Grant Kester is Professor of Art History and Director of the University Art Gallery in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego. Kester is one of the leading figures in the emerging critical dialogue around “relational” or “dialogical” art practices. With these practices Art has taken discursive elements as well as social relations as its subject and material, leaving behind the art object aesthetic. This work lives in the sphere of interhuman relationships, in which social exchange and interaction is offered. This art practice emphasizes how art is engaged in social issues and how it makes or forms communities –and there is an important interrelationship between viewer and artist.
Kester’s journey to his current role at UCSD has taken several twists and turns and in many ways follows an organic process rather than a linear one. To begin, he was raised with his parents and sister mostly in Kansas City. His mother enjoyed crafts and engaged he and his sister in the process of making things at an early age. Their home displayed many traditional art reprints by Rembrandt, Renoir and others so Kester developed an awareness of fine art His mom enrolled her children in ceramics and painting classes at the local art museum. Right from the start, Kester enjoyed the solitude of making things. While in high school, he took painting, ceramics and photography.
Kester’s father had a tradition of documenting family events and vacations by taking lots of photos. His enthusiasm for photography rubbed off on Kester, and he followed in his fathers footsteps by studying photography at Montgomery Junior College in Bethesda, Maryland. He dropped out after one year and worked in a camera store and also for a commercial photographer. He then moved to Atlanta where he studied photography at the Art Institute for one year. While there he also worked for a table top photographer. By this time, he had gained many skills in the techniques and methods of photography. He then met a landscape photographer who introduced him to outdoor photo shooting where they would spend hours, often in silence, hiking around to locate the best spots for taking images. He also introduced Kester to large format photography and he began discovering well known photographers such as Harry Callahan, Paul Caponigro, Lee Friedlander who influenced his thinking.
It was during this time that Kester began writing about art. He wrote art exhibition reviews, book reviews and interviews. At this time he also began teaching the history of photography at the Southeastern Center for Photographic Arts in Atlanta. Later on, he moved back to Maryland to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art where he eventually received his BA in Art History. There he had an important mentor, his instructor Ann Fessler, and together they curated a group exhibition of socially engaged photography for the annual conference of the Society for Photographic Education. This exhibition held in Baltimore, displayed mostly post-world war II social documentary photography featuring issues of social justice.
In 1987, Kester landed a job as Editor of the New Art Examiner where he ran the Washington D.C. office.Simultaneously he also taught classes at Maryland Institute College of Art and the Corcoran school. At this point in his career, Kester realized that he was less interested in image making and more interested in writing, teaching and scholarly pursuits. He was offered the Helena Rubenstein Fellowship to attend the Independent Study Program in Art History at the Whitney Museum of Art in NYC. Afterward, Kester was inspired by this experience and was eager to begin an advanced degree. He attended the University of Rochester where he received an MA in Art History and then went on to complete his Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies. During his seven years in Rochester, Kester also worked for a media arts journal, “After Image”, where he wrote grants and edited the journal. Also during this time, Kester’s studies were highly influenced by Janet Wolff, an art historian who has written several books on the sociology of art practice, giving Kester a more broad view of the ‘image’ as it relates to film theory, and art institutions as a social system that engages art.
Also during his studies, Kester completed a residency for 2 years at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan heading up their Critical Studies program. Upon completion of his degree, Kester taught at Washington State University in Pullman Washington and then on to Arizona State University, where he taught classes in Contemporary Art Theory and Art History. In 2000 Kester was offered his current position at the University of California, San Diego. He teaches many courses in Art History, and Art Criticism , and seminars on both the undergrad and graduate levels. He has also done a several year stint as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts. He stated that his primary challenge in teaching is to continue to engage students and inspire their interest in Art History – He accomplishes this by helping them to see connections that art history has with popular culture, including music, fashion and technology.
Kester’s goals at UCSD include the development of a program that is not studio based and goes along with his keen commitment to relational and dialogical art practice. He is interested in art as a conduit to environmental remediation, and issues of political, cultural and social significance. With development of this new program, Kester wishes to “transform peoples consciousness of the world” and to engage all the faculty in this process of collaboration as well. As Director of the UCSD Art Gallery, Kester has developed a curatorial program for outside curatorial scholars and students to come to the gallery to develop exhibitions that support his mission of socially and community based collaborations. Kester believes this “socially engaged” art practice is gaining momentum and he is committed to achieving his goal of creating a program at UCSD.
Kesters’ path to the present has involved a combination of years of ‘real world’ work experience prior to and during the development of his career. He developed many skills outside the “educational system” that has both served him well and no doubt has brought richness, creativity and inspiration to his students and colleagues.
(Kester has curated numerous exhibitions and has written many articles and publications – you can view some of these at the following link: http://www.grantkester.net)