Adair Rounthwaite is a specialist in contemporary art, with particular interests in performance, audience participation, conceptualism, institutional critique, and the relationship between art and urban space. Her work has a dual geographic focus in North America and in the former Yugoslavia and its successor states.
Rounthwaite’s first book, Asking the Audience: Participatory Art in 1980s New York (University of Minnesota Press) revolves around the question of how audiences can exercise agency in participatory art, and the related historiographic problem of how art historians can recover those types of agency. The book takes up the case studies of art collaborative Group Material's Democracy and feminist artist Martha Rosler's If You Lived Here…, two projects held at the Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1988–89, which were early instances of the type of institutionally based participatory art now ubiquitous in contemporary art practice. Through her study of the visual, audio, and textual archives of these projects, affect emerges as key to understanding the agency that audience members exercise in a participatory artwork.
Her second book brings these interests in audience dialogue and the public sphere into a different geographic context. This Is Not My World: Art and Public Space in Socialist Zagreb is a study of a group of young artists (the Group of Six Authors and their circle) who in the 1970s and early 1980s created provocative art events in public city spaces in socialist Yugoslavia. The book analyzes how in 20th-century socialist Europe, public space could enable the exercise of personal creativity and the articulation of new identities, even as it functioned as a venue for the ideological assertion of the state. The book is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2024 and has received publication grants from the Graham Foundation and the Kontakt Collection/Erste Foundation.
Rounthwaite has recently begun a third book project entitled Aesthetically Conservative: Right-Wing Interventions in Contemporary Art that analyzes contemporary art from an underexamined perspective: the policy interventions, protests, and aesthetic production of people aligned with the right wing. This is a transnational study spanning the United States and formerly socialist Europe from the 1970s to the present, which covers material ranging from Christian art produced in the former socialist Yugoslavia to the political performances of US politicians who attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts starting in 1989. The book will focus on the logic and goals of conservative art and arts policy interventions and will convey the diversity in aesthetic attitudes amongst people who identify with the right.
Rounthwaite has published articles on global contemporary art in journals including ARTMargins, Representations, Camera Obscura, Third Text, TDR, and Art Journal, and held a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoc at McGill University before coming to UW in 2015.