Kirsten Swenson Will Head West to Write Book on Urban Redevelopment

Kirsten Swenson, seated on a "throne" of recycled aluminum at the top of Mierle Laderman Ukeles's public earthwork, "Turnaround/Surround," at Danehy Park in Cambridge. Image by Ingrid Shapinsky
Kirsten Swenson, seated on a "throne" of recycled aluminum at the top of Mierle Laderman Ukeles's public earthwork, "Turnaround/Surround," at Danehy Park in Cambridge.

By David Perry

Armed with a prestigious Burkhardt Fellowship, Assoc. Prof. of Art History  Kirsten Swenson will spend the 2021-2022 school year researching and writing about a subject she calls an “obsession” – urban parks designed by artists. 

The Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars 2020 comes with a $95,000 stipend and a $7,500 research budget for multiyear humanities and social sciences projects, and will take Swenson to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., for residential research from Sept 2021 through June 2022. The proposal includes the research and writing of the book Public Works: Land Art and Urban Redevelopment.”

Swenson will explore urban land use and parks designed by artists as “public earthworks,” such as Danehy Park in Cambridge, Mass., a 55-acre former landfill transformed into a public park by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The artist created a pathway of crushed recycled glass, allowing visitors to ascend the landfill and contemplate wetlands and the City of Boston.

“I will focus on the sense of parks, designed by artists, that address land use history,” says Swenson, who adds that she will also examine how women artists were selected and rewarded for major public art projects in the 1980s.

She has been working on her book for the past two years, and the fellowship will allow her to complete the project.

Swenson is one of 25 fellows – the largest group in the program’s history – selected from across the nation. Each recipient has shown “exceptional dedication to advancing their fields through ambitious and groundbreaking scholarly research,” according to a statement released by the Burkhardt selection committee.

Since 1999, nearly 275 scholars have been awarded nearly $30 million in funding through the Burkhardt program, thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Swenson says “Public Works: Land Art and Urban Redevelopment” will address park design as a public art form, focusing on remediation projects by Ukeles and other artists such as Nancy Holt, Agnes Denes and Robert Morris, who she says “merged concepts of land art with cultivation, landscape design and urban planning.”

Swenson says “land art became a major obsession” when she worked as a teaching fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the Robert Smithson retrospective in 2006, lecturing on the artist daily to visitors.    

Her residency (San Marino is about 12 miles from Los Angeles) will take up the second year of the fellowship.

Swenson has two previous books, “Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt and 1960s New York,” and “Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics,” which she co-edited with Emily Scott.

Her previous work helped pave the way for “Local Ecologies,” the traveling environmental art exhibit she co-organized about the Merrimack River and land use that was exhibited at University Gallery Jan. 21-March 6.

Swenson said she is “extremely grateful” the university allowed her to reduce her classes in the coming academic year to delve into research, and enjoy the residency full time the following year.

“I don’t know if I could possibly do any of this without that support,” says Swenson. “This really allows me to write the book.”