Southwestern universities—including Arizona State University, the University of New Mexico, the University of Colorado Boulder, and more—are working to increase equity, interdisciplinary study, and tangible career skills in graduate arts.
PHOENIX, AZ—Social change is driving shifts in graduate arts education in the Southwest, where universities are working to increase equity and students are finding inspiration in social justice issues. It’s one of several trends happening at the university level, in graduate visual arts programs ranging from art history to studio art.
“We’re seeing more people who view art as a tool for social change,” says Forrest Solis, interim director and associate professor for the School of Art at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “Graduate students are looking for ways to make an impact, where they can be seen and have their voice heard.”
The focus on social justice reflects wider shifts in society, where issues like police brutality, climate change, and public health have dominated the national dialogue in recent years.
“There are big shifts happening in the arts world and arts education amid a reckoning with racial justice,” explains Szu-Han Ho, graduate director and associate professor for art and ecology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Art in Albuquerque.
Different schools have adopted varying strategies when it comes to calls for greater equity.
At ASU, the School of Art decided to reduce the size of its master of fine arts cohort, providing teaching assistantships and stipends to every student as a way to cover their tuition. At the University of Arizona (U of A) in Tucson, they created the position of vice president of Equity in the Arts.
Other trends are taking hold as well.
After Steven J. Tepper became dean for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU in 2014, he’d sometimes reference the fact that most people will work more than eleven jobs during their lifetime. The implications are clear: students need to learn more than one discipline and couple theoretical knowledge with practical skills.
“Artists have always had to be entrepreneurs and figure out how to put things together to make a career,” says Colin Blakely, director for the U of A School of Art. “Art programs have started to acknowledge this more.” At U of A, that meant curriculum changes such as adding a professional practice class to the MFA program.
Several schools are finding creative ways to promote multidisciplinary experiences, encouraging graduate art students to work with materials and ideas they hadn’t initially considered. At ASU, for example, a renovated warehouse in downtown Phoenix includes studio and exhibition space for art students working in various disciplines. “It leads to a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and practices,” says Solis.
Even the unique geography and history of the region encourages graduate students to take an interdisciplinary approach, according to Yumi Janairo Roth, a professor of sculpture and post-studio practice in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) who recently served as interim chair of the department.
An art student exploring ecology and built environments, for example, might take a class in environmental biology and work with scientists outside the art program.
Leadership changes comprise another common thread among graduate programs in the Southwest. Several universities that made the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of graduate art programs started this academic year with interim chairs for their art schools or departments, and many hired a significant number of new faculty members.
In early August, the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton welcomed new deans for its art education, art history, and studio art departments.
The top twenty-five graduate school fine art programs in 2020 included several based in the region. ASU tied with seven other schools (including Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and New School-Parsons School of Design in New York) for fifteenth. CU Boulder and the University of Texas at Austin were among nine schools tied for twenty-third.
Some ranked higher in specific disciplines. U of A tied for third in photography while ASU tied for fourth in ceramics.
Whatever their ranking, Roth at CU Boulder says that graduate programs are evolving to reflect students’ changing goals. In the past, most aspired to academic positions or commercial sales through gallery representation.
“Now many students are exploring socially engaged, field-based practice, starting their own small businesses instead of going into the academic or gallery world,” Roth explains. “Students are looking for a third way.”