Barbara DeGenevieve passed away on Saturday, August 9, from complications of cervical cancer. DeGenevieve was a professor in the department of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she had been teaching since 1985, following a faculty position at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. From the late 1970s onward, her photography, video and performance work has explored issues around human sexuality, pornography, gender and ethics. She has also written and lectured extensively on these and other topics. DeGenevieve received her MFA in photography from the University of New Mexico in 1980. She was awarded two National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowships and three Illinois Arts Council grants among many other honors. Major exhibitions of her work have been shown in the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Frankfurt Kunstverein.
In 1994, the same year DeGenevieve began teaching at SAIC, her NEA grant application was rejected by the National Council on the Arts, one of a number of controversial moments in which she challenged norms and mores of the establishment. When DeGenevieve, along with Andres Serrano and Merry Alpern, were the only three from 452 grant applications to be rejected, it sparked another clash in the culture wars of the early nineties around censorship, particularly around the roles of photography and sexuality in art.
This weekend as news spread of her death, artists, former students and colleagues at SAIC gathered at gallery openings and took to Facebook to affirm the indelible ways that DeGenevieve has sparked lively change in contemporary art, shaped generations of art students and complemented the force of her convictions with the brightness of her smile. In a announcement about her passing, SAIC’s dean of faculty Lisa Wainwright has written, “Through the years, I have heard story after story about Barbara changing students’ lives, about her waking them up to new ways of thinking and being as artists and as individuals. And she was the students’ fiercest advocate—arguing for their funding, their rights, and their freedoms.” SAIC’s photography department has said that a memorial will be held at the school this fall, with details forthcoming. (Matt Morris)