Vera Zolberg


Vera L. Zolberg, a pioneer of sociology of arts and memory studies, was born in Vienna in 1932. Amidst the growing anti-Semitism her family left Vienna for the United States in 1935, travelling together with Louis Armstrong who was just returning from his European tour, and who enjoyed playing music for the kids in his cabin, among them the Lenchner girls. [1]

Vera and her family landed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, amid the poverty of new immigrants. The family soon saved enough money to move to the Bronx, where the girls spent much of their time in the Woodstock branch of the New York Public Library. [2] In the South Bronx, Vera grew up in a multicultural, multiracial community. Singled out as a talented immigrant girl, she attended Hunter College High School together with a group of girls from the Bronx, and later matriculated into Hunter College, where she was a Romance language and literature major.

Shortly after college graduation, she married Aristide Zolberg, who arrived in the United States from the war-torn Belgium just 5 years before. Together they went on to graduate study at Boston University. Vera Zolberg received her Master of Arts degree in sociology and anthropology from Boston University and taught in various schools and colleges throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, eventually moving to Chicago. Zolberg received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1974, writing a sociological study of the Art Institute of Chicago as her dissertation, an unusual topic for the time in a discipline dominated by debates about grand theory building, social stratification, institutional theories, social movements, and large-scale surveys.

Upon receiving her PhD, Zolberg taught sociology and anthropology classes at the Hammond, Indiana campus of Purdue University. In 1983, at the invitation of Ira Katznelson, who was a long-time family friend of the Zolbergs, the couple moved to New York to teach at The New School. This wasn’t Vera’s first encounter with the New School, however. While working on her dissertation, she recalled attending an event about art museums there–probably one organized by the New School Art Center–and her notes of the evening “ended up in her dissertation.” [3]

Zolberg’s work helped create the field of the sociology of arts and culture. She studied art at a time when it was largely irrelevant for American sociologists. Thanks to her groundbreaking book, Constructing the Sociology of Arts (1990), generations of sociologists turned toward the study of arts. Both she and her husband were originally Africanists, and her interest in African art, often not considered within the bounds of western-centric understandings of art, inspired her to write about outsider art. [4] Her countless articles and book chapters on museums, remembrance, and memory were similarly formative for the field of memory studies.

Zolberg also contributed to the institutionalization of sociology of arts and culture both in Europe and in the United States. She was involved in the establishment of the section on the Sociology of Culture in the American Sociological Association, and in 2000 she was present at the first meeting of the Sociology Of the Arts Research Network of the European Sociological Association. In the 1980s at the New School, she was also involved in the launching of the seminars that later became the Gender Studies program established with her colleagues Rayna Rapp, Ann Snitow, and Louise Tilly. [5]

Zolberg retired in 2012, but remained active as a Professor Emerita. She died in 2016, three years after her husband.


[1] A Celebration of the Life of Vera L. Zolberg | The New School

[2] Ibid.

[3] Audio interview with Vera L. Zolberg. 24 Oct 2012. The New School oral history program. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Accessed May 8, 2018.…

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


Vera L. Zolberg, 2002, photographer: Jerry Speier. Courtesy of the Dean’s Office, The New School for Social Research.