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Sketchy Future for VES

Amidst a series of departmental changes, Nancy Mitchnick's departure raises concerns about the VES curriculum

At the center of a labyrinth of canvasses, easels, stools, and drop cloths, Nancy Mitchnick—one of the only two studio painting teachers in the VES department—presides over her class on the third floor of the Carpenter Center. Pungent smells of fresh gesso mingle with turpentine while an eclectic mix of music sets the creative mood. With a couch and a makeshift kitchen, it is clear that many student painters view the studio as a sort of second home and Nancy, as she is fondly called, as a sort of stand-in mother. “Students congregate and sometimes practically move in,” writes former studio teaching fellow Claire W. Lehmann ’03 in a letter addressed to President Drew G. Faust in support of Mitchnick, who will be leaving next year. “Often I would arrive in the morning to find students passed out on the couch after marathon sessions.”

Despite the sense of comfort students experience in the studio, Mitchnick’s imminent departure leaves many students questioning the continuation of the program’s quality, fearing more generally that VES is moving in an increasingly conceptual direction.


NANCY, DON’T GO


After joining the department as a visiting lecturer 15 years ago, Mitchnick was appointed senior preceptor and a Rudolf Arnheim Lecturer on Studio Arts in 1998. In recognition of her outstanding performance, Mitchnick was also awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize in 2001.

“She has been fearlessly devoted,” VES Professor Drew Beattie says. “Teaching isn’t a job for her. It’s a mission. It’s a devotion, not a job. Not all teachers are like that, not even at Harvard.”

Mitchnick’s commitment to teaching has been noted by faculty and students alike. After attending a creative and performing arts magnet school for four years, going to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) seemed like a logical choice for Kayla A. Escobedo ’12. Yet, Escobedo’s visit to Nancy’s classroom in October of 2007 led to a change of course.

“Before I had even applied to Harvard, I brought my portfolio and talked to some students who told me about the VES department. They told me that I had to sit in on Nancy Mitchnick’s class before I left,” Escobedo says. “I did and I was blown away. Her passion and her dedication instantly struck me. I was about to go to RISD, but I remember that experience with Nancy.”

Other students voice similar appreciation of her teaching style. “As an individual instructor, Nancy has an incredible style—harsh, but loving,” says VES concentrator Rebecca R. Rojer ’10. “She helps students get over their fear of failure and work towards making their best art.”

Despite widespread admiration, this semester will mark the end of Mitchnick’s dynamic and influential presence in the department. According to the terms of her current contract as an Arhnhiem lecturer, Mitchnick is only allowed a once renewable five-year appointment. But the contract does not state that she and other Arnheim lecturers cannot be hired under different circumstances.

Yet the VES administration has demonstrated little, if any, commitment to finding another position for Mitchnick within the department.

“If we had—which we don’t—a position for a tenured faculty position, she could be conceived of as a candidate,” says Marjorie Garber, chair of the VES department. “But she would be competing with hundreds of others. There are no reserved positions.”

Given the praise Mitchnick’s teaching has garnered from students and professors, many speculate that there might be more to her departure than simply the technicalities of a contract.

“I think there is this feeling that what Nancy does isn’t hip enough,” Rojer says, referring to Mitchnick’s attention to the fundamentals of painting technique. “If it’s not going on in the insular, coastal, and market-driven art world, then the VES department doesn’t really care.”

Still, the administration maintains that Mitchnick’s departure is solely a contractual issue. “People leave the university and people come to the university. This is not a surprise to her or to the department; we retained her as long as the appointment category permitted us to,” Garber says. “But, the department is absolutely committed to replacing Nancy with someone who teaches painting.”

Garber hopes to eventually fill a tenured faculty position to teach studio painting, but with the current hiring freeze, this is not an option. The proposed solution is to bring in various visiting faculty, which could have both positive and negative ramifications according to Rojer.

“Visiting professors are great because they keep things from getting stale. They are in the field and making art and have a perspective that you lose being at Harvard your entire career,” Rojer says. “But at the same time, it lacks stability. Students are doing their theses, and that’s the culmination of your work; a visiting professor just isn’t going to be able to understand it in the same way someone who has been advising you for years will.”

In addition to Mitchnick’s departure, current visiting professor Andrew Beattie—VES’ only other studio painting teacher—is slotted to depart at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. In the absence of definitive plans for filling either opening, the fate of the painting program in the department remains ambiguous.

Garber is aware of the concerns regarding thesis advising and, more generally, the future of the curriculum, but she assures students that the painting program holds a secure place in the department.

“I understand that students are anxious because of Nancy leaving,” Garber says. “I don’t blame them.”

“We do have practices that we are absolutely committed to teaching. We will always have a strong dedication to drawing and painting.”


TO THINK OR TO MAKE


In light of the administration’s confirmation that painting is still on the agenda, the concern becomes not whether painting instructors will be available, but what the driving philosophy behind the next generation of painting classes will be.

“It’s never going to be a situation where people are for or against paint,” Beattie explains. “It’s about what you define as painting.”

Mitchnick’s departure—more than just the loss of a beloved mentor—may point to a larger trend in VES. As a teacher known for her intense focus on the more traditional and basic techniques behind painting—from the origins and mixing of paints to the stretching of canvas—many view her leaving as the loss of a more traditional teaching approach to painting and a shift toward a more conceptually driven department. A shift not all are welcoming with open arms

“Everyone thinks they can talk about art, they think that painting is a hobby, but it’s like operating on a patient.” says one member of the VES faculty who asked not to be named. “For someone who is a real painter, it’s a very serious thing, it is a profession, and at most schools they seem to understand that except here.”

“What she represents is controversial,” Beattie says. “It’s not an easy situation. She hasn’t done it in an easy way; she has been outspoken. I’m sure there are tons of people who don’t agree with what Nancy represents, and there are tons of people who think what she does is vital.”

Mitchnick’s style may not fit into current trends that dictate that technique is secondary to conceputal creation, though she maintains that one does not necessarily preclude the other.

“The latest dictum is that ‘skills are obsolete,’’ Mitchnick writes in an email. ‘There is great work being made, important, current, contemporary, thought-provoking work that doesn’t depend on knowledge of or experience with materials. It doesn’t replace painting, but it fits more easily into academia.”

Beattie proposes that this shift, if it indeed exists, may be an effort to intellectualize VES in order to legitimize its existence within an Ivy League university. “The trouble with art at an elite institution is there is such an importance place on codifying quality and excellence here,” he says. “When people are making creative speculative work, it’s frightening, because they don’t know how to measure that or teach that, because it is so subjective.”

In addition to problems of subjectivity, this tentative transformation may stem from trends in the broader art community, which has seen a rise in more conceptual, installation type works.

“There is just a tremendous amount of flux going on with how art is constructed and theorized and produced, and that is felt by all institutions,” says VES Director of Undergraduate Studies Robb Moss.

But against growing trends, VES students insist that the fundamentals of painting are still of utmost importance to their growth as artists. “It’s like trying to write a paper with a third grade vocabulary,” Rojer says. “We have Expos for English classes. Art students want to learn the basics; what makes this any different? I think there needs to be greater respect for the visual and what that means as a tool of communication.”

While some perceive that the department is moving in an increasingly conceptual direction—as indicated most recently by Mitchnick leaving—administrators dispute that notion, claiming that her departure is not representative of such a move. “We are not headed in any ideological direction,” Garber says. “We are looking for good artists who are good teachers to teach where there is student demand.”

“We want to have a range of practices and skills and a range of artists who would be able to model various modes of art production for our students.”

Emphasizing this encouraged convergence of the practical and the conceptual, she continues, “Every artist is a thinker and a doer. I don’t think that there is that kind of absolute split people often create.”

Yet the problem may not be that students in the department see the practical and the conceptual in dichotomous terms but rather that they remain unconvinced of the balanced co-existence of the two that Garber claims characterizes the curriculum.

“Within the studio there is a competition between the highly conceptual and more traditional representation,” says Rojer.

Patrick A. Gordon ’11, one of Mitchnick’s current students, feels even more strongly about the tension that exists. “They [VES] want me to become more conceptual and be forced down a particular road,” he says. “I’m not looking to be pigeon-holed.”

James A. Powers ’08, Mitchnick’s teaching assistant, asserts that what students want is a balance of the two in their classes. “Many students see the conceptual courses here as superficial ‘Pitchfork critiques’ on art,” he wrote in a letter to President Drew Faust, “if not complimented with a practical element that encourages aggressive empirical analysis from a hands-on practicing painting professor.”


TROUBLING TIMES


Despite this ostensible agreement between administration, faculty and students regarding the necessary balance between the making and the theorizing of art, tensions remain due to what students feel is the administration’s failure to listen to their concerns.

“It seems to me that the administration is one level separated from the faculty which is separated from the students, and they all have different visions of what VES should be,” Gordon says. “They provide basic resources, but as a whole VES isn’t focusing on student needs.”

“There’s not much of a sense of community across VES that really involves the staff and administration,” Escobedo reiterates. “It’s all student created and professor-student relationships.”

The perceived inaccessibility of the administration leaves students unsure of how to address major issues, such as the painting curriculum, a lack of stable advising, the dearth of student art shows, inadequate supply of high-end materials and the disconnect between various sections within VES— problems they feel are detrimental to the learning environment and hinder VES’ development.

“It has the potential to be a strong department with a fantastic building and fantastic resources,” says Gordon, “but I haven’t talked to one person who is really happy with the way the VES department is run.”

Yet the administration insists that it is more than willing to hear the students concerns. “I’m in this office all day every day,” Garber says. “Anyone can come talk to me. My door is open. I’m happy to talk to you.”

But a member of the VES teaching staff who asked not to be identified said this open-door policy is less than effective. "We've just stopped trying to talk to them. We've stopped questioning her [Garber] because she just doesn't give answers. You can't walk into the first floor of the Carpenter Center and get anything reasonable. They are administrative people there that don't know anything about art. They know nothing nothing nothing about art."

With such discrepancies in opinion among staff and students, there is an evident need within the department for introspection if concerns about its future are to be resolved.

“I think there is a moment arriving where the department really needs to look hard at what it is doing and representing,” says a VES Professor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “What is the curriculum and what is the balance? Is there a need to look a little deeper? There is a need for a lot more conversation.”

In this period of transition for the VES, Mitchnick’s departure is simply the most recent upset in what have been difficult times. The imminent change has not only troubled ardent supporters of the painting instructor, and alumni, but also unearthed longstanding, deeper anxieties concerning the direction in which the department is headed. Yet if VES is to continue to fulfill its mission to provide the best education possible to its students, then the troubling perception that the position of a more traditional, hands-on approach to art education has been rendered precarious by a move towards the theoretical must, at least, be brushed upon. 
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