Art History Department

Michaela Rife


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Supervisor:  Mark Cheetham

My research interests lie in the intersections of art and environment. My training comes from education in art history and geography and experience in museums. I have worked at institutions including the Wyoming State Museum, the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. At the University of Toronto I was the co-lead of an interdisciplinary working group at the Jackman Humanities Institute titled “Imagining and Inhabiting Resource Landscapes.” Recent predoctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art have given me the opportunity to conduct extensive archival research for my dissertation. While my doctoral work focuses on the 1930s, I also write on art and land use from the nineteenth century to the present.

Areas of Academic Interest
  • 19th- and 20th-century American art and visual culture
  • Art and political ecology
  • Environmental histories of the American West and Great Plains
  • Energy and environmental humanities
  • Land and environmental art
Current Research
  • My dissertation centers on murals created on the American Plains during the New Deal as a way to think about how public art has intersected with settler colonialism and land use during environmental crisis periods. Departing from the well-known Farm Security Administration photographs of drought and migrants that spread through print media, I look at the art that was placed in Plains communities and often acted to shore up an uneasy settler population and local industries. Through four thematic chapters that focus on settler land claims, livestock, agriculture, and oil extraction, I use specific case studies to think about what public art can tell us about environmental history in a region that still contends with drought, depleted water supply, oil pipelines, and ignored tribal sovereignty. In each chapter I situate murals within longer art histories, complicating the stories that they tell by engagement with the fields of environmental and labor history, Indigenous critical theory, and settler colonial studies.
  • MA Art History: Critical/Curatorial Studies, University of British Columbia
  • MA with Distinction, History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London
  • BA (Hons) Art History, University of Oregon
Selected Publications
Recent Awards
  • 2018–19 Tyson Scholar of American Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  • 2017–18 Joe and Wanda Corn Predoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
  • 2017 American Historical Print Collectors Society Fellowship, American Antiquarian Society
  • 2017 Summer Research Travel Award, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, BYU
  • 2014 Helen Belkin Memorial Scholarship in Fine Arts, University of British Columbia
  • 2012–14 Audain Foundation Graduate Fellow, University of British Columbia

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