SMFA at Tufts: a story of experimentation and collaboration

A spirit of experimentation permeates the history of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, formerly known as the School of Drawing and Painting, since its inception in 1876, barely 22 years after Tufts enrolled in its first class. Collaboration between schools embodied this spirit from 1945 to their merger in 2015, offering invaluable insights into the importance of experimentation and adaptability to a critical point of reflection in higher education.

From the School of Drawing and Painting to the SMFA

The School of Drawing and Painting opened in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1876. The MFA had been founded six years earlier outside the Boston Athenaeum to house its overflowing art collection before moving to a new location in Copley. Square, where the museum school was born.

“It was part of a movement at the time to fund arts and educational and cultural institutions such as MIT, Mass Art,” said Darin Murphy, deputy director of the W. Van Alan Clark, Jr .. library. They were sort of rolling the dice on fine art… because contemporary fine art – and those terms are problematic and loaded – are by nature going to be new. “

The School of Drawing and Painting was officially incorporated as a School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1901, placing it firmly under the jurisdiction of the MFA. This transition is the result of a donation of $ 100,000 to the School, which could not be accepted without the merger.

In 1907, the MFA moved to its present location on Huntington Avenue near the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. According to Murphy, the SMFA was housed in outbuildings on the exhibition grounds adjacent to the museum and it would not receive its own dedicated space until 1927.

Throughout the history of SMFA, there have been tensions between students, with their eyes on the global and ever-changing art world, and a faculty rooted in a more traditional philosophy of fine arts. .

“The founding of the Bauhaus and the period of the Weimar Republic, then the rise of fascism and Hitler lead to a point where famous and accomplished artists flee Europe and come to the United States,” Murphy said. “They come with an experience that… may suggest a greater sense of urgency, which contemporary art is concerned with – going back to Cézanne – the eye, soul and psyche.”

Murphy cites this period as the beginning of the transition from school to a traditional academy of fine arts. He acknowledges that the decline in enrollment during the Great Depression further encouraged the school to change, ultimately allowing students more freedom of expression.

The museum school and the tufts

A perfect mailman storm brought Tufts and SMFA together in 1945 for the first in a long line of collaborations. Leonard Carmichael, a faculty member in Tufts ‘art department before becoming dean, was put in touch with SMFA director Russell Smith as he attempted to revise Tufts’ art curriculum.

While surveying Tufts, Smith devised a way to solve the respective problems of Tufts and the SMFA in one fell swoop. After the end of World War II, the SMFA saw increased interest as a result of the GI Bill, which provided educational funds for returning soldiers. However, the SMFA was not a degree-granting institution, which means that the aid did not apply to its students. A Bachelor of Education program established between the two schools gave SMFA students of the program access to federal funding and Tufts students access to SMFA’s expertise in arts education.

The SMFA also struggled to compete with other prestigious art schools in the region, as many had started offering widely respected four-year degrees. Things got worse when the school’s accreditation was denied, blocking aid to SMFA students, except those in the BS of Ed. Program.

After the SMFA learned that it lacked the resources to confer degrees, Smith started a joint Bachelor of Fine Arts program with Tufts in 1956. A Masters of Fine Arts program with Tufts followed in 1959.

Interaction between the schools’ two campuses has also grown, with several SMFA students and faculty exhibiting their work at the Cohen Arts Center. The 1955 murals in Cohen were painted in part by SMFA alumnus and faculty member Matthew Boyhan.

An experimental approach to arts education

The post-war years sparked new growing pains for the SMFA as world events infiltrated the art world, leading to highly experimental and emotional artistic creation at odds with part of the philosophy. from school.

“We’re going to have the Vietnam War raging, the civil rights movement soon,” Murphy said. “It’s 1966, the SMFA doesn’t even have a conceptual art class, and yet it’s a global phenomenon, and students are voicing their concerns.

Smith, who had been at SMFA for over 20 years, saw the writing on the wall and began to plan for the school’s future. While investigating new ventures overseas, the directors of the SMFA initiated a change of leadership that resulted in Smith’s transition from head of the SMFA to secretary of the MFA.

In 1968 William Bagnall was appointed head of the school and set out to design a new path forward.

“It was decided that anyone connected with the school would be able to govern it,” said Nancy Bauer, current dean of the SMFA. “There was going to be this very flat governance structure, so the students had their say, the administration had their say, the elders had their say, the museum administrators. [had a say]. The idea was that there would be this incredible equality throughout it all. “

Bagnall also oversaw the implementation of the review board system to replace a more typical grading structure.

“Basically, they take everything they do this term, they meet two students they know or not, two faculty members that they may or may not know, and they just have to tell an honest story about what happened to them that semester, ”Bauer said.

These changes may seem to some the spontaneous overturning of a rigid structure, but this is not the only explanation from Murphy’s point of view.

“My interpretation is that what is known as the 1968 revolution was a very deliberately planned change of power to bring the SMFA more in step with the times,” Murphy said.

“In 1967, the museum school underwent a period of self-study,” describes a 1977 edition of the Tufts Observer.

No matter the impulse, the changes have allowed SMFA students to create art in an expressive and individual way.

“With the review committee came a highly experimental artistic creation, which is also consistent with artistic creation across the world at this time,” said Murphy. “It would have been absurd in 1969 to continue to pretend that there were no world problems, climatic problems, patriarchy problems, racism, colonialism. It has become quite permissible for artists to challenge all hierarchies of injustice.

SMFA in Tufts

The relationship between Tufts and the SMFA continued to grow throughout the latter part of the 20th century. A shuttle bus between the two campuses was offered in 1972, and the Cohen Arts Center hosted a gallery of the work of SMFA students in 1980. One of the most decisive events in the common history of schools, however, has come in the present millennium.

Since 2012, Nancy Bauer oversaw the Department of Visual and Critical Studies at SMFA, led by Tufts faculty, as part of her role as Dean of Academic Affairs at Tufts. Shortly before she left her post as dean, Bauer learned from the SMFA faculty that the school was having administrative difficulties, as were many art schools at the time. The MFA announced that it was looking for a university to incorporate the school, and within 3 weeks, Tufts submitted a proposal written by Bauer.

“My vision was to take this funky, hippie-dippie art school, keep it exactly as it is and better support it,” Bauer said.

This view has proven to be widely popular with SMFA professors.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Tufts, and when it became clear that the School of the Fine Arts as an entity managed by the Museum of Fine Arts was going to need some kind of support different… we were extremely happy when Tufts announced that this would be one of the parties at the table, ”said Murphy.

The MFA accepted Tufts’ proposal, throwing Bauer into a 6-month negotiation with the MFA over the transition. Bauer then planned to quit her post and continue writing a book, but her work navigating SMFA incorporation made her a natural fit for SMFA’s first dean at Tufts. Although she never saw herself in this role, Bauer ultimately agreed. After 6 years as Dean, Bauer will leave her post in December to continue writing and teaching philosophy at Tufts, which she has been doing since 1998.

According to Pam Hopkins, Outreach Archivist at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, despite the challenges that come with any such transition, Tufts’ incorporation of SMFA has been a great success.

“From my own conversations in the past with the professors, they were really excited for Tufts to take on this new role, and they felt like Tufts provided this great layer of support,” Hopkins said.

The merger of the schools allows the students of the two campuses to benefit from the resources of the other.

“I was on the shuttle this morning and all the seats were full,” Hopkins said. “I have known undergraduates at Tufts who have just traveled there to take a course in ceramics or a course in painting or a course in metallurgy.

Bauer also encourages students to explore their interests whenever possible.

“It’s important to think about ‘What’s my next step’, but it’s also really great to take classes that make your heart sing,” she said. “What can happen when you do this is that your whole life trajectory can change. This is the one time you really have to play and really enjoy all the different things. Obviously, you can do something later, but you can’t have so many choices in one place.


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