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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Art History Professor Mary Coffey

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

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Mary Coffey is an Associate Professor of Art History at Dartmouth, where she specializes in modern Mexican visual culture — especially murals. That puts her in the perfect place to serve as the College’s expert on José Clemente Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization murals in the basement of Baker Library.

Coffey told The D that she first developed a passion for Latin American art after seeing an exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She later interned in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum after graduating from Indiana University. After that experience, she crossed state lines to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for her M.A. and Ph.D. in art history and cultural studies. She first taught at Pomona College from 1999 to 2001, then served as a Faculty Fellow at New York University’s Graduate Program in Museum Studies, and finally arrived in Hanover in 2004.

My first interaction with Professor Coffey was as a student in one of her classes: Mexican Muralism, Art History 16 (now ARTH 72). As a history major, but one without an ounce of artistic ability or knowledge, my experience in her course was a tremendous introduction into that world. It especially opened my eyes to the Orozco murals, one of the College’s treasures. Painted from 1932-1934 by one of Mexico’s great muralists, the rich display of wall-to-wall color in the sleepy Baker Library reserve reading room deserves to be seen and examined by more students and visitors.

Coffey currently serves as Chair of the Art History Department, which now has eight full time faculty plus visiting and additional lecturers. She is also an affiliated professor with both the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Programs. This term, Coffey is teaching Art History 76, “Mexicanidad: Constructing and Dismantling Mexican National Identity.” Next school year, she will teach two other courses on art in North America, but her research on the great Mexican muralists leads the field. 

One of her first papers on Orozco in 2004 analyzed the politics of female allegory in 1930s Mexico through his work. In 2010, Coffey was given the Karen E. Wetterhahn Memorial Award for Distinguished Creative or Scholarly Achievement

More recently, Coffey won the 2013 Charles Rufus Morey Award, the College Art Association’s top prize for an art history book; the award is given to just one recipient each year. The book, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State, was her first. In the it, she “contends that the work of Mexican muralists in the early twentieth century was co-opted by governmental and cultural institutions to serve an ideology often directly at odds with the artists’ original aims.”

“What sets this book apart is the way in which it links, intricately, the analysis of politics, museum practices, and the production of art,” former Dartmouth art history professor Adrian Randolph said at the time. “Her writing has some of the vibrant dynamism and cultural texture of the murals she so adeptly studies.”

“[Coffey’s] book is not only intellectually provocative, but also beautifully produced,” art history professor Ada Cohen said. “It was wonderful news for [our] department to find out that she actually won.”

While Coffey is still a young professor, the fact that she has already won her field’s most prestigious prize shows that she is an up-and-coming star. You can learn more from Coffey’s research in the following lecture she gave about the messianic qualities with which Orozco endowed Quetzalcoatl, Cortez, and Christ in the same mural:

Six years ago Dartblog criticized Coffey for an acid-tongued opinion article in The D in which she defended the Orozco murals against accusations by a D columnist, Roger Lott ‘14, that the murals represented “extremist” views. This writer (as one of The D’s opinion editors at the time) does not agree with that assessment of the murals, but you are welcome to read both: Lott’s article and Coffey’s response. Then go see the murals and decide for yourself!

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