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Artful Alumna

It was 2003, and Ferren Gipson ’04 was finalizing her PDS class schedule. “I was selecting classes for my senior year and I had a slot open—AP Art History with Mr. Wallace was available, and I signed up because I enjoyed World History. I figured art history would be like studying history through pictures!” 

Fast-forward to the present, and not only has Gipson earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Art History, she has now entered into a new phase of her research. “I’ve just started my PhD studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I did my MA there several years ago, and I’m back for round two. I went back with the long-term aim of teaching art history at university level.” 

Notably, her research focused on modern Chinese art, a cultural lens that sets her apart from more traditional academia. “I began studying Chinese at PDS, so as I moved through my art studies, I already had a strong interest in China. I ended up designing a Chinese Studies minor for my undergrad, which helped me home in on my art historical specialty. There is definitely a focus [in academia] on European art, which I think made me rebel in my studies and take non-Western art courses whenever I could.” 

With her work rooted firmly in the present, Gipson is aware that her lane of scholarly interest may, on the surface, seem antiquated. “I think people underestimate the importance of studying art, but strangely, people like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande may be doing something to change that through their music videos.” 

Indeed, Gipson’s work highlights this interaction between erudite and mainstream expression. “What I learned from studying subjects like Chicano and Indian art is that art is so intimately connected to culture—art is really a reflection of the times and culture in which it’s produced.”

Wisely, Gipson has fashioned a niche that allows her to bring her expertise to younger generations and to explore this intersection between art and pop culture. As Art UK’s Social Media Manager, Gipson has created both GIFs (animated pictures) from classic paintings and a podcast called “ArtMatters.” Both projects have been labelled “subversive” by consumers with more conventional sensibilities. “There’s a lot of discussion around moving away from the old ‘gatekeepers’ in the art world and how they’ve been an impediment to a diversity of ideas and people,” she explains. “This desire to see change is fairly recent and pretty exciting.” 

Fittingly, Gipson finds inspiration in the greener members of her following. “I’m constantly thinking about ways to get younger and more ethnically diverse audiences interested in engaging with art,” she says. “The older I get, I feel like I’m asking things like ‘what are the kids into these days?’ but I guess that’s a fact of life!”

Notwithstanding her efforts to keep up with youth culture, Gipson is uniquely poised to usher in the next era of historians. “As I was coming into the field, I wasn’t aware of anyone I could look to as a role model. I’d love to see that change for the generations behind me that are interested in working in museums or becoming art scholars.”  

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