STUDYING ARCHITECTURE AND BLACK IDENTITY ON A SMITHSONIAN FELLOWSHIP
An Art History Ph.D. candidate receives significant support for her “sobering” study.
With a $43,000 fellowship from the Smithsonian, Ph.D. candidate Jessica Larson (Art History) feels exceptionally well positioned to complete her dissertation, Building Black Manhattan: Architecture, Art, and the Politics of Respectability, 1857-1914. The fellowship is one of a number she has received for her ambitious project.
“I now have a group of historians, curators, and even a journal editor on board to help advise me in my research as well as just thinking through these ideas,” Larson says about the fellowship and the networking involved in securing it. “I’m really, really excited to learn from them.”
The Joe and Wanda Corn Predoctoral Fellowship grants Larson a joint appointment between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, both in D.C. Larson is studying the architecture of reform institutions in New York — tenements, schools, nurseries and kindergartens, senior homes, and other structures — built to serve Black charity recipients in the years just before the Civil War through the start of World War I. She is especially interested, she says, in the “deliberate relationship forged by Black reformers between housing and the cultivation of childhood” and how the resulting structures represented the architectural and spatial priorities of women.
“Reform at the time was one of the very few avenues for women to enter public life and have any sort of say over the built environment,” Larson says. “So when we look at these buildings, we have to look at them as deeply tied to what women wanted for their communities, and how they envisioned their future. So while it is about New York City, it has a larger resonance with how I think these women were viewing their place within a broader American public life.”
For Larson, who hopes to bring her own passion to bear working in public history, perhaps in a museum, the study of history is inextricably linked with the struggles of the present.
“It’s a very sobering subject to study,” she says. “And it’s sad to see sometimes how little progress seems to have been made. I’m interested in what these questions of racialized poverty had to do with bigger questions about the trajectory of American identity.”
Larson has been remarkably successful garnering support for her work. Among the fellowships, awards, and grants she has received are a Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American art from the American Council of Learned Societies, a Spiro Kostof Annual Conference Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians, and a Scholars-in-Residence CUNY Dissertation Fellowship from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. She had to turn down an additional fellowship after learning of the one from the Smithsonian.
Larson’s advice for fellow grant-seekers: “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Be persistent. And don’t get discouraged by rejection.”
Larson points out that she was rejected by the Smithsonian the prior year. She spent hours reworking her application, reaching out to anyone she thought might be able to offer helpful edits or feedback.
“I have been very lucky and gotten some great grants and awards,” Larson says. “But I have also gotten a lot of rejection; thankfully, you don’t see the rejection, you only see what people get accepted for.”
Passion, she says, is another key ingredient.
“Your enthusiasm for your project will be relayed through your applications. So make sure you find a dissertation topic that you really, really love.”
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