Peter John Brownlee


I was initially pulled into AHAA by Betsy Kennedy, my predecessor at the Terra Foundation for American Art, who, having also trained on the East Coast, stressed the importance of having a strong Midwest presence in AHAA and the field at large. I had just moved from Washington, D.C. and felt the distance; thus, I was quickly drawn into the inner circle of the Chicagoland “chapter” populated by the likes of AHAA veterans Wendy Greenhouse and founder David Sokol.

As I ascended the ranks, eventually becoming co-chair and chair (2010–2011), I took possession of the then-infamous AHAA archive—two large, battered boxes filled with binders, folders, and other ephemera—which I added to, stored, and passed along at the end of my term. But it was a moment of transition, from analog to digital, so to speak, and from fledgling organization to something much greater. Indeed, my tenure at the helm of the association witnessed two major developments that would prove pivotal: the emergence of the biennial AHAA symposium, now in its sixth iteration, and the birth of what would eventually become the stellar online journal, Panorama.

I recall at the time that AHAA felt both exciting and daunting in its relative formlessness. It was, however, a moment for me when the fleeting notion of “the field” coalesced into something greater than the sum of its parts, tangible instead of virtual, and personal as well as professional. From those around me, colleagues in every sense of the word, I drew inspiration; their perseverance in advancing the association’s mission fortified my own. I recall being so thoroughly impressed and inspired by what my colleagues and I were able to accomplish—slowly, to be sure—in the working groups that forged the initial and strategically interlocking skeletons of the symposium and the journal. What our successors have done in fleshing these out is truly amazing.

Such paradigmatic shifts gave birth to a national association with global reach, an association that is wide ranging in its interests, inclusive in its constituency, and forward thinking in its use of digital technology. I am so proud of the small part I have played in this organization’s evolution and am humbled by the ingenuity and energy of its membership and Board. Here’s to another 40 productive years!

Cite this article: Peter John Brownlee, response to “Who Will We Be? The Association of Historians of American Art on its Fortieth Anniversary,” ed. Louise Siddons and Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 2 (Fall 2020),

PDF: Brownlee, response to Who Will We Be

About the Author(s): Peter John Brownlee is Curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art