Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Praise of Art Schools

So, yes, I did go to the Laguna College of Art and Design yesterday, to give my lecture. And I realized as soon as I set foot inside that I had not allowed, in my mind, for the fact that it had been twenty-five years since I last set foot inside an art school. It was actually something of a shock.

First, let me say how much I have always loved art schools. I saw a good number of them, back in the 1970s and the early 1980s--as a candidate for jobs and, occasionally, as a member of professional accreditation teams. I visited art schools back east, in the deep south, in the Midwest and the Northwest... art schools everywhere, and I loved them all. My first contact was in 1976, when I was appointed Dean of what was then Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County (now, as I mentioned yesterday, Otis College of Art and Design,) a tiny art school in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to MacArthur Park. I came there from USC, a big university, where I had been teaching Comparative Literature, and I had only recently realized that I was more interested in art than in literature. Since I lacked the qualifications--and knowledge!--to teach art or art history, this was my first move into administration.

It was a baptism of fire. I have often told the story about how the school lost its entire funding base on the very day of my arrival there as Dean; how the Director resigned, and left me, a total greenhorn in administration, responsible for the survival of the school; and how I struggled mightily, with the faculty and students, to assure a future for the institution as a free-standing art school, rather than as the extension of a university art department.

Because the two are very different animals. A university art department is but one among many, engaged in the constant internal competition for resources, students, and institutional support. Its art students are "majors", who must spend perhaps two-thirds of their time and energies in non-art classes. In an art school, this ratio is reversed. Much more time is devoted to studio practice and less, respectively, to the supporting general studies required for a degree. Clearly, a student's choice depends on individual needs and aspirations. Those who have dreamed since childhood of becoming artists and whose vision of life as an artist is unwavering may well be those who choose the art school.

And art schools are very special places. Typically, they are small--small enough to be a real community, where each student or a faculty member might personally know a good number of those with whom they share this common, working space. At Otis, I learned to love the spacious studios with their smell of paint and avid concentration; I loved walking in on a life drawing class, to find students, male and female, intense in their focus on a naked model, male or female, posed on a dais at their center; I loved the feel and heft of clay in a ceramics studio, the heat of the kiln: I loved the clang and clatter of metal or the whine of a saw in the sculpture yard. Not an artist myself, I found it a constant joy to watch artists at work and to feel, as a writer, some sense of common purpose with their efforts.

Otis was a fine arts school. It had rigorously--and probably foolishly--rejected the more practical arts from its curriculum. Illustration, graphics, advertising design, animation--these were regarded as lesser skills in a school that saw its purpose to be the education of those artists who would go out and change the course of art history with their work. Generously and unquestioningly funded for its entire history by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Otis had never had to contemplate the practical need to attract students, or to train them for professional careers in the applied arts. Which is why, when the financial crunch came, its only possible future as an art school took the form of a merger with another art school--one that did take those other obligations seriously.

I realized, then, on stepping into the Laguna College of Art and Design, that I had premised my lecture preparations on my memories of Otis and its students, most of whom had hopes and aspirations in the world of galleries, exhibitions, art collections and, eventually, museums! At Otis, remember, when I was there, in the 1970s, no one had ever seen a computer, let alone possessed or worked with one! Here, at LCAD, in addition to the painting and drawing studios, there were labs filled with gleaming monitors and students hard at work on keyboards. It took me no more than a few minutes to understand that many of the students I'd soon be talking to were engaged in a very different kind of training, and would have very different goals and expectations. For these young people, the anticipation of a "professional" career--i.e., one in which they could actually expect to make a living--was not some wild-eyed, distant dream, but rather an imminent reality. I would need, then, to address a rather different issue: not the challenge, for a fine artist, of "persisting" in their creative work in the face of art world neglect, but rather the challenge of persisting in the pursuit of a personal vision and personal integrity in the context of external professional pressures and demands.

It was a subtle but significant shift. I did see, out in the gathering of some forty students and a handful of faculty, some body language that seemed to be asking: what's this guy talking about and how is it relevant to me? But by and large I felt a good connection with my audience, and was gratified--and relieved--by the reception at the end. I had clearly succeeded in reaching out and touching a good few of my fellow creative souls in some significant way. And what more could I ask for? I also came away with a new understanding to bring to future meetings with today's art school students, and grateful for a somewhat updated vision of the art school itself.

My thanks to the LCAD administration, faculty and students for making this possible. I did NOT feel the need to be a dean again, but I was enchanted, once again, by the art school experience.


mandt said...

Very interesting story! A few years ago my last 'interview' was at SCAD in Savannah---what a marvelous art school----you probably know it...

PeterAtLarge said...

Oh, yes, mandt, I do know SCAD--a big operation, in the art school scale of things. Thanks for checking in!