History + Theory of Contemporary Art

Emphasizing critical thinking and writing, HTCA challenges students to forge historically situated, individually motivated analyses of art and culture.

Students engage a variety of analytic models through a curriculum addressing questions such as the influence of media and notions of reproducibility; the role of the artist as social researcher, interventionist, or activist; the influence of globalization; questions of authorship and appropriation; the legacy and currency of feminism and gender studies; and the lineage of modernism and postmodernism.

The field is open to students’ interests and inquiry, and students are pushed to anticipate what questions future art historical scholarship will need to pose.

Students may also pursue the MA in HTCA through our Dual Degree MA/MFA.


Recent MA Thesis Projects

  • Le Mot Peint: Dada Vandals of French Nationhood

  • The Enigma of the Sphinx: Kara Walker’s A Subtlety

  • Kaufman Hasn’t Left the Building: Epic Performance and Virality

  • Queering the Dream: Immigrant Activism and Defending the Right to Dream Differently 

  • Skull Fucked: Power and Masculinity in Skateboard Graphic Design

  • Dirty Pretty Things: Confronting the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Excess in Fashion and Environmental Sustainability

  • In or Out, but Always Chilango. An Analysis of Mexico City’s Contemporary Art Scene through the Life and Work of Dr. Lakra and Gabriel Orozco

  • Forms of Reality: Perceptual and Spiritual Dimensions of John McCracken’s Sculpture

  • Paris Petrified and the Kiss of Displaced Things; or, The Lamp and the Mirror

  • Facing the Effaced Photographs: Indelible Ignorance on Illicit Subjects of History 

  • Honey under the Tongue: Performing Intimacy in the Relationship between Artists and Audiences

  • Sweetness Is a Simple Citizen: Lê Huy Hoàng’s Installation Works as an Example of Vietnamese Hybrid Art 


Claire Daigle (MA Program Director)

Meredith Tromble

See the full list of current faculty »

Virtual Tour + Recorded Lectures


With only 6 units now required per semester in the second and final year (36 units total), students can take advantage of boundless opportunities to deepen their individual practice and create networks in the broader art world. MA scholars work alongside and in collaboration with artists in SFAI’s renowned MFA program.


+ Focus on thesis research and writing
+ Seek outside employment or internships in the vibrant Bay Area arts community
+ Pursue independent scholarly or curatorial projects


Semester 1 (12 units)

Methods and Theories of Art History3
Global Perspectives of Modernity3
Art History, Critical Studies, or EMS Seminar Elective (2 courses)6
Graduate Lecture Series0

Semester 2 (12 units)

Research and Writing Colloquium3
Art History, Critical Studies, or EMS Seminar Elective6
Graduate Lecture Series0

Semester 3 (6 units)

Collaborative Project3
MA Intermediate Review0
Graduate Lecture Series0

Semester 4 (6 units)

Art History, Critical Studies, or EMS Seminar Elective3
Graduate Lecture Series0
MA Final Review0
MA Thesis Symposium0

Program Learning Outcomes

  • Students will gain sufficient knowledge of artists, art practices and artworks, whether broadly surveyed or specifically focused, as presented in each course, and as assessed by written assignments, class presentations and projects, and exams.
  • Students will gain increasing aptitude in skills of visual literacy, and visual and representational analysis.
  • Students will gain increasing ability to demonstrate historical thinking, however methodologically constituted, through written assignments and class presentations.
  • Students will gain increasing awareness of the contingency of historical thinking viewed from contemporary perspectives.
  • Students will gain an increasingly complicated understanding of the relationships between representational orders and practices and the constitution of subjectivity as multiply situated and contingent.
  • Students will gain an increasing ability to find linkages between art theory and art practice across boundaries of discipline and periodization.
  • Students will gain an increasing awareness of the place of art with regard to a larger context of visual production that includes mass media and mass culture, and old and new technologies.
  • Students will gain an increasingly nuanced and principled understanding of the possible roles of the artist in the world, including roles as activists and agents of social and cultural change.