Associate Professor of Art History Jim Frakes “grew up surrounded by good architecture.” Columbus, Indiana, the small town south of Indianapolis where he lived, is nicknamed “Athens on the Prairie” because of buildings by designers such as I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, César Pelli, and Richard Meier. That impressive cityscape, with public art by the likes of Henry Moore, Dale Chihuly, and Jean Tinguely, to name a few, surely prepared Frakes for a lifetime of looking.
But it was as a student at Indiana University, where as a French major he took a course in French cultural history, that he became consciously aware of the power of visual culture. So he added an art history minor and upon graduation took a job at the university’s art museum.
During his two years there, he “became passionate about Rome.” The city, he says, “is like an onion that you have to peel,” with its layer upon layer of history. “It just seemed like a playground for exploring issues that matter in our contemporary world.”
Frakes received a PhD in ancient Roman art history from Columbia University in 2002, and the empire built by the “Eternal City” has continued to fascinate him throughout his career. He published Framing Public Life: the Portico in Roman Gaul in 2009, contributed an essay to the 2013 Companion to Roman Architecture, and co-edited Beyond Boundaries: Visual Culture in the Roman Provinces, published in 2016. Among his current research interests is an ongoing study of the visual cultural systems that marked the era of the Severan Dynasty (193-235 CE).
When Frakes came to UNC Charlotte in 2002, there two art historians and “not even a hint of a B.A. in Art History,” he says. The program, which he coordinated for 11 years, now has five fulltime faculty.
Every other summer, Frakes and several colleagues lead a study tour to Rome, where, as in his classes, he teaches students to critically engage with what they see. “If you are passive in the face of what you’re looking at, you are susceptible to its persuasion. If you are skillful, you are a much more engaged citizen of the world.”
It is important, he emphasizes, to be aware of history – the social and cultural history represented by the art and also the history of the object, itself. He is currently working on a prototype database for an online resource that reviews museum collections and evaluates the ethics of the works’ histories and the context of their acquisition – whether, for instance, they were looted.
“All these things we experience now have deep histories, often really problematic. Knowing that history makes you a much more effective agent of change.”