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Anthropological Art Historian

Whitney Halstead (BFA 1949, MFA 1954) was an art historian, educator, critic, author, artist, alum, and beloved instructor at SAIC.

Whitney Halstead (BFA 1949, MFA 1954), SAIC Professor of Art History

Whitney Halstead (BFA 1949, MFA 1954), art historian, educator, critic, author, and artist, was both a graduate of and beloved instructor at SAIC.

After receiving both his BFA and MFA from SAIC, Halstead worked as an assistant in the Field Museum’s anthropology department, taught art history courses at several of the local universities, and wrote and circulated critical and historical art publications. Halstead became a revered professor at SAIC after developing a series of courses on primitive art. He was known to encourage students to study folk and outsider art and steer away from the mainstream—a similar teaching approach to his colleague Ray Yoshida—which validated and greatly influenced the group of students that came to be known as the Chicago Imagists (Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Philip Hanson, Gladys Nilsson, et al.)

Halstead was also keenly aware of the Chicago art scene, and scouted for local outsider and self-taught artists who may have otherwise gone unnoticed—like the prolific Joseph Yoakum, whom Halstead continuously championed.

Through publication and curation, Halstead brought local and primitive art into national attention. Halstead’s critical reviews and essays appeared in Artforum, Chicago Daily News, and many other publications, and often included mention of the work of Yoakum and Nutt. Many of the shows he curated, like Made In Chicago and Ulu/Inua: Form and Fantasy in Eskimo Art, were well attended and received. His own artwork nodded at Dadaism and Surrealism, and was exhibited in the 1950s–60s.

In 1965 SAIC faculty went on strike with demands of better working conditions for the instructors. Halstead held a leadership role in the strike, and was named the Chairman of the Division of Fine Arts in 1967.

Throughout his life, Halstead kept rigorous notes and documents, which became the Whitney B. Halstead Papers, now kept at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.