Wang: Defining the term ‘amateur’ art versus ‘professional’ art

Krannert Art Museum Director Kathleen Harleman gives remarks at 2016 UI Art Faculty Show. 


As many of my Art = Life column readers may know I have a special interest in University of Illinois art history and in collecting art created by UI faculty and students. About two years ago I was happy to be able to collect one of the prints titled “Frenzied Dancer” by Dr. Kathleen Harleman, then the director of Krannert Art Museum. 

While I was writing for a class I was going to teach at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the 150 years of UI art, I realized I did not have much information about this print and it was not signed. So I wrote an email to Harleman and asked if she would provide me any information about this print, such as its history, when and where it was created, its concept and any story related it, etc. because I find it is the most interesting and invaluable or rewarding part in collecting art. Therefore, I always try my best to get the real insight of an artwork directly from its creator. 

 Most fascinatingly and rather unexpectedly, Harleman replied: “Thank you for your email, and I am embarrassed about having my very amateur art in the public realm. Could I buy it back from you with an additional contribution to something that matters to you?”

 As soon as I read her email, I wrote back. Here, I would like to share with my readers my conversation with Harleman on the concept of “amateur artist” versus “professional artist.”

“Dear Kathleen, I think you are too modest and viewed your own art in a too personal way. The American term ‘amateur or professional art’ is very debatable. 

“In Chinese long history of civilization and art, the so-called professional artists were ranked/valued much lower than those so-called amateur artists who did not make a living by doing art, but they were professionals in other fields or scholars who made art only for their own cultural cultivation or expression of their ideas. In modern China we define this group as Scholar’s art or Literati art (in French). 

 “In my own case, though, many of my American friends would identify me as a so-called professional artist, in fact, due to the historical and social cultural circumstances in that I had never formally studied art in school or in college. My field of university education was in medicine. 

“However, I have written an art column in the Rantoul Press since 2007. I firmly believe art should not be an end to itself but a vehicle for social changes and improvement. Art contributes to our socio-economic development, creates job/career opportunities and improves the quality of our community life and personal life. 

“Based on this belief I actively participate in our community arts activities/programs and frequently organize art exhibitions to promote arts and local artists. For me, all my artwork, regardless if it is painting, drawing, sculpture or photography, …. whatever the medium or technique might be, is the language and expression of my personal views and ideology about the world surrounding us. In creating art, I try to share with people what I see as beautiful or as ugly. In other words, what is right and what is wrong in the hope we appreciate the beautiful, so to promote the right and denounce the ugly, therefore to avoid the wrong.

 “Another common saying in our art world is, ‘There is no good art or bad art, and there is only the art you like or do not like.’ So there should not be any embarrassment of this print to you. 

“For me, I find this print very interesting and academic. It is important to my UI art collection because I have artwork by the first director of Krannert Art Museum, Cecil Vincent Donovan, who was a painting professor. After him, the directors were anthropologists and art historians who did not create any of their own art (as far as I know). 

“When you came on board as the museum director, we were told you were a gallery/museum administration specialist. So when I saw this print I was so excited. Your artwork should be evidence that ‘Who manages also can!’” 

I concluded my request by saying: “As a friend and UI colleague, I respect you, so just let me know if you will sign this print for me or still prefer to get it back. For all the good reasons I mentioned above, I would really prefer you sign it for me, and I would love to keep it in my UI art collection.”

 She indeed proudly signed the print for me with a very professional term “Artist Proof.”  

Interestingly, a month later after this conversation “Profile Harleman” was published in Krannert Art Museum’s 2017 fall calendar. 

It stated at the very beginning, “Kathleen Harleman, the longest-serving director in the museum’s history,” is proof of my point that her performance as the director of our university art museum is a success and she is not an amateur artist. 

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contracted by email at