Nicola M. Courtright, professor of the history of art, chair of European studies and past president of the College Art Association, has been elected vice chair of the Executive Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). She has also been appointed editor-in-chief of Oxford’s Grove Art Online.

Professor Nicola Courtright

“The largest purpose of the ACLS,” the professor explains, “is to grant money to academics for their scholarly projects … in the humanities and related social sciences.” Millions of dollars in ACLS grants go out annually to junior and senior faculty members at colleges and universities around the United States (Courtright herself received one early on in her career at Amherst), and in recent years the council has begun funding digital, collaborative and international projects. Courtright notes that the competition for ACLS grants is, in fact, even tougher than for Guggenheim grants.   

Having served on the ACLS’s 15-member Board of Directors for several years, Courtright is now vice chair of the smaller Executive Committee, which oversees the organization’s finances, policymaking, personnel issues and reporting to constituencies. Courtright believes that her ideal role is to be “a wise voice of counsel” to the ACLS and, as the only art historian on the board, to advocate for “the importance of the historical study of visual arts.” Her term ends in 2016.

Grove Art Online is the subscription-based Web version of what was originally printed as Oxford’s 34-volume, 45,000-entry Dictionary of Art, to which Courtright contributed an article while finishing her dissertation at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In her teaching at Amherst, she guides her students to Grove and its bibliographies as a reliable and fruitful place to begin their research.

In 2012, one of Grove’s editors approached the professor and convinced her to sign on as its new editor-in-chief. Courtright introduced herself to readers via a video and letter, describing her vision for the future of the online resource.

“The articles in the Dictionary of Art, written by recognized experts in the fields it covered, are still invaluable,” she wrote, “but there is a strong need to update them, thoroughly and accurately. Also, as we all know, new areas of art historical inquiry have emerged, not just in contemporary art, but in areas of the world in which scholars have become vitally engaged—notably Africa, Latin America, and Asia. … I am assembling an editorial board that will confer about new scholarly needs in Grove, and help them come to fruition.”

Courtright’s other goals include incorporating more high-quality imagery into Grove’s entries and, most importantly, making them “more accessible to readers who are looking for an authoritative online source but only get as far as Wikipedia.” Right now, she says, for most art lovers outside of academia—and even for many at colleges and universities—Grove is “a sleeping giant: it’s this amazing resource that people don’t think to use.” She believes that such a credible source of carefully vetted factual and bibliographical information is especially needed in an era when other online content is often biased, contradictory and rapidly changing.     

Courtright says that her work with the ACLS allows her to bring a useful new perspective to her work as a professor, and vice versa: “All the issues that we’re facing at Amherst College”—including how to allocate the budget, how to teach undergraduates most effectively, how to support the careers of young faculty members and how to respond to the rise of MOOCs—“are always discussed on a higher level, on a national level, at the ACLS.”

Similarly, she says, her position at Grove pulls her back from the narrow, intensive focus of her scholarly research—which is on “ideologies of rule for early modern French queens through the art and architecture of French palaces”—and requires her to “start thinking about trends of art as a whole in the world. And that is hard. But I think it’s what I wanted to learn about. … Because I am at a liberal arts institution … I really have always had to teach about larger things.”