I know there is a lot of confusion out there still with regards to recent events at VCFA. I wanted to take a moment to explain, ( from my own perspective ) as much as I can.
On March 16th, Vermont College of Fine Arts announced that there had been a staffing change, and that Danielle Dahline ( long time Assistant Director and an amazing person ) is now the Director of MFA-V.
On that same day, all references to Jessica were wiped clean of the website ( well, almost clean – since Joey and others were able to find all the wonderful things that the website previously described about jessica ).
Immediately speculation started amongst alum as to what happened. Did Jessica win the lotto ? Did she run off with Clay to a remote and tropical island? Did she get a call from Obama saying.. “ I need you in Washington to get health care reform pushed through congress?” Or, did the fact that a scrubbed website and a devoted, passionate, co-founder and lifetime advocate of the program, who has remained silent about the staffing change, indicate that she was pushed out the door?
You all have graduate degrees, so I’ll let you make your own conclusions.
Since (it could be assumed) the heart of the program was under threat given that the individual who most defended those founding concepts had been erased from the college’s history. A call for collective action quickly started and many of you jumped right in with emails to VCFA President Tom Greene and VCFA Dean Gary Moore asking questions about the staffing change and demanding an accountability to the vision and founding pedagogy of the program.
Here are the program’s founding concepts as written by G. Roy Levin:
1. Art is not value-free, nor is art education. Both must be considered within the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts which necessarily define and condition the production and reception of art.
2. Just as the process is an essential part of the product in art making, how one teaches is what one teaches.
3. Self-actualization should be encouraged through a student – centered pedagogy where the students create their own individualized curriculum.
4. A student’s self-evaluation and Faculty evaluations of a student’s work should not be based on abstract Program generated criteria but on the student’s own experience and the creative process s/he has undertaken within the Program.
5. All subject matter of study and artistic inquiry should be approached from a multi-disciplinary view of knowledge and art practice.
6. The educational milieu should be as non-hierarchical as possible and serve as a model for other artistic communities for future activity.
G. Roy Levin – Art Education as Cultural Practice 1998.
Tom Green then distributed his email dated March 19th that described that any suggestion that the college is looking to change the pedagogy of the program is wrong, and that the idea that the college is somehow dismantling the program is ‘ludicrous’. After describing that proof of their dedication to the program can be found within the college’s recent marketing efforts, he concludes the letter by describing next steps:
“In the next week or so, we will announce the formation of a search committee to conduct a national search for a new director. I am confident we will find someone who understands the importance of this program's history, its unique approach, the landscape of the contemporary art world, and can lead visual art at VCFA positively into the future.”
Many of you recognized the inherent conflict in his statement about finding a new director, since the old one had all the qualities of the person he is now looking for. As a result, another collective action was called, and many of you are now writing postcards to him and Gary as a reminder that we are invested in this program, that we are engaged and organized, and that they should expect ongoing accountability for their stewardship of the vision and pedagogy of the program.
Some of you have asked me what the risk is if the pedagogy of the program is eroded or substantially changed. For me, these are the two biggest risks:
1. The program would no longer have student centered learning. Which is to say, imagine a residency where you have to challenge and petition just to be able to explore aspects of art, culture and society that are of deep interest to you, but not within the parameters of what the college feels is required knowledge ( #3 of the founding concepts ).
2. The second biggest risk, as I see it, is a loss of faculty autonomy. As you know, our faculty often come from different programs ( School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cooper Union, UCLA, etc. ) which have their own issues regarding academic freedom, curriculum and pedagogy. We have heard time and time from them that they elect to come to vermont college in order to teach in a place where they can expand their own knowledge in partnership with the students. So imagine how difficult it would be to recruit and sustain the amazing faculty we have been fortunate to work with, if vermont college is only able to duplicate what they have elsewhere. Taken a step further, we should not assume that this administration would continue to renew contracts with faculty that may seem in opposition to the future direction of the program.
This is not about nostalgia or updating an outdated model of teaching. This program was intentionally radical at the very start. It found power in that radicalism and continues to serve as a place of institutional critique and safe haven for those who are traditionally restricted and marginalized within academia.
“It is the program’s hope and belief that our students are radicalized by their time in the program. Radicalized in the fundamental sense of having gained a more complex and confident view of the world as artists and as people.” - G. Roy Levin Art Education as Cultural Practice 1998
In summary, I have elected to see the “staffing change” as more then a warning shot of upcoming changes. I believe it was a tactic of intimidation and a calculated strategy to remove dissent in an effort to put change in motion.
Will the program actually cease to exist? Of course not.
It will keep going and expand enrollment and have pretty marketing materials and branded coffee cups, umbrellas, USB drives and whatever else Marketing can find to put that horrible logo on.
But will it be a program that is worthwhile, for both the student and faculty? No.
I believe once you remove such critical items as the overt intention to achieve self-actualization, you have lost any worthwhile reason to expect someone to make a commitment to VCFA, both as a student or as faculty.
It’s my hope that through our collective efforts, we can remind the administration that the
MFA – V program was born out of an attempt to offer a model of arts education that is inherently radical, inherently student centered, and inherently non-hierarchical. We can remind them of the value found within a faculty that shares power with the administration and works collaboratively for the good of the college. Finally, we can remind them that we are living proof of how successful this program can be, and that as visual artists, the process of education is just as important as the process surrounding cultural production. If not more so.
Obviously you have your own reasons for taking (or not taking ) action. I at least wanted to explain my own.