Tuesday, January 11, 2011

greater than the sum of its parts.... art art zine

from: Art Art zine


This past summer, I spent several months drafting a proposal for a graduate program in art. The proposed MFA program is a cooperative effort of the art departments of Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. If successfully slingshot into reality, the program will focus on critical, collaborative and community-engaged art practices and will form the heart of a new site for creation, exhibition and conversation around contemporary art in downtown Nashville. I was hired to research diverse models of art education, to solicit feedback from people in the community and in the field, and to produce a document that articulated and synthesized the visions of the three different departments. The document I submitted in August was formatted as a working draft, ready to be collaboratively reshaped and refined by department members before being presented to their respective administrations for approval.

After working to channel multiple people’s many creative ideas into a single institutional proposal, I find it somewhat daunting to speak casually as just one participant in a collaborative project that is still very much in process. But I will try to share a few personal reflections. It recently struck me that my position this summer, as someone jointly hired by the three department chairs to operate in an official but highly independent mode, could be viewed as a baby step in the direction of the ambitious institutional collaboration that this project will require. So, I thought that I would take advantage of this forum to try to draw out one or two particularly productive tensions I see in the project, which perhaps stood out to me in part because of the position that I briefly occupied at a nexus of the three institutions.
Entering the project at such an early point in the planning process gave me the advantage of participating in an extended moment of imagining. The three department chairs, Carlyle Johnson (TSU), Mel Ziegler (Vanderbilt) and Terry Thacker (Watkins), have overlapping visions of what this program could and should be, as do their respective faculties. They collectively want a program that is rigorous, experimental, critical, creative, discursive, community-oriented, flexible, collaborative, and groundbreaking. Taking their overlapping visions as my framework, I tried to develop a broader and deeper sense of what this program might look like, in two ways. On one hand, I worked to situate a collective vision for the program within the historical trajectory and current conditions of contemporary art education. On the other hand, I tried to locate this vision within and shape it in relation to the specific strengths, needs and capabilities of the three participating institutions and the Nashville community.

The three departments have converging missions and goals for their students that reflect larger conversations about pedagogical strategies that are taking place in contemporary art world. These conversations involve considering how to deschool society and have been actualized in unofficial institutions for art education such as the Public School and the Mountain School – low budget, no accreditation, no formal degree, intentionally located outside of the academy. TSU, Vanderbilt and Watkins want to create an actual institution, located within academia, that emphasizes and facilitates informal exchange and action in the interstices of academic, cultural and community organizations. This raises the question of how an institution’s structure can be made flexible, such that it facilitates, values and encourages non-hierarchical forms of knowledge acquisition. It also raises the question of the role of skill acquisition. What gets taught and how? How might a flexibly structured program accommodate a students need to learn software programming in combination with textile weaving as part of their creative practice? How might the program facilitate a student smoothly accessing resources within the three primary institutions, say a computer science class at either Vanderbilt or TSU, and also facilitate that student’s need to reach outside to say the fiber department at the Craft Center? Whatever the answer to these questions, it seems important to take advantage of this extended moment of imagining to ask them.
Although my job was to help facilitate the overlaps between the departments and articulate a collective vision, I am personally more interested in the points of difference and particularity. It is the differences that make bringing these three institutions together a provocative act unto itself— an act that is not necessarily comfortable but is unquestionably exciting. It is an act that opens up a potential site for politics in part by forcing tough pragmatic questions to the fore. When you bring together institutions where the difference between the lowest and highest yearly tuition cost for a full course load is $32,000, how do you create a funding structure for a graduate program in art that maintains that economic diversity in your student population? How might you maintain the intimacy of a school that has a total enrollment of 387 students while leveraging the resources and research power of two large universities? How might a collaboration between two majority Caucasian schools and, a historically black university with a majority African-American student population, actively encourage greater racial diversity in a field of graduate education that is to date comparatively homogenous? Building a new institution from scratch that is tethered to, but in many ways independent from, its parent institutions, creates an opportunity to embed the broader vision of the program directly into the administrative structure.

Sometime in July, I spoke on the phone with David Hassler, Program Director for the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State Ohio, to learn a little bit about the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, a consortium of four universities in the region. When I described the proposed MFA program for Nashville, the most immediate advantage he saw was that the schools were all in the same city. This he thought would enable a deep level of collaboration and interaction between the students and faculties from the three schools. He went on to say that from his perspective the MFA program being imagined for Nashville “puts into action the means by which communities can come together and appreciate each other in their diversity. In the face of widening gaps in our society between the haves and the have nots, this program proposes to come together in shared resources to promote a larger vision for how democracy and our society can work.” Yes. Let's build this thing.

Carlin Wing is an artist and a doctoral student in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU.S
She has taught at Vanderbilt University, Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, and Harvard University.

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