Art Schools Build New 'Foundation' Across Disciplines

Yana Paskova for The Chronicle

Merrie Bentley (center) studies design principles at the U. of the Arts. "I thought I was a good illustrator until I took this class," she says.
October 16, 2011

Students in Kristine Marx's class in two-dimensional-design principles here at the University of the Arts were doing what art students have done for generations—but will not, perhaps, be doing for much longer.

Over the previous weekend, the 20 students had visited the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, chosen an artifact from the collection, and homed in on one graphic-design element from that object.

"You're breaking it down to the unit," Ms. Marx, an assistant professor, told them on a recent morning. The unit might be a cube etched in the side of an urn, the curve of a petal painted on a bowl, or part of two overlapping triangles in a tapestry.

As they sat at their classroom desks, the students dipped their brushes into bottles of black ink to reproduce the unit, although not precisely. They had to play with it, shift its form, and elongate its lines in order to make it distinctly theirs. Then they were to scan the image into their computer and repeat it to create an entirely new pattern. Apart from the high-tech touch, it's much the same way visual artists and designers have been trained for more than 50 years.

But faculty and administrators at the University of the Arts, and at other institutions across the country, are wondering whether this approach to developing artists still makes sense.

In the late 1990s, a few art schools began to move away from the traditional first-year program of courses, called "foundation," that has dominated the discipline for as long as anyone can remember. According to that model, an art-and-design student, whether he or she plans to become a painter or furniture designer, ceramicist or filmmaker, glass blower or digital-multimedia artist, takes a unified set of courses. Often taught in a designated department, foundation courses introduce students to the basics of drawing, color, light, and design in two and three dimensions. And while nearly all schools have accommodated the reality of computers in their foundation courses, many also have kept intact this traditional, painstaking, handcrafted approach to teaching college-level art.

Changes in the art world are the biggest factor driving schools to reconsider foundation, says Bill Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. Professional artists are less tied to their disciplines than they were in the past, he says, and new forms of expression exist today that didn't when the foundation curriculum was put in place.

Students are changing, too, he notes. They are more interested in working across disciplines, and they want to focus on their craft earlier in their college careers. "Now we tend to have 20 or 25 different variations on the 'common' program," he says.

The details of the debate over foundation apply directly to about 300 colleges of art and design and bachelor-of-fine-arts programs within larger universities, but the underlying questions would strike many in higher education as familiar: Should students learn a set of skills for a particular job, or should their training help them adapt and change to the unknown? What are the proper places of the liberal arts and the core curriculum? How have technology, interdisciplinarity, and a changing student body upended old expectations?

Reconceiving the Curriculum

The debate over foundation is unfolding here this year at the University of the Arts, one of the nation's oldest schools of art and design—it was founded in 1876—and which also encompasses a conservatory and performing-arts program.

Like many institutions that have made such curricular changes, the University of the Arts is trying to figure out how best to teach students underlying concepts that they can apply to other fields, both in the arts and outside, while also training them in specific skills.

"Being able to draw a likeness and paint an object is an important skill which is really fundamentally about developing visual analysis," says Kirk E. Pillow, the provost. "It may have nothing to do with drawing."

That is why the university is reconceiving the curriculum in terms of themes rather than traditional disciplinary categories, says Christopher F. Sharrock, dean of the newly formed College of Art, Media, and Design. "Instead of saying, 'Here's printmaking and sculpture,' we're saying, 'Let's look at time and motion, or people and space,'" he said.

One alternative to the traditional foundation model illustrated by Ms. Marx's class could be seen two blocks away, on South Broad Street, on the 13th floor of a former hotel. Sharon Lefevre, an assistant professor of writing for film and television, was teaching a storytelling class to first-year aspiring filmmakers.

They sat in rows of chairs looking at projected images of the Annunciation from 14th- and 15th-century Italy. Each artist chose a different way to depict the moment Mary learns she is pregnant with God's child. In a version by Carlo Crivelli, the moment is rendered from relatively far away. Mary sits at home, in what looks to be the middle of a city, while the Archangel Gabriel and Saint Emidius pause at the door, preparing to knock.

Crivelli's choices subtly heighten the drama and affect the viewer, Ms. Lefevre explained. They make Mary sympathetic. "She's going about her day and is about to be told she's carrying the son of God. A lot of filmmakers decide the moment before the drama is more pregnant than the actual moment."

Until last year, filmmaking students at the university would have taken a two-dimensional-design course like Ms. Marx's in their first year, and many of them questioned why. While it was helpful to cover such concepts as perspective and placement of a subject in a frame, it would have been better to learn about camera movement and creating a narrative, says Rich Bates, 20, a sophomore.

"Foundation helps with composition and other aspects of art," he says, "but as far as the moving image goes, they don't intertwine."

The more conceptual approach embodied in Ms. Lefevre's class is one that some administrators see as more widely applicable. Storytelling may become part of a new core curriculum for students in the performing arts and perhaps in design as well, says Jeff Ryder, associate dean of the college.

After class, Ms. Lefevre said her course's conceptual focus would benefit students, many of whom may not find careers as filmmakers. "When you make things too vocational—how to write a screenplay—it doesn't serve them," she said.

Teaching the fundamentals of storytelling and connecting it to broader themes in art helps students learn how to use their skills elsewhere, she argued. "If they can analyze and understand, then they have insights and abilities that are not just linked to that profession."

An Uncertain Future

Developing abilities that can be applied to other disciplines has been a goal of efforts at other institutions to revise the foundation curriculum. One of the first to change, in 1998, was the Maryland Institute College of Art. Students there still must take a first year of coursework that includes traditional drawing classes, but now they also study visual thinking and electronic media and culture.

The more-conceptual classes are meant, in part, to fill a gap apparent among increasing numbers of incoming art-and-design students. "They know the software and are technically pretty adept," says Catherine Behrent, a co-chair of the foundation program at the Maryland institute. "They can draw the figure like nobody's business. But conceptually they are still immature."

Old artistic boundaries are becoming more porous, many administrators say, and students will need to work more effectively as members of teams. "I want to graduate problem-solvers," says Dennis Farber, the institute's associate dean for foundation. "It's not about standing at an easel. That whole model has been outmoded for decades, 'the genius in his studio.'"

Other programs that have changed their first-year curriculum in substantial ways have placed greater emphasis on the liberal arts. Training in the practice of creating art is made more effective when it's combined with a liberal-arts focus on critical thinking and writing, says Debra Ballard, chair of liberal arts and sciences of the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles.

The combination will make students more adaptable in their careers, she says. "It's a return to generalism. There's a value to specialization, but you kind of make yourself outsourceable."

The sense that the future confronting art-school graduates is increasingly uncertain has figured in many curricular revisions. A recent survey of more than 13,000 alumni of arts colleges and programs revealed that while about half were working, or had recently worked, as professional artists, they were not necessarily making a living that way.

"Foundation has significant benefits, but it had also run up against the limits of that model in terms of what the future demands," says Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons the New School for Design. Parsons continues teaching students drawing and design, he says, but it is through "a more thematic lens."

He also describes a paradox that many administrators and faculty acknowledge: While artists may be associated with daring and boundary-pushing, their philosophy of training tends to be steeped in conservatism. "All of us who teach here come through more traditional models ourselves," Mr. Towers says. "People tend to reproduce their own experiences."

Irreplaceable Rigor

It is foundation's proven effectiveness over decades that accounts for its staying power, say its defenders. Many of the external factors cited by those who advocate changing foundation, such as the spotty conceptual backgrounds of students and a desire for greater openness to interdisciplinary work, are the same justifications used by those who defend the traditional curriculum.

For example, if critical thinking and flexibility are the goals, a good way to develop those attributes is by creating art, with its built-in process of analyzing and making choices, says Kevin J. Conlon, vice president for academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design, in Ohio. Critical thinking, he says, can "evolve through critique."

"We ask, What are you making, what are you doing with it, and why?"

The idea of foundation is to give students, who enter college with increasingly disparate levels of artistic training, a common set of skills and expectations, says Rosanne Somerson, interim provost of the Rhode Island School of Design and a professor of furniture design.

A few students hail from highly specialized summer art programs, she says, while others may be very driven internally to create art but have received little formal training. The disparities, she and others note, have only grown sharper as emphasis on the arts has diminished at the elementary and secondary levels.

And those skills cannot be filled in later, after students start focusing on their disciplines. "There's a fundamental core that can only be built through a foundation course," Ms. Somerson says. "There's just something about the environment, expectations, and rigor that are very hard to match any other way."

Studio-based foundation training is similar to a series of Great Books courses for the liberal arts, says Concetta M. Stewart, dean of the School of Art and Design at Pratt Institute, which takes a more traditional approach to foundation. While foundation courses would seem to follow a vocational model, they are actually more likely to produce students who can think, she argues.

"For a school of art and design, dismantling an archive of experiential knowledge is like asking the history department to burn its books," she says.

That kind of hearty embrace of foundation courses would resonate with Merrie Bentley, a first-year student in Ms. Marx's two-dimensional-design course at the University of the Arts, although it is a position the 24-year-old aspiring illustrator came to unexpectedly.

After graduating from Haverford College with an anthropology degree, Ms. Bentley worked in Japan and discovered a passion for illustration. While she initially dreaded the idea of taking foundation courses, she has a very different view now.

"I love foundation," she says. "I thought I was a good illustrator until I took this class and learned I sucked."

As tough as she is on herself, Ms. Bentley is grateful for the grounding that foundation courses gave her, especially when she looks at her work from her years in Japan: "The stuff I'd done lacked depth and was hanging in space."

"It's called 'foundation' for a reason," a fellow student, Eric Shetter, adds from the next table.

The act of creating a work of art relies on principles that are shared across disciplines, says Ms. Marx. "It doesn't really change if the student is a photographer, illustrator, or filmmaker."

In her class, Ms. Marx introduces her students to the fine points of the craft, such as the responsiveness of a pencil and the placement of points and lines in space. While her course will not be offered next year in its current form, its principles will very likely be found in other courses.

"I feel very strongly that drawing is a core skill," the professor says. "With drawing, you're dealing with the intellect, the body, and perception."