Making the Grade

How well are Miami's art schools keeping up with the scene? Ask them.

In the past three years Miami has experienced a remarkable development in the arts, which brings new challenges for art education. New Times decided to take the pulse of academia by sitting down with Michael Carlebach and Carol Damian, chairs from the art departments at the University of Miami and Florida International University; Louise Romeo, dean of the visual arts at the New World School of the Arts; and Brian Curtis, an art professor from UM.

New Times: Do you feel, in terms of curriculum and activities, that your departments are keeping up with the actual needs of our community?

Michael Carlebach: We try very hard. We have an enormous amount of students: 1300 in various programs, including art history, and in each section, studio art as well as art history classes. The faculty works very hard to keep up with what goes on. I don't think any of our programs is antiquated.

Lately local schools have been flooding the community with local art, such as that from Bhakti Baxter, Kerry Ware, and Jordan Massengale
Lately local schools have been flooding the community with local art, such as that from Bhakti Baxter, Kerry Ware, and Jordan Massengale

Carol Damian: It's very difficult to keep up with what is happening for many reasons -- not the least of which is the time factor. Our students are not traditional, full-time students and have so many responsibilities; it's hard to get them involved outside of their requirements and to keep up.

Louise Romeo: New World School of the Arts students are part of the "new" emerging-artists phenomenon in Miami. Their energy and passion have become highly inspirational to an art scene thirsty for fresh and innovative perspectives. Through exhibitions and performances, events and projects, we reach out to share the talents of our young artists.

There are those who suggest that schools in Miami are somewhat complacent, even protective of their own turf. Do you feel you could do more to foster a local and national exchange with programs among students, emerging artists, high-profile artists, and visiting lecturers?

FIU's Damian: I would welcome that ... and we do share visiting artists often. We are working with [Miami-Dade Community College] North to begin such programs and have always shared with UM in a variety of programs. I do not feel that FIU is at all territorial -- just the opposite. We want students and events and whatever we can get to assist our students and our programs. We are poor and need to cooperate!

UM's Carlebach: We do quite a lot already, not as much as some people would like. We have the "Arts After Dark" program, and we have a very active lecture series and resident artist programs. Now, could we do more? Possibly, and I'd love to do more with people like Damian, but there's a geographical problem.... We let them [FIU] know about our public programs and they do the same. Complacent we are not.

UM's Curtis: I think we're all guilty to an extent, depending on our energy level. We are underfunded and yet we've made a program. But truly, the university hasn't been supportive in the past. This new administration seems promising. Let's see.

NWSA's Romeo: With partnerships with the University of Florida, MDCC, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools, NWSA is not turf-oriented. We cultivate collaborative projects and events with nonprofit organizations as well as corporate institutions. Our department has shared a unique partnership with Group Espirito Santo over the past several years with four major events. Recently we have forged a partnership with ArtCenter/South Florida, which gives our students the opportunity to work alongside professional artists in a "real" environment.

In terms of art facilities -- materials, studios, exhibition spaces, et cetera -- are you satisfied with the attention that administrators pay to art departments?

FIU's Damian: It is no secret that art departments are at the bottom of the totem pole -- poor facilities, lowest-paid faculty, tough budgets, few grant and funding opportunities. I am as much a fundraiser as faculty member nowadays and look constantly for support for visiting artists, lectures, scholarships. I am not too proud to put on my pearls and beg a little. I think people are receptive to the idea of giving to a public university, but you need to reach them with the message.

NWSA's Romeo: Because we are an art school, we do not face those traditional problems. Our mission is to support and promote the arts by providing intensive training to students who aspire to become practicing professional artists. However, this does not preclude us from many of the same struggles and challenges that affect the universities -- too little teaching and studio space, tight budgets, limited materials. I am amazed with how much we do with the little we have.

Michael, for a couple of years the art department has had no central building [known as the Art Shack, it was condemned in 2001] and has been scattered about the campus. Some people say this has had an impact on faculty morale. What are your comments?

UM's Carlebach: In the past the administration did not support the art department. It's true that our facilities are pretty atrocious, but there's a caveat: Donna Shalala has promised us a new art building. She seems entirely committed to fixing the problem. In fact last week, she and I toured the art facilities, one by one. She looked at everything and she has repeatedly said, "We have to fix this problem." We had very little support in the past, but I believe that's going to change.

In what way do you think art schools can become more involved with Miami's contemporary art scene?

UM's Carlebach: We need to do more than what we are already doing, which is bringing hot artists for short-time residences and lectures. We'd like to do more of it. The studio artists and historians feel very strongly about this. Believe me, this is not an ivory tower ...

FIU's Damian: I guess it takes visibility. We have become more active in recent years -- but we often feel that only the NWSA counts and they get the most attention just because they are the NWSA. There's a big difference between an excellent high school and the depth of quality in the college program. The more we can get the students out into the community ... in internships, group exhibitions, mingle with others, the better.

UM's Curtis: The new dean of the arts and sciences is very determined to change the nature of the involvement of our university. He seems proactive in making the university react to the community. He's asking the faculty to get involved with the community and Miami. I think both he and the president are changing the direction with interdisciplinary and multicultural initiatives.

Briefly, could you comment on your departments' achievements?

NWSA's Romeo: The students and faculty in visual arts perform at an extraordinary level. The December issue of Art in America featured the "House at MoCA" as an exemplary show featuring young gifted artists from Florida. The recent "No Shows" exhibition at Snitzer's gallery included 50 NWSA students and graduates out of the 200 artists selected. Bhakti Baxter, a college junior, recently had his first solo exhibition at MoCA.

UM's Curtis: Graduates of our program are quite active in the Miami art scene. I'm thinking of people like Jordan Massengale, Franklin Einspruch, Kerry Ware, and Mary Malm, all teachers at [International Fine Arts College]. Or others like Annie Wharton and Kyle Trowbridge, a full-time instructor in painting and printmaking and a Consortium Grant recipient, and Westen Charles, also a Consortium Grant recipient and founder of Locust Projects.

FIU's Damian: Our most recent achievement is [getting] national accreditation (NASAD) for the first time. We have a Smithsonian affiliation and can offer opportunities to art history students through it. We have [new degrees such as] a museum studies graduate certificate approved, to begin in fall 2003, that will be perfect with our new museum and the Wolfsonian, and will be followed the next year with a master's in art history with a museum studies track. I believe that we have one of the best art programs in the South.

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