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Getty Foundation grant to support international interdisciplinary study

By : By Katie Ellis

Charles Burroughs

Dale Tomich
A two-year $270,000 collaborative research grant from the Getty Foundation will fund an interdisciplinary study comparing the formation and representation of plantation spaces in the Americas during the 19th century. Dale Tomich, professor of sociology and history, and Charles Burroughs, professor of art history who has recently accepted a position with Case Western Reserve University, were awarded the grant, which will focus on coffee plantations in Brazil, sugar plantations in Cuba and cotton plantations in Mississippi. The pair will work with a team of international scholars.

“We’re taking a multi-level approach,” said Tomich. “We’ll look at the history of slavery and agriculture and the historical evolution of these zones and their significance for the development of new world slavery and agriculture.

“The expansion of plantation/agriculture in new regions during this time happened on an unprecedented scale,” he said, adding that, in its own way, each region was also very technically advanced. “For example, in pre-Civil War Mississippi, only 10 percent of the land was cultivable, yet the region pro-duced over 30 percent of the cotton from the United States.

“In each region, we have the construction of unprecedented forms of plantation. Our multi-level approach examines the plantation through the relation of function and represen-tation,” he said. “We treat the plantation as a space of material production, of social domination and of symbolic expression. We are interested in how the interrelation of these aspects defines a distinctive plantation space in each case.”

Burroughs said the genesis of the project came from looking at lithographs. “This particular project evolved through looking at 19th century lithographs of Cuban sugar plantations — what was represented and how,” he said.

Such documents will play a key role in the team’s research. “We’ll try to find visual documentation and link it with the actual records of the plantations,” said Tomich. “There are a lot of different kinds of visuals, as well as more conventional sources.”

The project gets underway in earnest later this summer, but the team has already acquired a large number of documents to catalog and process. “The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a strong presence in Cuba and is restoring plantation buildings. We also hope to bridge with them,” said Burroughs.

As the team delves into how plantation spaces were represented architec-turally and visually, it will also consider the production, social and symbolic aspects of life at the time. “We’ll look at everything in terms of the relationship between the symbolic realm and the realm of production,” said Burroughs. “For instance, our perceptions are very much in terms of the Atlantic world and the way ideas spread into this world.”

“This combination of perspectives is unusual,” said Tomich. “We’re reinterpreting slavery through the material organization and spatial aspects of the plantation. Our focus on the making of a landscape opens up a whole new way of thinking about things.”

The Getty Foundation funds a diverse range of projects that promote understanding and conservation of the visual arts. Collaborative research grants such as this one allow teams of scholars to pursue interpretive research projects that offer new explanations of art and its history. Collaborations that foster a cross-fertilization of ideas and methodologies are particularly encouraged.

Grant applications are reviewed by art history scholars and are judged on the quality and originality of the proposed project; the nature of the collaboration; the team members’ past achievements; the feasibility of the research plan; and the contribution of the project to the understanding of art and its history.

The majority of grants the foundation awards amount to less than $100,000, said Burroughs. “Very few collaborative grants from Getty are funded at this level, and most grants go to institutions, so there’s great excitement,” he said.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08