Today's Students, Tomorrow's Artists

If art education is so important, why so little support?

As much as Miami has grown as an arts capital, there still is much to be done. The art explosion fostered by the migration of Art Basel has been terrific. Yet our city will not really advance unless we can sustain our art development, and this will not happen without a strong base of art schools to foster it.

Unfortunately our politicians and school administrators don't see it that way yet. Our art schools are underfunded, understaffed, scattered, and sometimes isolated from the local arts community. We decided to look into some of these issues with department chairpersons at four of Miami's most important art institutions. They are Louise Romeo from the New World School of the Arts, Mary Malm from Miami International University of Art and Design, Carol Damian from Florida International University, and Bill Carlson from the University of Miami. (Full disclosure: I am a lecturer at UM.)

New Times: Concerning art education, what are the most pressing issues at your institution?

The old shack at UM (formerly the art school) now sits 
vacant -- a sign of everything  that's wrong with art 
education in Miami
Jonathan Postal
The old shack at UM (formerly the art school) now sits vacant -- a sign of everything that's wrong with art education in Miami

Louise Romeo: Funding and space. Though our funding comes from four sources (the State of Florida, University of Florida, Miami Dade College, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools), we still suffer from insufficient funding. In addition we have serious storage limitations. Our unusual structure of high school and college puts a strain on having adequate and appropriate spaces for both student populations. Believe me, they deal with it in a remarkable way. They create everywhere, be it in a studio space, the hallway, or out in front of the school.

Bill Carlson: Right now facilities are the single biggest obstacle to our department. We are scattered in seven locations around the UM campus and they are redundant and inadequate. Our visibility in the area of the campus is virtually nonexistent, so the students' continuity with the program is badly compromised. One of the most important benefits of an art education is the community and the energy it generates. Peer awareness and context are crucial in that osmosis portion of an education. Our present state is very problematic. We need proximity.

Mary Malm: Our institution is unique in two ways. Miami International University of Art and Design is strictly an art and design school, and we are part of a large corporation (EDMC) and in that corporate setting our school is the only one in the system that has a visual arts major. Since the school's primary mission is placing students in well-paying jobs in the art and design sector, the visual arts major poses a challenge.

Carol Damian: I agree with my colleagues. We need more financial support for scholarships, equipment, technology, facilities, and new faculty.

Are you happy with the present art curriculum? How can it be improved?

Bill Carlson: We are restructuring curricular needs as we update our expectations. An arts education in a liberal arts university is a weird beast. We expect strong contributions to the curriculum to be delivered from the parts of the campus that may have drastically different expectations. The integration of technology in all areas of specialization is an important agenda. But the existing separation of our facilities makes this an uphill battle. We are currently initiating concept-based (rather than specialization-based) courses for our advanced undergraduate majors in the hope that this will broaden their exposure to the arts and up the level of expectation.

Louise Romeo: Our curriculum has evolved over the years, changing to meet student needs. Graphic design and electronic intermedia (our two largest programs) are two majors that were developed to specifically address these needs. Currently visual arts offers two major tracks of study: one in the fine arts (painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and sculpture) and the other in the graphic/electronic media. The core of the curriculum continues to be fine art-based. We advocate a rigorous foundation in drawing, design, and aesthetics. If we had additional funding, I would love to expand the curriculum to include more specialty courses and develop a major in interdisciplinary arts.

Carol Damian: That's a good question. Actually we are reevaluating our curriculum now in light of a changing student body that needs more skills and guidance, both technically and conceptually. The required courses are fine; it is the progress through the curriculum that we are changing -- mentoring, etc. We believe in strong art history, theoretical and conceptual knowledge as informing the artwork. Students today are not prepared for the reading and writing and the professional practices they will need to succeed. We are working on providing that from the beginning.

Mary Malm: Two years ago when we were taken over by EDMC we converted all the majors from the semester to quarter system to be in compliance with the other schools in the MIU system. It was a great opportunity to write our dream curriculum. Faculty members, in all departments, rewrote [the] curriculum. We've also included practical courses such as mural and scenic techniques, digital media, and computer basics.

Do you feel that your school is connected to our community?

Louise Romeo: Our students' learning experiences certainly occur within our building but they also benefit enormously from the learning experiences provided by the community. I believe their "real world" education in the community is as critical as what they learn in the classroom. The goal is to make their entrance into the world as seamless as possible. At NWSA many of our students participate in eye-opening internships with fine artists and designers, and with arts-oriented organizations such as the Moore Space, the Rubell Family Art Collection, MoCA, MAM, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Fred Snitzer Gallery, Art in Public Places, and many more.

Bill Carlson: Well, I have to say that the University of Miami has been timid about an active community involvement. Why is that -- elitism, snobbery, insecurity? I don't know, but we are trying to change our perceived "distance" from the arts community and the community at large. Additionally we must have some visibility during Art Basel and Art Miami. It is an embarrassment to be absent from those events.

Mary Malm: MIU takes part in many fundraising events in Miami. Our fashion department, for instance, is very active in this respect with the American Cancer Society and the Children's Home Society. We have completed two murals to raise scholarship money for our visual arts department. One of our faculty members collaborated with instructors from New World, creating an opportunity for students from Ai MIU, New World, and FIU to show together as a group in the "Frenzy" exhibition. It was a great experience for the students.

Carol Damian: Definitely. FIU is the largest public institution and our students and faculty are very aware of their obligation to serve the community and to participate in what is happening. We are constantly looking for opportunities to be part of the community and feel we have a tremendous amount to offer -- and that the community has much to offer to our department.

What would you like to change about the way your school deals with your department?

Louise Romeo: I think that the complexity of our partnership sometimes creates trying situations. One such issue is our students' ability to work in studios beyond specified hours. Creative ideas germinate independently of structured time. As an art school, I would like students to have the opportunity to have extended hours beyond those currently specified.

Mary Malm: Our department serves two functions: We offer the BFA and MFA in visual arts. However, we also serve as the foundations department for several of the other majors. In my opinion, in order to deliver the best possible instruction in foundations it is important to maintain a strong full-time faculty that is consistent in their delivery of the foundations curriculum.

Carol Damian: The arts are always given less respect than the programs that bring in money (sciences). Frankly we are the last to be considered for a building; renovations are difficult and expensive, and new technology not easily available. I wish they would give us more respect -- people come to a university for its culture, not necessarily for a science demonstration.

Bill Carlson: We desperately need more support in our relationship as [a] department to the university. The good news is that president Donna Shalala is making all the right "noise" about arts support, but we'll have to wait and see. Dean and vice provost James Wyche is equally supportive verbally. Now it must be matched with funds and facilities. Wyche is also initiating "interdisciplinary institutes" within the college and beyond. This is exciting and has the potential to make us an important player in the intellectual life of the College of Arts and Sciences. We'll hire new faculty with the expectation that their strengths will be "cross referenced" with those not in the visual arts, thus a potential collaboration with the whole university community.

Do you feel that your students graduate with their best possible art skills?

Bill Carlson: The idea of "best possible art skills" may be a bit too much for me. Our three-year program is intended to give a student experimentation time and opportunities to broaden his/her arts appetite. We feel this is important for them to gain some perspective and maturity about the graduate opportunity. We expect our grads to leave with an artistically informed "momentum" that will equip them for a career in the arts.

Mary Malm: I am confident that our curriculum is strong and comprehensive. We hope to give them a well-rounded education and prepare them for graduate school or the workplace.

Louise Romeo: The faculty and I are united in our commitment to the welfare and future success of our students. Continual evaluation of our students' progress through the jury process ensures that students are learning and developing their craft and aesthetic sensibilities.

Carol Damian: We are proud of our department and good students can benefit greatly -- poor students will be poor students everywhere. This is a fine arts department and we continue to emphasize this, rather than the commercial.

Is your faculty connected with what's going on in today's art scene? Do you find that important?

Bill Carlson: We are [a] faculty of solid artists and researchers, but with only a couple of exceptions, we are established and not as "current" with our strengths. A strong program should respect its resources (established faculty) but with younger faculty, push toward an edge as we develop a context to stay vital. New hires are in the works for fall 2004. So if we get good faculty we should start to address this issue. We received a promise of four new positions over the next four years. When that promise is fulfilled, we will have a range of faculty seniority and I expect a strong program.

Louise Romeo: NWSA faculty is intricately connected to today's art scene. Personally, I feel it is vital to their artistic life and their ability to successfully teach our future artists.

Mary Malm: Many of our faculty members are active members in the Miami art community showing regularly at several galleries and independent venues, as well as regionally and nationally. Yes, I think it is important in that they are great examples to the students. They see firsthand the organization, dedication, and hard work it takes to be an artist.

Carol Damian: Yes -- both the artists and art historians are respected for their work and their scholarship and are participants in the academic and community art world. Not only do I think that is important -- it is an obligation, part of their service and academic assignments to maintain the connection and keep up to date, to be a part of what is happening and certainly to understand it in order to communicate to the students.

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