating it and have begun the important work to dismantle its structures.  My goal is to help support these communities, to ease the flow of information and expertise, and to connect CAA’s members with the resources they need to do their jobs more effectively, which is often to make art and history more accessible and engaging.

The GC: Your book on Keith Haring, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, is one of the first academic monographs on him. His work is among the most recognizable of contemporary artists, in part because of Pop Shop, through which he merchandised his work. What was the most interesting discovery about Haring and the way he used his art? Are there lessons for artists working today? 

Raffel: The most inspiring aspect of Haring’s practice was his generosity. Within his network of friends and colleagues, for his established audiences, and for new publics, he worked — obsessively — to share his art and the privileges of his success widely. This is less a discovery and more general knowledge, but over time, understanding the full breadth and sincerity of his kindness was illuminating and refreshing.

Beyond that, Haring was a master at using already existing promotional and consumerist channels to disseminate his image, his work, and his activist ideas. His mastery of communication and celebrity underlined his popularity, and combined with his style, was strong enough to continue his relevance well past his death. Particularly now, with lies and misinformation spreading unchecked, exacerbated with a widespread lack of critical thinking skills, it is imperative for artists to understand and enter the current landscape of exchange and communication to impact their audiences.

GC: How did you turn your dissertation into a book and do you have advice for other doctoral candidates about getting their dissertations published? 

Raffel: Unfortunately, there isn’t one resource or one model that gives an easy answer to this question. For me, I relied heavily on the advice of my peers and my advisers.

I shifted my perspective on the purpose of my doctoral defense. Rather than seeing it as a trial to prove my expertise, it became an amazing opportunity to take advantage of the insights of four established academics, who all had gathered to talk specifically about my work. It was an immense privilege and a time to really chart out an initial plan for publication.

I looked at other books that were based on dissertations and compared the two publications side by side, noting differences in voice, inclusions/exclusions, and restructuring choices. For a book, readers want to hear your voice, your thoughts. The writing needs to shift to rely less on others to form your arguments. Recognize yourself as an authority. 

GC: How did your time at The Graduate Center influence you as you considered a career? 

In addition to the invaluable guidance of my advisers and the generous support and camaraderie I felt amongst my peers, The Graduate Center has influenced my career path because of its embeddedness in New York City. Taking courses and conducting research alongside access to the best art collections, museums, archives, and libraries in the world exposed me to many opportunities and pathways outside of academics in the broader art world. It allowed me to build a network, and connected me to outstanding curators, educators, and art historians. My experience as a grad student also cultivated so many important skills. I learned a lot about how I process and distill information, and how to research, write, and think critically.

GC: Do you have advice for students looking to put their Ph.D. to work?

Raffel: Academia can be a really difficult career path to enter, especially if you want to stay in a major city like New York. Fortunately, there are many applications for a Ph.D. in the cultural sector. Increasingly, I think museums, galleries, auction houses, nonprofits, community arts organizations, and educational companies recognize and seek out its value.

In terms of scholarly research, it is possible to continue research as an independent scholar. But in my experience this work could only be part time — completed on evenings and weekends, supporting myself instead through my full-time paid work at the Queens Museum. From my perspective, it is almost impossible to support oneself solely as an independent scholar, and the benefits of academic publishing (like tenure etc.) don’t always translate. I know how lucky I have been to be able to continue my research and writing on Keith Haring, and making the time to finish this book has been rewarding in several ways. But I also know that this entire project is basically unpaid labor.

Submitted on: MAR 25, 2021

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