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The Art of the Matter

Studying Visual Arts at a Liberal Arts School

On Wikipedia’s list of notable Columbia College alumni and affiliates, only six visual artists are listed, with the most recent graduating in 1974. On the equivalent list for Barnard College, there are only three, comprising one of the smallest categories on the page—“Artists” outnumber only “Architects” and “Fictional Alumnae.” Even “Spies” has four entries.

While Wikipedia (as our professors so often like to remind us) is no official authority by any account, there is some truth in these findings: Columbia and Barnard’s liberal arts orientation places less emphasis on fine art than on almost any other subject, a tendency that is clear to me as an art history major. The discipline certainly exists—as a major at Columbia College, and as a visual arts concentration within the art history major at Barnard—but not to the degree that one would expect of a major university located in what is, or at least what once was, the art capital of the world.

So why come here, a university built upon a core curriculum, to study visual arts? Unlike art schools such as Pratt Institute or the School of Visual Arts , Columbia and Barnard do not grant Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. Instead, like the rest of their undergraduate peers, art students receive a Bachelor of Arts. And while art is taken seriously within its respective departments, many students feel that campus culture on the whole is not supportive of the visual arts, instead building creative communities around the arguably more collaborative disciplines of music and theater.

Yet visual arts students here seem to be in consensus: Despite lacking many elements of the traditional art education, the unorthodox nature of Columbia and Barnard’s art programs is a strength, not a weakness.

The Department

For the unacquainted, the visual arts at Columbia are not easy to find: Classes are split between Dodge Hall, just left of the main gates on Broadway, Watson Hall on 115th Street, and Prentis Hall, a building on 125th Street that is currently considered part of the Morningside campus, despite being a 20-minute walk from Butler. Combined, these three buildings house the various studios and classrooms that make up the School of the Arts and its undergraduatecounterpart, the Columbia College visual arts department.

The department itself is smaller than most, with just nine faculty members. Students can elect to complete the art major, the concentration, or the joint major with the Art History department.

Of the three options, it is the visual arts major whose experience most resembles that of a BFA program: Students are required to take Basic Drawing, Sculpture I, and six other 3000-level studio courses, as well as Twentieth Century Art, one semester of the Barnard art history survey, and Eye and Idea, a seminar introducing majors to the New York art world. Senior majors take four two-point classes over their last two semesters, during which they develop and execute a mandatory thesis project.

Despite this intensive technical and conceptual arts training, the experience of an art major is still largely concerned with the liberal arts—a fact that does not deter art students, many of whom came to Columbia considering other academic paths.

“I didn’t apply here thinking I would be an art major,” says Natalie Moore, a Columbia College junior and visual arts major. Though she considered herself an artist before coming to Columbia, she originally planned to study archaeology. “Everyone in high school asked me if I was going to go to an art school, and I would constantly tell them, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ And then I ended up majoring in it anyway.”

A Well-Rounded Education

In many ways, it’s logical: An interest in pursuing art does not necessarily negate an interest in other disciplines, especially at a school like Columbia that attracts multitalented, academically inclined students. But while a liberal arts education does mean a more rounded overall experience, it also belies a thorough technical art training that most BFA programs provide.

At the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, there are 12 different art and design majors a student can choose from, including fine arts, industrial design, and photography. Some schools, like the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I., are even more specialized, offering BFAs in media like glass, ceramics, printmaking, and textiles, among others. While certainly not lacking in resources, the Columbia visual arts department is just that—a department—and does not provide the technical focus of art and design schools, especially in the context of the wider Columbia education and the importance of the Core.

“I talked to this guy who was studying furniture design at RISD, and it was awesome to hear him say, ‘Oh, that’s a chair from this certain classic 1940s collection,’” says Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia College junior and a visual arts major. “He knows everything about something very specific, and that’s something really cool that we don’t have. But I prefer this, the non-applied arts.”

“If I would have wanted so badly to just be doing art for the whole four years, I probably should have applied to an art school,” says Moore. “I’m glad I didn’t. I feel like this is a much more rounded education and a different experience than if I had just applied to art school and majored in photography and only done that.”

For many visual arts majors, the liberal arts are important, both as a component of their education and as an influence on their work. “I really think that all classes can relate back to making art,” Sulkowicz said. “I’m taking Science of Psych for the science requirement, and we’re learning about the way the brain is conditioned to see the lines in motion. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to apply that to my drawing.’”

Even when the Core requirements aren’t a direct inspiration, it’s difficult to ignore the liberal arts experience, especially in the personal and subjective discipline of art. “Within the Core requirements here and the different people that you meet and the different texts that you read, you’re exposed to a lot of different ideas,” Moore said. “And everything that you’re exposed to in terms of ideas and peoples’ opinions does influence your work in some way.”

Yet, as with any program, there is a problem of time—the enemy of many college students, but especially visual arts majors, and especially within the context of a liberal arts education. Studio courses run long—from two and a half to six hours—and consequently can be difficult to schedule and balance with academic classes and coursework. And an artwork, unlike a problem set or a history paper, often lacks a natural stopping point at which the artist knows it’s complete.

“Trying to get that work done and still find time to invest as much as you’d like to in your artistic work has been a bit of a struggle,” Moore said. “Right now I’m in this digital documentary class, and there’s a lot of outside things you need to be doing. I keep finding that I have a portfolio review on Tuesday for it and it’s Monday and I have two pictures and I was supposed to have 20. You have to rush out and make some stuff, and it’s probably not as good or as heartfelt as it could have been if you had more time to focus on just that.”

The problem is especially acute at Columbia, where Core classes alone add up to a minimum of 43 credits. “That’s probably my main complaint. I’m really glad I learned a new language, but I really wish I could have spent more time on my art,” Sulkowicz said. “I’m glad I did Literature Humanities and CC [Contemporary Civilization] in general, but a lot of the time it’s really frustrating.”

“I’m actually afraid to leave here.”

Despite its small size, the program is well equipped, perhaps thanks to the School of the Arts: Between Dodge, Prentis, and Watson, the department houses a wood shop, a metal shop, a ceramics room, a printmaking studio, large-format printers, and a black-and-white darkroom, as well as basic drawing and painting rooms. Access to these facilities, while not immediate nor 24/7 for declared art majors, isn’t difficult to obtain. “You get access to these things only as you apply for them or take classes that feature them,” Moore said. “I don’t feel like I’ve been wanting for anything, resource-wise, since I’ve been here, because anytime I’ve wanted to do work in the darkroom, I’ve always just made sure that I’m involved enough with the photo department to be able to do it.”

In addition to the dedicated classroom space, senior majors receive an individual studio in either Prentis or Watson in which to work on their thesis projects. When it comes to space and resources, the department is remarkably accommodating for an undergraduate liberal arts school. “I am actually afraid to leave here, because I don’t know what I’m going to do without these resources,” Sulkowicz said. “I’ve never done printmaking or video or ceramics, but I’ve done wood sculpture—they have all the saws you would ever need, and the room is well-maintained. The metal shop—I can’t believe they have some of the things they have in there. They’re really well-equipped.”

Across the Street

As a visual arts program in the context of a liberal arts school, many of the advantages and disadvantages of the Columbia visual arts major are similar to those of its counterpart at Barnard, with one significant difference. At Barnard, the visual arts program is formatted as a subsection within the art history department, and is only available as a concentration in conjunction with the art history major. Twelve courses are required for the joint program: six art history courses, five studio courses, and an independent project seminar. While it’s not required of visual arts concentrators, seniors can elect to substitute the mandatory art history thesis for a senior studio project—a year-long endeavor that culminates in a comprehensive senior thesis show in May. 

The concentration itself is a relatively new development. Barnard offered a few studio courses each year, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s, under the leadership of current art history chair Keith Moxey, that a visual arts division was created within the department. The decision to design a program as a subsection of the already-established art history department was a deliberate one, taking into account both the strengths of Barnard and its position as a small liberal arts school.

“It makes sense at Barnard to use the strength of the existing art history department as a source, or a resource, for the production of art-making,” says Joan Snitzer, the director of the Barnard visual arts program and a painting professor. “There are so many art academies and art schools in Manhattan. We wanted to make the Barnard program different, not try to imitate or duplicate what already existed.”

The result is decidedly different from traditional art schools and from the visual arts major across the street at Columbia. In addition to requiring a significant number of art history courses, Barnard places a significant emphasis on art history within actual studio classes. This often manifests in a syllabus of weekly reading assignments, which can be used as a springboard for studio projects. However, more often than not, a student’s background in art history has more influence on her overall approach and understanding of art than on her individual works—a quality that Barnard actively seeks to cultivate by ensuring that critical theory is fully embedded throughout the visual arts program.

“I would not be who I am today without the critical training I got from the Barnard art history department, skills that I use every day to think about contemporary art,” says Vanessa Thill, a 2013 Barnard graduate who majored in art history and concentrated in the visual arts. “To be able to visually evaluate and write thoughtfully are not just necessary for my job, but are also satisfying for me.”

The inclusion of theory is sensible for an art program whose students’ interest in intellectual and academic work is presumed by virtue of their choice to pursue a liberal arts education. “I think you have to consider that somebody applying to Barnard is applying in the first place because they have an intellect and they want to apply it over many academic and creative subjects—otherwise they would have applied just to an art school,” Snitzer said. “It seems kind of logical: Why try to make Barnard into an art school when somebody chose Barnard because they wanted to be challenged in many ways?”

Still, the program’s structure is a point of contention for those who feel that the delegation of visual arts to a concentration automatically subordinates the practice of art-making to the study of art history. In her afterword to the 2013 Barnard Visual Arts Senior Thesis Exhibition catalog, Lucy Hunter, a 2012 graduate of the Barnard visual arts program, writes: “Art education in this country is treated from the grade-school level as ‘elective,’ an add-on to a standard curriculum. These institutional biases carry on through the collegiate level—Barnard is a prime example.”

While the program is certainly unorthodox in its structure, part of the contention comes from its title, which does treat visual arts as secondary—and does not necessarily reflect the views of the department itself. “I think the name—‘concentration’—I think it’s time we changed it. What we have is a major,” Snitzer says. “I would not break it from art history, because I think that’s one of the program’s strengths.”

The inclusion of theory is particularly useful at Barnard, where the department of art history holds a prestigious place. “You have access to brilliant people to look at your work and speak to you about your projects,” Snitzer says. “Famous artists in the outside world would love to have many of our faculty personally talk to them and view their art.”

“I sort of wish I had looked into BFA programs in retrospect, programs that have more resources for visual arts,” agrees Thill. “But I am actually really glad that I got the rigorous art theory training.”

According to Snitzer, some students enter the program skeptical, interested only in practical approaches and wary of the art history course load. But this attitude usually dissipates by the time they become fully immersed in the program. “Although some students are resistant initially, I would say 95 percent of the majors take more than the required art history,” Snitzer says. “Once they get involved in using their intellect in studying art history and applying it to the studio practice, they get excited. It’s not a problem. It just looks like it’s not taken seriously with this name, ‘concentration.’”

All Theory, Some Practice

The Barnard program’s emphasis on theory is balanced by a detached attitude toward technique: Instruction in the physical processes of art-making is extremely limited, even more so than at Columbia. While students are actively making art, professors at Barnard are less likely to spend time teaching specific techniques. This is in stark contrast to many art schools and visual arts programs (including Columbia’s), where myriad foundation courses teaching the fundamentals of drawing, painting, and sculpture are generally required for every major.

Such an unorthodox lack of technical focus is in part driven by the program’s emphatic insistence on the theoretical, which tends to position technique as secondary to critical thought. “Technical abilities are wonderful, but you can really find an online tutorial or somebody to help produce your work these days,” Snitzer says. “This is what we do well. We teach women to think independently, and it’s transferable. ... That we train people to research, to think independently, to think in-depth, to know the history of what happened before and where they stand now in the larger and global standard of art, is really important. It puts them ahead.”

And, as with anything in New York, technical instruction isn’t hard to find outside of Morningside. Institutions like the Art Students League of New York and the International Center of Photography offer classes for the public, and many art schools, including Pratt and Parsons The New School for Design have summer programs open to undergraduates from other colleges and universities. “We make suggestions, and people do take classes elsewhere in technique—over the summer, or across the street, or at other institutions” Snitzer says. “Barnard women are smart. You can pick up these ideas. You can find somebody who will show you how to do ceramics, or how to weld sculpture.”

Still, some students say they find the scarcity of technical instruction frustrating if they lack previous experience in a certain medium, or desire structured direction within their program. “I wish I had sought out studio classes that offer more concrete technical training,”Thill says. “The vast majority of the studio classes I took were ultimately useless to me.”

While the theoretical nature of the Barnard program is certainly a contributing factor, the program is unable to provide in-depth lessons in technique due to the circumstances of the college itself—as a small school located in a major city, there just isn’t enough space to go around. Without adequate room for industrial equipment (think a silkscreening lab or a darkroom), technical instruction can be difficult. “Quite frankly, we have four square acres total for Barnard,” Snitzer says. “It seemed unlikely that we were going to have a full building of studio equipment and studio space.”

Unlike at Columbia, where the Graduate School of the Arts share facilities with the undergraduate visual arts program, Barnard’s program has a single studio on the fourth floor of the Diana Center. Currently, all five Barnard studio courses offered this spring—Drawing Studio, Painting II, Painting IV, Supervised Projects in Photography, and Imagery and Form in the Arts—are held in the studio, Diana 402. Down the hall is a digital lab with iMacs and printers that the program shares with the department of architecture.

“Every school I’ve ever visited in the U.S., no matter how large, always, the students say they don’t have enough room. This is an art student’s mantra: ‘I don’t have enough space,’” Snitzer says. “Some people use it to their advantage. It’s a challenge: how to make something small with a big idea, how to make something interesting and creative that can be transposed or moved or installed in an unlikely place.”

Still, the department recognizes Barnard’s space crunch, and does its best to accommodate students, allocating extra space to a few senior visual arts concentrators each year. “The way we do it is we try to assess who is doing work that most needs a studio. If a student is mostly working on a computer, she would be less likely to get studio space,” says John Miller, a Barnard visual arts professor who teaches photography and the latter half of the senior thesis seminar. “We recognize that it is a problem, that it is inadequate. Ideally, each senior would have studio space.”

Exhibition space is equally limited—there is only one true gallery at Barnard, also located on the fourth floor of the Diana—but has an easier solution. Rather than let it control their art, students use the lack of legitimate exhibition room as an opportunity for increased exposure: The rest of the building is used as an improvisational installation space. Work is installed in and on any available surface—hallways, staircases, bathrooms—using the public nature of the student center as a means of visibility and an exercise in creativity.

“It becomes a new way of being creative. It still challenges the mind, it still challenges the visual thinking, it challenges the audience,” Snitzer says. “So we’ve just had to use this space constraint as a challenge, a creative challenge. And it works.”

The Graduates

As with any other student, the ominous question of postgraduate plans looms persistently over an art major’s head. And in a world increasingly hostile to the “impractical” discipline of art, what exactly are visual arts majors going to do after graduation?

The answer, depending on how you look at it, is far more optimistic than one might think. Despite graduating without a BFA, Barnard and Columbia students have a variety of options: Many go on to Master of Fine Arts or Ph.D. programs, and both schools have a history of producing curators and other art industry professionals—Snitzer cites a recent College Art Association research poll that says that more women who are in current curatorial positions graduated from Barnard College than from any other college in the United States. Yet despite both programs’ emphasis on fine arts, neither school anticipates—or even consciously prepares—its visual arts majors to become practicing artists straight out of college, a career path that most art schools automatically presume of their students.

“There is no expectation that anyone who graduates with a visual art degree will actually pursue a visual art career,” says Thill of the Barnard program. She now works as an associate gallery director and a practicing artist, but notes that many of her peers in her program did not pursue professional art careers. “Nearly a year since graduating, I am still making art, but I think I am the last straggler of my major, nearly all of whom have moved on for practical reasons.”

“There’s a multiplicity of roles. It’s not a kind of default condition that a visual arts concentrator necessarily wants to become a practicing visual artist at the end. There’s any number of career paths,” Miller adds. “With art schools, they’re more like trade schools for art. We don’t like to think of visual art as being a trade, but they’re more practical. It’s not an absolute division, but more of a question of emphasis.”

While many Barnard and Columbia art students do not follow the typical approach to practicing art (studio, gallery representation, and so on), many still end up in a creative field. “I like the idea of working for a publication and trying to do photography for a magazine or a website,” Moore says. “I’m definitely interested in continuing on with something creative, but not necessarily just being an artist. But also I don’t really see myself not going into the art business or the gallery world.”

But for others, like Sulkowicz, who want to pursue an artistic career, the lack of support for such a path at a liberal arts school can be frustrating. “I feel like all the arts opportunities that this school presents us with are always working at a gallery,” she says. “There’s nothing for people who actually want to go make art. The entire program is geared toward people who want to be arts-affiliated.”

Into the Real World

And perhaps this is apparent: Columbia and Barnard have not exactly been breeding grounds for generations of established artists. But those who graduate with the degree come away with a very different experience than their peers downtown.

While some might say these differences are a drawback for someone making their way through the contemporary art world—whether as a practicing artist or in an affiliated position—they can in reality be an advantage to Columbia and Barnard graduates. These students come away from their education with a wide breadth of knowledge and a more comprehensive understanding of art’s relationship to other intellectual disciplines.

At the very least, the art world can thank Columbia and Barnard for adding a new dimension to a BFA-dominated art world. And who knows—maybe one day soon, we’ll see some updates to those Wikipedia pages.

 

Note: Quotes in this story have been modified at the interviewee's request. The Eye remains committed to fair and accurate reporting. 

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yo suze posted on

maybe you should have listened to people like Emma more before trying to wrap everything up in a conclusion that undermines what they actually said...

Anonymous posted on

Columbia is also building a new building, Lenfest Center for the Arts, currently under construction in Manhattanville right next to The Jerome L Greene Science center both set to open late 2015.

Anonymous posted on

oh hey it looks like you changed up the 2nd to last paragraph there after the fact...that's not so ethical, no?

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