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In California, Art Schools and Programs Debate How to Reopen

Hyperallergic reached out to several art schools in California to see how they are planning to address the need for social distancing while maintaining the integrity of their arts curriculums.

UC Berkeley Campus (via K.Oliver on Flickr)

LOS ANGELES — The global pandemic has prompted major shifts in all areas of our lives, including work, family, socializing, and the arts. Education has been deeply affected as well, as institutions from elementary schools to universities have had to rapidly pivot to online instruction. Traditionally hands-on disciplines like the arts — with centuries-old traditions of in-person instruction — have found this transition especially challenging. Hyperallergic reached out to several art schools in California to see how they are planning to address the need for social distancing while maintaining the integrity of their arts curriculums.

“The Art Practice department will be guided by state and university guidelines, and is planning for different scenarios for the fall, from fully online classes, to a more ‘hybrid’ form with instruction online and low-occupancy student access to labs, workshops, and studios,” Allan deSouza, the Chair of the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley, told Hyperallergic via email. “If we are able to follow a hybrid model, then we would have to meet a lot of practicalities regarding safeguarding staff, maintaining clean spaces, scheduling small groups of students to have time-allotted access, etc.” He explained that the situation would develop throughout the summer, with the administration announcing new decisions in June that would be applied campus-wide.

Tammy Rae Carland, the provost for the California College of the Arts (CCA), also spoke of exploring this hybrid model for the fall semester, with a combination of online and in-person instruction. “We would like to be able to offer access to students as much as is safely possible,” Carland told Hyperallergic. “We believe for an art and design school, what students are investing in is access to materials and studios. Hands-on and material-making is such a profound historical and ongoing commitment of CCA, which was founded by a cabinet maker.” She added, however, that “our priority is health and safety.”

Carland said the school put together two task forces to help facilitate these goals: one focused on health and safety, which would be devising physical distancing protocols, and a teaching task force to explore teaching art online.

Other schools like Cal State University Long Beach (CSULB), Otis College of Art and Design, and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) echoed this focus on flexibility, switching to online teaching with some emphasis on in-person instruction, with the caveat that the situation is still very fluid and could develop over the next few months.

“The majority of our classes will be taught using remote modalities. We are hoping to be able to provide some limited face-to-face components in a small number of courses. Naturally, all of this is entirely dependent on the course of the pandemic in the fall and no one knows how that will evolve,” Margaret Black, dean College of the Arts at Cal State Long Beach, told Hyperallergic in an email statement.

“Our goal is to maximize in-person instruction and ensure your continued growth as artists,” Tracie Constantino, provost of CalArts, wrote to students in a statement on the school’s website. “We prioritize a mentorship model of teaching and learning, with small class sizes and low student-to-faculty ratios. With this is mind and the need for social distancing and other health and safety precautions, we are working closely as a faculty and with facilities, to expand the areas for teaching on campus and close to campus to maintain the health and safety of our community.”

“We know that students want to be able to use our labs and shops and that some courses are more successful with in-person instruction,” read a statement provided to Hyperallergic by a representative for Otis. “Therefore, we are following the guidance put forth by the American College Health Association (ACHA) and the recent CDC guidelines related to the reopening of colleges and universities. We are monitoring the situation daily and continue to follow public health guidelines. While we know that students want to be back on campus in the fall, we also know that not all of our students will be able to make it back. Flexibility and hybridity will be key to meeting our students’ needs. Luckily, these are two key hallmarks of an art and design education.”

Otis has partnered with two architecture firms, Frederick Fisher and Partners and Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, to examine their “labs, shops, studios, classrooms, technology, food services, Admissions, Student Life Center, and green spaces” in order to better institute physical distancing protocols.

The USC Roski School of Art & Design could not say what the fall term would look like “as it is an evolving situation,” Nao Bustamante, director of the MFA program, told Hyperallergic via email. According to their website, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s School of the Arts and Architecture is extending remote learning and “suspended all nonessential activities and public programming of any size through […] September 11.” The Pasadena ArtCenter College of Design will continue to have exclusively online courses through the summer, according to their website.

Although the challenges facing arts educators in this new landscape may seem daunting, some instructors see it as an opportunity to improvise and rethink how and what they teach. “Everything is on the table,” said Stephanie Syjuco, who teaches sculpture at UC Berkeley. She will be teaching advanced sculpture with a focus on post-studio practice in the fall.

Syjuco noted that the limitations facing art students now are not unique to the conditions under COVID-19. “Even before the pandemic we found ourselves without proper resources. I think about the art scene in the Philippines, where I’m from, ranging from scrappy DIY to high-end art school. If I travel around to do projects, in many cases, I don’t have proper materials or tools. How do you challenge students to not see limitations as a stoppage, but to rise to the occasion of being tenacious?” she said. “I don’t want to make it seem like craft is secondary or obsolete. We are gonna lose out on hands-on learning that can only be done with facilities. It’s making the best of a very imperfect situation.” Still, she added: “We are more than our tools.”

Syjuco raises an important part about equity that the pandemic has laid bare. Access, whether material or digital, is a resource that is unevenly distributed.  “So much of our projects depended on consistency of materials: same clay, glazes, kiln,” Nicki Green, who teaches ceramics at UC Berkeley, told Hyperallergic. When classes went online in March, students had to make do with what they had: bread dough, a mixture of Elmer’s glue and corn starch; one student even dug clay up from his parents’ back yard. Relegated to Zoom classes, Green had her students find ceramic objects in their homes and examine them as objects because “we now had access to each other’s living spaces in an intimate way,” she said. “It was art making as a way of being in the world as opposed to a superfluous and autonomous practice.”

CCA’s Carland also sees a direct connection between art instruction and the real world. “I authentically believe an art and design school produces solution makers of the future. Material practices will create solutions for a post-pandemic world,” she said, adding that a complete shutdown also has implications for less advantaged students. “Over a third of our students are the first in their family to go college. To shutter the opportunity for that cohort is also irresponsible.”

Chet Glaze, chair of the art program at Mount San Jacinto College in Riverside County, says that they have decided to shift fully to online courses in the fall, which unfortunately means cutting 3D design and art classes. The shift to online classes, however, means that students will be able to access teaching tools and demonstration videos any time they need. “All of our fall 2020 classes are asynchronous to make them more accessible to all students,” Glaze wrote via email. “Equity is our biggest challenge in this environment and is our first priority in building the online courses.”

Despite the transformations that many institutions are undertaking, there are still some for whom the physical classroom is not replaceable. Doc Guthrie, a veteran sign painter who runs the sign graphics program at Los Angeles Trade Tech (LATTC), says that he had students complete assignments at home at the end of last term and email or text images of their work. “We had them paint on any surface they could and email us a picture of the completed project, but we couldn’t grade them, there was an inability to see the minutiae, the brushstrokes,” Guthrie explained. Limited access to computers was another stumbling block, which caused more students to drop out as the term progressed. Given the difficulty in teaching such a hands-on medium online, they decided to scrap all sign graphics classes for the fall term.

“We can’t do socially distant, we’re asshole to bellybutton in our classroom,” Guthrie joked. “We have to wait until this is solved and we’re back in the classroom. Students aren’t going to pay $500 for distance learning when they know they won’t get the same content.” Given that the sign graphics program at LATT is the last of its kind in the country, Guthrie anticipates a waiting list for new students when they do finally reopen, and is looking forward to getting back to hands-on instruction himself. “There’s nothing better on earth than being in the classroom with those students,” he beamed. “So when they open the door, I’ll be there.”

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