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Faculty Spotlight: Luisa Orto

Faculty Spotlight on Design History Instructor and 2020 Teaching Excellence Award Recipient, Luisa Orto

"The Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts has provided me with the opportunity to shed some light on the astoundingly creative, relevant and ever-expanding field of design." - Luisa Orto

Q: Please provide your educational history.

A: I did my undergraduate work at Boston University where I graduated summa cum laude with distinction and was elected into Phi Beta Kappa. Following that, I completed both my MA and PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Q: What are some fond memories from your journey in the arts?

A: Going to graduate school in New York University was a superb experience. The city’s museums extended our classrooms while curators, conservationists, archivists, and gallerists all became our teachers. This is where I experienced the value of object-based learning. I was able to travel and live abroad on several occasions as a Fulbright Scholar and as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and these experiences deepened my love of participating in the art world.

Q: Describe one thing that has surprised you during your career in higher education.

A: I have been consistently surprised and delighted by my colleagues at the University of Houston and enriched by our continuing conversations over the years. Recently I’ve been invigorated by the direction this conversation has taken regarding inclusivity, particularly with respect to the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, I am currently participating in the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts summer reading group led by the marvelous Madelyn Washington of the Moore’s School of Music who is leading discussion on Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. I believe that those who gather, learn and teach at colleges and universities can be key agents of positive change and I am so pleased we are having these conversations as a community. 

Q: What accomplishments in your career do you feel most proud of?

A: I am proud to be the very first ever to teach and develop a Design History curriculum at the University of Houston and honored that I have been given space to teach in both the Art History faculty and in the College of Architecture & Design, Program in Industrial Design where I have taught since this highly-regarded program’s inaugural year. I teach both undergraduate and graduate students and offer both survey as well as more specialized topic courses. At the McGovern College of the Arts, one of our most popular majors is Graphic Design. The Graphic Design faculty requested that I develop such a course, I did so, and it has been very well received and packed with students each semester! Design History has long been a footnote to Art History, so I feel I have shed some light on this astoundingly creative and relevant field. 

Q: What specific skills or ideas, which you have cultivated in your area of expertise, do you find valuable in your career now?

A: Years ago, I learned the value of deeply considering context when addressing the arts and design. I remind my students constantly that “design does not happen in a vacuum” and together we delve into political, economic, and social contexts to better understand a period’s design. Further, I value the consideration of design along with developments in other media and fields, rather than looking at design in isolation.

Q: What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?

A: Aside from a teaching approach that conveys passion, compassion, energy and a deep reservoir of knowledge, I believe that a good instructor will see potential in every single student and seek to catalyze the greatest possible engagement from each one. A good instructor clearly remembers what it was like to be a student! A good instructor guides a student toward finding their unique voice. 

Q: What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments?

A: Again: establishing, developing and refining a design curriculum at the McGovern College of the Arts has been a professional highlight. I am proud to have received a University of Houston Teaching Excellence Award this past spring as teaching has always been my highest professional priority. I am most proud of the ever-growing number of students that I continue to communicate with about all sorts of things, both professional and personal. It thrills me to hear from students I taught years ago who continue to feel compelled to send me updates, ideas or a bit of design news they wish to share with me!

Q: What is coming up for you in the future that we should watch for?

A: Courses evolve. My courses and my teaching are currently evolving to become more inclusive of long-marginalized voices in the arts and design. I embrace this change. 

Q: What advice would you have for incoming students who are focusing on a career in the arts?

A: Value your talents. Value your voice. Value the Arts. Work hard to contribute your voice and talents to benefit and enrich others.