I asked several people where the New Hackensack building is, and none of them knew.
“Isn’t that in New Jersey?” somebody asked.
I’m not surprised they didn’t know. I didn’t know until a few days ago, when I started writing this article. It sometimes feels like the location of Vassar’s advanced painting studios is the campus’s best kept secret.
So I was excited as I sliced through a non-descript Wednesday a few weeks ago: I was going to Critique that evening, a twice-monthly forum where studio art majors and correlates show artwork and are critiqued by faculty and other students. I also went to interview Professor Laura Newman, who, in addition to being my drawing instructor, teaches the upper level painting courses. There was only one problem:
“Excuse me, do you know where New Hacky-Sack is?” I panted at a golf-carting security guard, whose motorized patrolling interrupted my frantic search. I was already past Shipping and Receiving (New Hackensack did not appear on my mobile Vassar map), but apparently that was not far enough, as the security guard pointed further down the road to my destination.
A speed walk later and I was there, and Professor Newman was standing outside waving me in. After hellos, she led me inside to look at student artwork, the majors’ studios, and to a charming art lounge where we sat down to begin the interview. I was seized with nerves. How could I confront this lovely studio scene, and a professor I personally admire, with the criticisms of the Art Department I felt needed to be said?
I came to Vassar a few months ago thinking I might be an Art Major, and while this is no longer the case for a variety of reasons, I came quite quickly to see many problems with Vassar’s Studio Art Program. In a practical sense, it is difficult to be a Studio Art Major. The credits are demanding: many classes are year-long and must be taken sequentially, making things like JYA difficult. Art Majors frequently say they difficulties incorporating other courses around their art requirements. Also, some potentially eager students are initially turned away by the prospect of a full year of drawing, a prerequisite to all other studio art classes. Several students disparaged the Art Department’s facilities. It is odd that there is no central art building, and painting is relegated to New Hackensack, in which Vassar security also resides. Of course, these are not problems with the art department, but problems and frustrations the students and faculty deal with every day. Art Department Chair Peter Charlap echoed these frustrations in an email to me: “I would be very happy to have the college make the commitment to art in going forward with a studio facility on par with Vassar’s peer institutions.”
However, these external frustrations should not mask the real concerns within the Art Department. Physically represented by the long walk to New Hackensack, Studio Art majors can feel isolated from the broader Vassar environment. Unlike drama and dance, there is relatively little campus interaction with the studio arts. Some of this can be explained by the simple fact that a painting, or photo, is less interactive than a play, however, there are also few chances for students to casually interact with the visual arts. For example, there are no painting or sculpture oriented organizations or clubs at Vassar, though these groups could, conceivably, become popular and help publicize the visual arts on campus.
There is also little attempt on the art department’s behalf to work with other academic departments. Professor Newman was quick to point out that her Painting 2 class is doing exciting collaborations with a sociology class on the subject of toxic environments, but this class is at a 300-level, and students must take art for several years even to be allowed into Painting 2. When I asked Professor Newman about the lack of interdisciplinary opportunities, she answered that she didn’t want to squabble limited studio time, citing the need to help students get into premier art graduate schools. However, she also mentioned that she does “recognize that the majority of students [she’s] working with are not going to become artists,” similarly to how the majority of history majors do not become historians. No one can fault a department for preparing its students for graduate work, however, every single art student I interviewed told me they came to Vassar instead of art school because they wanted a chance to synthesize an art education with the broader academic experience, an inclination that has been, if not restricted, certainly not encouraged as much as it should be.
The Vassar Art Department places significant focus on the Western tradition of making art (this is even more pronounced in the Art History program), which often discounts other parts of the world and is frustrating for many students. Prospective Art Major Antoine Robinson ‘16 commented “I feel like teaching art in that way says to students and the world that [Western art] is what is considered high art and that’s the only type of high art, and everything else is like other, and sub-categories, and not really art but we’re taking and we’re telling you how it connects to Western art.” When I told Professor Newman about these issues, she acknowledged the concerns.“I try to include a global perspective,” she said, but noted that “We’re living in a western context.” To give some credit to the Art Department on the other hand, course options increasingly reflect student interest. However, Department Chair Peter Charlap had a different perspective, arguing that it was essentially meaningless to modify art creation by calling it “Western” because “Western is not a visual idea.” I disagree. And I think simplifying art by disassociating it from its historical context risks overlooking the racist, sexist, and classist implications in who created most canonical Western Art. No doubt many departments at Vassar are open to similar criticisms of insensitivity. In response to a question about how race, class, and family history affect an artist’s career and relationship to art, Professor Charlap replied, “I believe they do not loom large in how most artists think about art.”
After my interview with Professor Newman we changed rooms to a humble rectangular studio. It was fluorescently lit and cluttered with paint splattered chairs. Students and faculty began to arrive. Studio Critique is outside of class, so to speak. None of the faculty are paid for the hours they spend at Critique, and no students are forced to attend. It is an opportunity for artists (even if they are not majors or correlates) to have their artwork assessed honestly. It is easy to become lost in the currents of extremism and lose nuance and perspective, especially when considering a subject as potentially divisive as the Art Department. In the idea that criticism is more helpful, and generally more interesting, than praise, I am criticizing the Art Department.
It would be very remiss of me if I did not acknowledge what is good too. I am in a drawing class that I think is excellent. When I was at critique, I found the faculty passionate and constructive. And in my interviews with art majors, they praised the Department for being challenging and engaging. But I cannot end there, either. There are too many issues to end positively. When I interviewed students and faculty, an image emerged. An image of a department that has to fight for every dollar, and is often given low priority from a school that supposedly puts very high value on art. Another image surfaced as well, one that depicts the Vassar Art Department as withdrawn from the broader campus community and close-minded. I do not write this to discourage students from taking studio art, or from pursuing an Art Major, actually quite the opposite. As a freshman who cares about the arts, I want the Vassar Art Department to be better. There is much that the school can do to better fund and house the Art Department, and perhaps even help teachers become more aware of the pervasiveness of privilege. However, most of the work must come from the student body. If it is true, as I propose, that the Art Department has problems, we must determine whether we care. If our answer is yes, then we must act. Painting and other visual arts student organizations and clubs should form, more diverse course offerings should be requested. Collaborating with other departments must become a student priority. If we want a better Art Department, we must demand it.