Why Art and “Looking” Matter, A Bit About New York City, and Some Census History

Art and Looking Matter

After having obtained my Bachelor’s Degree With Honors from The University of Texas at Austin, I took a few years off. Frankly, discord in the Middle East – my chosen field of study – had increased and I was nervous about traveling and working there as a single woman. Should I continue following that path, or not? I chose to work a few temporary office jobs to get me through financially, to take a few university courses including in art history, and I spent a life changing six months living and working in New York City.

While in New York City, I walked through every single neighborhood, the somewhat seedy ones and the luxurious ones. And I visited every museum from The Met Cloisters to The Kitchen. I fell in love with the city. My mind and my eyes were enthralled. Its cultural wealth remains unparalleled today.

When I returned to Austin, Texas later that summer, I decided to take more art history courses. Once I had taken enough to have an official “minor” in art history, I applied to graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin in the College of Fine Arts. The faculty of the department where I worked during this interim time graciously supplied letters of recommendation, and I was accepted.

People sometimes think art history is a “fluffy” subject. But in order to understand works of art – how they were made and why – requires multifaceted thinking and research. It is a tough subject in my opinion. One must be both a visual person and oriented toward research and writing. You use all parts of your brain in art history and a good graduate program gives your brain a workout.

One thing our program required was quite simply memorizing images of works of art from the prehistoric to the modern eras. The idea was, the more you saw and “stored” in your mind, the better equipped you would be to study, compare and understand all works of art. And I found that to be somewhat annoying, but absolutely true.

During graduate school, I also decided to tackle an unloved, non-European subject matter, American western art. We had a fine collection of “western art” at UT, the C. R. Smith Collection, but it was largely ignored back then. Italian, French and Spanish art – even Mayan art – were preferred by the faculty at the time.

The 1890 Census

When one studies American western art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a key document is the 1890 Census. Through the census process, experts and special agents – including artists – were hired to “make special enumerations of manufactures, Indians living within the jurisdiction of the United States, and a separate enumeration of Alaska.” The artists traveled across the U.S. with the military. They sketched what they saw and photographs were also taken, making the 1890 Census a very modern and comprehensive operation for its time. The final document was huge: 683 pages. A copy is found in the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin in the collections of famed Texas writer, folklorist and Texas character, J. Frank Dobie. For weeks, I trekked across campus to go through Dobie’s copy of the 1890 Census, page by page. It took me a long time, my eyes and my mind grew tired, but I was determined to look at every single page and each “pull-out” sheet. To see a full description of the 1890 Census illustrating a few of its pages, follow this link to Dorothy Sloan – Rare Books Inc.

Sadly, most of the original 1890 Census material was destroyed by fire in Washington, D.C. in 1921. Hence, any relic of the original Census today is rare. And this is one reason why “looking” at everything carefully is so important.

During this time, a talented fellow graduate student and I traveled to Oklahoma to visit the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa to better understand American western art and to see even more art in person, rather than just in photo “slides.” We arrived early during the week at the Gilcrease, and almost no other visitors were present (my favorite time to visit museums). The curator knew of our quest, and recognizing we were serious students, she allowed us to visit the art storage in the basement, where we gleefully pulled out rack after rack of art works that regular museum guests could not see.

And there, I found two lost “sketches” from the 1890 Census project by artist Walter Shirlaw and other Census inspired works by Gilbert Gaul, two seasoned artists and western explorers employed by the U.S. government. The Gilcrease staff did not know what the two “sketches” by Shirlaw were, and the curator lamented this was one reason why the works were not exhibited. But months of pouring through J. Frank Dobie’s copy of the 1890 Census helped me recognize them immediately. The illustrations above are simple black and white scans from a copy of the Gilcrease Magazine of American History and Art, Vol. 7 No. 1 (January, 1985). They kindly asked me to publish my discoveries the same year I obtained my Master’s Degree. You can see what the sketch at center looks like in color as a “pull-out” from the 1890 Census by following this link to the Carleton website.

Today’s Census

The Census is a critically important document for our nation. “The 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade.” (2020Census.gov).

As of October 13, 2020, “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census. Self-response and field data collection operations for the 2020 Census will conclude on October 15, 2020.”

Reconsidering my early research on the Census process back in 1890, it seems to me the U.S. government might consider compiling a “visual” census in addition to the data. In fact, enterprising artists might take on the project to visually document the vast expanse that is the United States of America today. The old 1890 Census is considered the defining document marking the end of the American “frontier.” Every corner of the nation was exhaustively catalogued back in 1890, and the American Indians were constrained to reservations. Our nation today is still healing from the growing pains we experienced back then, and admittedly, we still have some work to do. But also, we might also enhance interest in the process with a visual aspect in future years.

Back to Nonprofit Fundraising

Returning to my original theme and blog focus, a visual approach to nonprofit work today is exceedingly helpful. How many pundits including myself have urged fundraising staff to learn how to use social media and “visual” platforms to illustrate the good work of nonprofits, and to complement and enhance traditional grant writing and research skills. We all need more training in this regard, but you don’t have to obtain a university degree. Become an avid museum and art gallery visitor and see for yourself how artists compose their paintings and sculptures, and how they tell stories visually. Study how artists organize their presentations, how they use light and shadow, and what objects they choose to include, for instance. Don’t just give a casual glance at an interesting story depicted in art. Hone your visual skills.

Visual imagery can have a tremendous impact on your nonprofit’s overall credibility, and on your goal of enticing philanthropists to contribute. My art history training continues to help me compose better photographs today, and I use them in my fundraising work often (newsletters, case statements, invitations, social media and more).

Here is another question we might ask ourselves. Is studying the visual arts important to other ways of thinking? You might enjoy, “How Learning to Paint Heightened Winston Churchill’s Legendary Powers of Persuasion,” by Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s great-grandson (2018). I rest my case.


During COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, I became more familiar with YouTube and its was there I discovered the series, “Aerial America” by the Smithsonian. Wonderful program! I have learned so much about other states. Follow the link for more information.

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