Saturday, February 6, 2010

Are the (Janson & Janson-loving) Kids Alright? McMaster Art History Students Protest Closure of Program

When I think of art history, I think of two massive bricks of books behind the counter of the NSCAD Library—good old Janson & Janson. You know, something old, distant, heavy—and that's just my experience, I'll admit.

But this week, a small group of students from McMaster University in Hamilton have tried to remind me (and others) of the ways art history can be vital. This group certainly feels that it is, which is why they're angry and upset at the prospect of their university phasing out its art history major program in favour of a minor, and expanded studio-arts courses.

A letter from the group, which has started an online petition, states:
If phasing out Art History is approved by the Senate, McMaster will be the first University in Ontario, with an established and Fine Art and Art History Department, to reduce the Art History discipline to a minor. This decision will have severe consequences for prospective and current Art History students who will most likely to seek an undergraduate degree in Art History from another University which demonstrates a greater commitment to the arts.

It also notes the cash considerations behind the shift (ie. studio arts is a moneymaker, art-hist not so much):
The decision to phase out the Honours and Joint Honours degree in Art History comes as a shock to us and it is very clear that it is not driven by academic integrity but by financial viability. It is no surprise that the official memo issued by the University fails to deliver any solid reasoning behind the termination of this program. This will be a serious loss for the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) and the Hamilton Art Gallery (AGH), where an upper-year internship course was being test-run in 2008 to provide Art History students, who are interested in seriously pursuing gallery and museum work, with much needed practical experience.

Full text of the student-group letter is after the jump.

The university has also issued its own news release, playing up the new opportunities in studio arts. Here's an excerpt:
The new programs would see the stand-alone art history program phased out, although art history will be a central component of the bachelor of fine arts. Students will also continue to have the option to take a minor in art history and art history faculty will continue to offer courses. All students currently enrolled in art history will be offered all the necessary courses to complete their degrees over the next three years.

The new direction will permit the studio art program to expand in exciting directions, including the hiring of new faculty and additional opportunities to bring together studio artists, art historians and curators from the McMaster Museum of Art.


Overall, I guess I find a few things interesting about this situation.

One is that it's a clear indicator of universities now seeing fine arts studio programs as moneymakers, which many of them didn't in the past. (What I've noted too before this is the desire of art colleges to seek out university accreditation--this seems to spin almost in the opposite direction, with universities and art colleges converging in their offerings.)

Another is, as I alluded to at the top of the post, that I'm actually kind of impressed/startled to see art history students speak out about their passion for the discipline. They also note that "this program has a track record of producing graduates who have attended prestigious international universities and programs including Harvard, the Courtauld Institute of Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Christie’s to name a few." And that makes me wonder if McMaster is being a bit short-sighted (or not cynical enough, perhaps) about the advantages of offering both art history and studio art. If art history grads go on to be curators and critics, isn't it to the advantage of studio art grads who got to know them "way back when"? Just a thought.

So to sum up--not an issue I'm totally passionate about, but I'm interested in the passion with which these students are representing themselves. Again, if you're interested in finding out more, there's a petition here and the student group's public letter after the jump.

Image of Tom Slaughter's Art History from Art.com


Official Memo: New Opportunities or Empty Promises?
STOP PHASING OUT THE MCMASTER ART HISTORY PROGRAM!

An official memo was issued by the Faculty of Humanities on February 3rd 2010 on McMaster’s Daily News. A phasing out of the "stand-alone" Art History Program at McMaster University was proposed. As of today, February 5th 2010, this proposal is still pending approval.

As current students and alumni of the program, we have been “strengthening our commitment” to fully decipher the vague details of the official memo. However, most of us still remain unsuccessful.

The Faculty of Humanities wants to demonstrate their commitment to Fine Arts at the undergraduate and graduate level by proposing a reformatted BFA program and potentially creating a new MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program. As strong supporters of the arts, we encourage and fully support McMaster’s new plans to create new opportunities in BFA and MFA programs but, we insist you keep the Art History Program at McMaster intact and continue to provide additional support.

A minor in Art History is not a sufficient compromise! A minor in the discipline does not meet the admission requirements of the majority of graduate and professional programs in Art, Art History and Design disciplines, and the decision to propose it as an alternative is highly uninformed. Based on statistics from a recent Art History Program Review in 2008-2009, 62% of alumni who participated in the survey had pursued post-graduate studies after McMaster (Art History Review* 2009, p. 80). If the decision to phase the Art History program is finalized, students will no longer be eligible for acceptance into a Master’s of Art History program (among MANY others—never mind a PhD!) since they will lack the basic requirements of an Honours undergraduate degree in Art History. On a side note: this program has a track record of producing graduates who have attended prestigious international universities and programs including Harvard, the Courtauld Institute of Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Christie’s to name a few.

During the extensive Art History Program Review in 2009, the External Review Committee (four members from diverse concentrations) stated in p. 1 of their report that:

Major strengths of the Art History programme include the quality of the faculty and students and their commitment to creating and sustaining the best possible environment for learning. In this, they meet McMaster University’s mission and vision to “inspire and support a passion for learning” alongside “a commitment to excellence, and to integrity and teamwork.

The panel commended the McMaster Art History Program by stating that:

Indicators of quality for the faculty include their excellent teaching evaluations, high quality research programmes and productivity and dedication to service. Indicators of quality for the students include their successful and timely completion of their degrees, number of awards garnered, success in applying to graduate programmes and success in their chosen employment fields. In all these categories, the students are very successful. The programme should be lauded for the fact that overall enrolments in Art History have significantly increased over the past three years. This, in itself, is evidence of its high quality.
(Art History External Reviewers Report*, 2009, p1)

*Please contact macarthistory@gmail.com if you would like access to this .pdf report and other recent reports which contain statistics and testimonials about Mac Art History.

Given this reputation, enrolment statistics and positive comments, the decision to phase out the Honours and Joint Honours degree in Art History comes as a shock to us and it is very clear that it is not driven by academic integrity but by financial viability. It is no surprise that the official memo issued by the University fails to deliver any solid reasoning behind the termination of this program. This will be a serious loss for the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) and the Hamilton Art Gallery (AGH), where an upper-year internship course was being test-run in 2008 to provide Art History students, who are interested in seriously pursuing gallery and museum work, with much needed practical experience.

If phasing out Art History is approved by the Senate, McMaster will be the first University in Ontario, with an established and Fine Art and Art History Department, to reduce the Art History discipline to a minor. This decision will have severe consequences for prospective and current Art History students who will most likely to seek an undergraduate degree in Art History from another University which demonstrates a greater commitment to the arts.

We demand to know how this “transformation of programs” will benefit McMaster’s Art History students and how this decision is providing “new opportunities in the arts” for future Art History students. Any quantifiable data that has influenced the administration to put forth this outrageous proposal to phase out the Art History Program, SHOULD and MUST be publicly shared with all students and faculty.

On a personal note: we, as Art History students have devoted a lot of time, money and energy to finance our undergraduate education and we would like more concrete answers as to why our degree in Art History from McMaster University will no longer be considered reputable. We can assure you that SOTA and the Faculty of Humanities are slowly, but surely losing our support.

Yours truly,
Adam Belovari (HBA Art History 2010)
Michael V. Collins (HBA Art History 2013 - Continuing Education)
Laura DiMarco (HBA Art History + Classics minor 2009)
Ashley Gallant (HBA Art History 2009)
Elaine Marion (HBA Art History 2010)
Desirée Valadares (Joint H B.Arts Sc. ArtSci + Art History 2009)

8 comments:

Saelan said...

You're a working art critic, and your idea of Art History is something old, distant, and heavy? Now I'm startled...and unimpressed.

Leah Sandals said...

Point taken, and welcome to the club. I question my suitability for this job on a near-daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Saelan, I think the two disciplines (art criticism and art history) are pretty different. -Sally McKay

Saelan said...

Fair enough, but every art critic still needs some grounding in history, right? Not to be too trite, but everything happening now comes out of the past, and everything that happens in the present changes how we look at what came before.

Maybe I'm missing something, but when we talk about contemporary art, it seems to me that history and criticism are fairly inextricable.

No offense meant to Leah. I wouldn't come here if I didn't enjoy her writing.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey guys,

I guess there's as many kinds of criticism as there is critics, for one. Each critic's writing reflects their own experiences with (a) art and (b) art history, in ways obvious in not.

More broadly, there are different categories of criticism -- more studious or academic or background-researched forms of criticism, and ones that are less so.

Basically, I'm well aware that I'm in the latter category, knowing about as much about art history as a health reporter might know about medicine. I guess I know what's appropriate to the market I write for (newspapers and more general-interest art magazines) but I don't know what's needed to write for the markets that I, well, don't write for (more specialized-interest art journals and magazines).

All this said, I'm open to improving my art historical knowledge. But I'm not going to pretend that it's my primary interest anytime soon. My primary interest is words, and how they work, and in the way words can connect with art for a general audience. I know it's not the only way to be a critic--thank god!!--but it's where I'm at.

Maybe I should have just had better art history teachers.... : )

Nihili said...

I don't think you need to justify your practice, Leah. Art needs to discussed in the present tense and we need people who specialise in exactly that. Art history informs the present, but I don't think it "grounds" the present, or sets the conditions for how art can be discussed. That said, I also think it's pretty disturbing that McMaster is nixing their Art History department. I think the discipline needs to be examined. But I don't think it is expendable.

Nihili said...

dang! We are having some household issues with our blogger accounts. Nihili is me. - Sally Mckay

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Nihili/Sally!

I do understand how both points can be concerning:

(a) dismissing the value of the present

(b) dismissing the value of the past

All timescales are equal, yo! At least if you're not meditating.