Professor Heather Belnap on Public Advocacy for Women in the Arts and Student Mentorship

“My work in teaching and studying feminist art history,” says Heather Belnap, associate professor of art history in the department of Comparative Arts and Letters, “is about the recovery of lost voices and recognizing the historic contributions of women.” But in addition to conventional scholarly projects, publications and academic endeavors, Professor Belnap adds that her work as a scholar of feminist art necessarily involves “advancing women in the arts, both now and in the future.”

Since earning her PhD at the University of Kansas and coming to BYU in 2001, Professor Belnap has played an integral role in this advancement on local, national, and global stages. Along with her many publications, international conference presentations, and professional affiliations within the field of feminist art history, her advocacy for women in the arts also takes shape in public venues. These have included co-chairing the Provo City Arts Committee, public lectures, podcast interviews about regional artists and art scenes in Utah, and exhibits and installations she has curated at local and international art museums.

But rather than keeping these types of academic projects in discrete or separate categories, Professor Belnap has always viewed her scholarly work as inherently connected to public-facing activities and activism. “For me,” she says, “my scholarship, teaching, citizenship, and public humanities work” reflect what she calls the “close interwovenness of theory and practice” within feminist art. “As an academic,” she says, “recovering art and telling forgotten stories from the past can also ensure that the women working in art now will find mentors and inspiration or instruction for their careers and lives.”

Her efforts in this regard are far from being unnoticed or unfelt both in the immediate community at BYU and across the state. In addition to the awards and honors she has received as an academic and public intellectual, Professor Belnap’s portrait was recently included in the Utah Women 2020 mural by Jann Haworth, an American visual artist famous for creating The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover, which depicts 250 women who have shaped Utah arts and culture. But she is quick to share the credit for this and many of her other public honors with the myriad of students and individuals she has mentored and with whom she has worked. In fact, Professor Belnap expressly connects the opportunities and affordances of her public facing work back to her relationships with current and former students at BYU. “Obviously,” she says, “it’s a terrific honor and gratifying to have that kind of public acknowledgement, but that gratification is as great as what I feel when I get thank you letters from students who say things like ‘this class made a difference in my life’ or ‘thank you believing in me enough to write me a letter of recommendation.’”

Yet Professor Belnap’s focus on mentoring students at BYU does more than parallel her work in public humanities work; the one feeds the other as current and former students generate much of her public-facing activity. She notes several instances when one of her curatorial consultancies, art exhibitions, or public lectures has come about through former students who now work as professional artists, museum curators, or academics in art history. “So much of my public humanities work,” Professor Belnap says, “brings me back into contact with former students.” One such student is Emily Larsen, the head of exhibitions and programs at the Springville Museum of Art. Together, Professor Belnap and Larsen are continuing to synthesize scholarly with public intellectual work, collaborating on formally academic projects—such as their co-authored book project about Utah women’s art history and the contemporary art scene in Utah—and participating in public education events like their recent appearance as discussants on a public panel for the Curators on the Couchprogram put on by the Ogden Union Station Museum. “For me,” says Larsen, “it’s been the biggest win that Heather not only wanted to work with me when I was a student but that she wants to work with me now. She’s been so generous to me, and the confidence that she had in me as a student and has in me now means the world to me.” She also adds that “without her advocacy, so many people wouldn’t know or hear about the artistic legacy of both LDS women and women artists broadly, and even the increased demand to hear these stories today wouldn’t have existed without Heather’s work.”

Looking ahead, Professor Belnap aims to continue synthesizing public activism, professional academics, and the advancement of women in the arts through the work she does with students at BYU. “At the end of the day,” she says, “the most important thing I do at BYU and as an academic and scholar is mentor students.” Her current work as a Humanities + Fellow gives her ample opportunity to be a part of that curricular and professional synthesis. She notes, “Our students want to be social and politically engaged as global citizens, and that is starting to reorient courses, research, and teaching toward the public humanities more than ever.” As she continues to work with students, Professor Belnap hopes to continue working “for the betterment of all women in the arts.”

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

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