What follows is a shortened version of a proposal for curricular overhaul submitted at Pacific Northwest College of Art when I was assistant professor. The proposal resulted in a very successful one-month pilot (see Whole Live Animal, “Notes on an Experiment”). I post this on the occasion of an action by my former colleagues in response to the further devaluation of faculty labor by the board of the college. I also post this as a gift to anyone who might be looking to create a new educational space. Use what you can, retool or rewrite. This was meant to be a provocation for rethinking the value structure of higher education.
A corporate and utilitarian discourse now dominates higher education. We are told that the only way forward is to treat students as customers and faculty as interchangeable servers. This utilitarian approach maintains that education should only function as a gateway to employment. This is of course, a hare-brained and dangerous path. If we want to transform the art world we need to start with how we train artists. If we chase the mirage of unfettered growth and exterior relevancy the horizon will always be just beyond the hill. We’ll die of thirst in the meantime. The questions we should ask do not involve comparisons with other institutions. We should ask ourselves what our strengths are. How do we bring the world to us on our terms? We shouldn’t stand and itch in someone else’s ill-fitting clothes. Let us truly innovate. Let us be truly bold.
My program would do away completely with the 16 week, four class a semester model. This would be a year round, three-year curriculum. Students would pay significantly less tuition for this program but it would be highly competitive. It is small-scaled, hands-on, nature-based and humane. This program is designed to give space for the student to truly learn. Process is the goal, not the closed loop of a finished product. It is designed to introduce a new student to a vast field of ideas laying a lifelong foundation as an intellectual and artistic leader.
As a first task, students build their own studio spaces. The studio is the space through which the student thinks and learns. In place of a menu of classes, there would be monthly symposia giving an intensive three-day burst of lectures and discussion with faculty from liberal arts. Symposia faculty would assign readings beforehand so that students come in prepared. There would be biweekly intensive two-day workshops with studio faculty that cover specific studio techniques. The focus in the symposium will be on primary texts. One can’t understand a Marxist reading of Milton if you don’t understand Milton and Marx on their own terms first.
First year students would only use rudimentary materials. We often forget that digital technologies are simply one kind of technology. As a program leader I would maintain a studio practice with the students. We all work together. Again the studio is the hub around which all activities revolve. Each week the program leader would deliver a prepared lecture. Everyday in the studio we would make and eat lunch together and have discussions as a part of our practice. As a group we will engage all the arts in our city. We will regularly attend galleries, plays, concerts, films, lectures, dance, readings etc. Studio practice is an extended conversation through material. What do other disciplines have to teach us?
The first summer of the program, students would apprentice and intern with a working artist. The chosen artists would teach the student about their particular media and studio practice. Second year students would help develop the symposia and act as secondary mentors for first years. The second summer students would be required to study abroad or somewhere distant in the U.S. as a group. The final year students develop a body of work and a line of intellectual inquiry. Students are then responsible for mounting their own exhibitions, publications etc.
If we are in the business of training artists it begs the question, “what is an artist?” Instead of looking elsewhere for validation to that question, we can shape it ourselves. This program embraces the ethos that permeates the city. Rooted in direct experience and apprenticeship this BFA goes beyond manual skills. This program, steeped in the humanities helps mold the intellectual life of the student as well. It allows the student to get an education in an intensive manner. The bond between student, faculty and mentor creates a rich homegrown art ecology.
What I am proposing is in fact a very old model whose time I believe has returned. The answer to defining success is in our hands, through connections that already exist using resources we already have. Instead of chasing a mercurial path set by someone else, we can set our own and become leaders.
My sense of our current students is that they are already exposed in their day-to-day to copious amounts of digital technology. They have so many choices as it is. What they are looking for is a focused program, one that is affordable and gives them experiences they can’t necessarily have on their own. This program gives a student a very rigorous and meaningful experience– an experience closer to the truth of being a practicing artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. This also allows students to get the education done intensively and finishing earlier.
The secret to the success of this as a program is to flip the current relationship of high tuition for students and low pay for a large faculty. The tuition should be significantly lower and the support and pay for the fewer faculty higher. Fewer choices reduce cost. There are no surprises in terms of offerings since students are going through the same symposia together.
What I have listed below is an ideal for the whole program.
I. SCHEDULE OF PROGRAM
A. Year one
1. Students build their own studio spaces
2. Weekly lectures by lead studio faculty
3. Monthly 3 day symposia (see details below)
4. Ongoing studio projects based on readings and prompts
5. Weekly communal lunches with students take turns cooking (this goes through all years)
6. Weekly cultural excursions (gallery openings, theater, dance, concerts, lectures etc.)
7. Bi-weekly intensive studio workshops
8. End of year evaluation
9. Application to summer internship
10. Summer of 1st year is spent in apprenticeship with working artist
B. Year two
1. Mentorship role for first years
2. Assist in planning symposia
3. Take on studio tech role
4. Language courses for summer trip
5. Weekly cultural excursions (gallery openings, theater, dance, concerts etc.)
6. Evaluation to continue
7. Summer group trip abroad
C. Year three
1. Students propose individual course of study
2. Student teachers and assistants at symposia
3. Choose mentor for final project
4. Invite curators and critics for studio visits
5. Design and create individual exhibitions/publications
6. Apply for residencies, grants, commissions etc.
7. Final oral defense of project
Symposia deliver the intellectual and conceptual groundwork of a liberal arts education in an intensive, cross-disciplinary manner. Symposia subjects would include lectures and workshops with cross-disciplinary scholars. All assigned readings would be done before the start of the symposia. Symposia act as a philosophical and theoretical engine for the studio work.
III. FACULTY POSITIONS
All faculty are full time with full benefits. Faculty have full governance over curricular affairs.
Lead studio faculty:
The lead studio faculty maintains a studio practice in the same space as the students. Lead faculty must deliver a weekly lecture, plan excursions, coordinate symposia, coordinate workshops and oversee end of year evaluation. In addition the lead faculty oversees group activities for first years (such as lunches and cultural excursions). Lead faculty does not teach during the summer. Lead faculty is expected to maintain an active studio, publishing and research practice. Time off will be given for lead faculty to maintain this practice. The faculty is expected to bring those contacts and connections back to the students.
Master faculty oversees a specific area (welding, printmaking, painting etc.). The role of master faculty is to maintain a working studio. Master faculty will deliver intensive workshops based in technique. Master faculty will maintain studio facilities and manage studio techs. Master faculty assist students on technical issues with projects. Master faculty must maintain a studio practice within the facility.
Liberal arts faculty delivers symposia lectures. Like studio faculty, liberal arts must maintain an active publishing and research practice. Regular attendance of conferences is mandatory.
The lead curator works with faculty to bring in dynamic exhibitions linked to curricula. The lead curator’s role links the position of the college within the city as a whole and the wider world of visual art. The lead curator must also work with students on their final exhibitions. Like studio faculty and liberal arts, the curator must maintain an active publishing and research practice. Regular attendance of conferences is mandatory. The goal is to connect to artists and thinkers globally.