Art History Ph.D. Candidate Wins Multiple Prestigious Fellowships

May 23, 2023

Sonja Elena Gandert’s awards include a $42,000 Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship.

Sonja Elena Gandert portrait
Sonja Elena Gandert (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Sonja Elena Gandert, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, learned earlier this year that she’d won a 2023 Luce/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, a prestigious award that provides $42,000 in funding. Just a few weeks later, she found out that she’d also won a predoctoral fellowship, which provides $47,000 in funding, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Gandert, whose dissertation focuses on the work of four Chicano artists in New Mexico and Texas, plans to take the fellowships consecutively, starting with the Smithsonian fellowship this fall. But first she’ll spend the summer in San Marino, California, thanks to yet another award: a residency fellowship from the Huntington Library. She is also a Graduate Center Provost Enhancement Fellow.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Art History

Before starting the Ph.D. program, Gandert spent four years as a curatorial assistant at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Her father is the photographer Miguel A. Gandert. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her interest in Latinx art and shared her advice on winning fellowships.

The Graduate Center: What drew you to the topic of your dissertation?

Gandert: My dissertation focuses on a sort of loosely organized network of artists working in New Mexico and Texas, which are both two very fertile areas of Chicano activism in the post-1960s Civil Rights Movement era. I’m focused on the immediate time period after that, a moment when artists are forming artist collectives and trying to carve out space for themselves in an artistic milieu from which they’ve often been excluded. The theoretical framework of the project is based on an idea that comes out of Chicano activist circles, Mexican American activist circles in northern New Mexico. That idea is called la resolana, and it’s a New Mexican Spanish term for a gathering place where people come to exchange ideas, news, gossip. I use it to think through how some artists in New Mexico and Texas are using recuperative strategies and also revisionist notions of history to combat the sorts of racist and whitewashed stereotypes and mythologies that are very much imposed upon the Southwest, and specifically these two states, by the mainstream U.S. tourist industry and even the hegemonic U.S. mainstream vision of settler colonial domination that pervades the region.

I didn’t come into the Graduate Center necessarily planning to study these communities specifically, but I am from New Mexico, and my father is a Chicano artist. It was almost like I was looking elsewhere for topics — first, I was perhaps thinking about a Caribbean diasporic topic, I was kind of floating around a lot of different ideas and didn’t necessarily envision myself sticking with the place that I’m from. But through a series of classes that I took, seminar papers that I wrote, and exploratory research trips back to the Southwest, it started to fall into place that this was what made the most sense for me as a project. And it’s been really meaningful and generative. A lot of the artists and scholars that I’ve ended up talking to and working with as part of the research portion of the project have actually been my father’s colleagues and friends. It feels like a homecoming in a way that feels really special to me.

GC: You’ve been very successful at winning fellowships. What do you think makes your applications stand out?

Gandert: I think there’s a certain arbitrary nature to all of this, because we often don’t know who’s on the committee and who’s going to be evaluating them and what they’re looking for. I would say, from the outset, that the Ph.D. program in Art History at the Graduate Center has a very rigorous dissertation proposal process. Our proposals go through many, many rounds of editing with advisers and mentors before they even make it to the executive committee, who are also often thinking about it with an eye to how is this going to be read and understood not only by specialists in your subfield, but also by a broad committee of art historians or even people outside of the discipline. So I think from the start, my program prepares us to have a very strong initial proposal that is very transferable to the different fellowship applications.

Beyond that, I would definitely say do your research. Look at who has received the fellowships that you’re targeting in the past. What types of projects? How have they described them? I have a lot of peers within the field of Latinx art history, from the Graduate Center and elsewhere, who have had the Smithsonian Fellowship before, who have had the Luce fellowship before. I read a lot of people’s fellowship applications to get a sense of the tone and different structures to follow.

The Ph.D. program in Art History at the Graduate Center has a very rigorous dissertation proposal process. Our proposals go through many, many rounds of editing with advisers and mentors before they even make it to the executive committee. — Sonja Elena Gandert

I applied to a million fellowships. I’m very glad that the outcome was good, but it was incredibly time-consuming. Another piece of advice is make sure you give yourself enough time because each one is slightly different. You want to tailor your application to each specific one. When I was applying for the first couple of fellowships, I did send it out to my adviser and to other faculty members. Having other people read it for intelligibility, making sure it’s not too jargony — I think it’s important to show that you are deeply versed in your topic, but not go down too many rabbit holes.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has one of the largest collections of Latinx art in the country — the institution really lends itself to my project. And I think that also might be good advice for people thinking about where to apply for fellowships: Be judicious about where you apply and how you position your project. I feel like some of the fellowships that I did not get was because the collections of the museums that I applied to didn’t really have much relevance to my work.

GC: What do you plan to do after you complete your Ph.D.?

Gandert: I do think that at this point I’m leaning towards a career in academia, and so I’ll be pursuing predominantly tenure-track positions. I would hope to turn some component of the dissertation into a book. This is a project that is incredibly focused on a very specific region and a very specific time period, but I’m also very interested in larger questions around the development of the field of Latinx art history. A future book project might also think more broadly about the history of exhibition of artists who are of Latinx descent in the United States, and how that has been impacted by shifting sociopolitical climates. Where this is a very micro project, I could envision a second project being something much more macro.

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