The Future of Art and Design Education

Elissa Tenny | November 1, 2016

Thank you for welcoming me here to Tsinghua University. I’ve travelled to China a few times now, but this is my first trip since being appointed President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s great to be back and to have this opportunity to share some thoughts with you on “The Future of Art and Design Education.”

I’ll begin by noting, however, that the observations I’ll make today aren’t so much predictions as they are a reflection on some current and emerging trends and where they might—emphasis on might—lead us one day.

Nevertheless, I do certainly believe that we are in the midst of a moment of great opportunity for art and design education around the world. Never before have our institutions held so much promise for our societies, and never before have art and design students had so much choice in their creative practices and aspirations.

At least that’s what we’re experiencing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, or SAIC.

At 150 years old and as one of the world’s leading schools of art and design, SAIC is at the vanguard of what I would identify as a fundamental shift in how we regard our creative practitioners and institutions.

SAIC’s position of leadership in helping incubate the future of art and design education, AND the future of art and design, is, I would like to suggest, a result of our historical and ongoing commitment to interdisciplinary study, which is analogous to what the scholar Lisa Latucca of the University of Michigan refers to as “conceptual interdisciplinarity.” Latucca defines conceptual interdisciplinarity as an educational system in which “fostering students’ ability to integrate learning and make connections beyond academic boundaries takes precedence over predetermined notions of requirements.”

SAIC’s commitment to interdisciplinary study, to conceptual interdisciplinarity, dates back to 1969, when we made the decision to forego the major system—the system of pre-determined course selection and pathways—in favor of a more open, less rigid curriculum.

This was in direct contradiction to an observation made by Robert Newman, a leading educational reformer, around the same time: “…in the postwar period,” he noted, “we have seen disturbing trends toward uniformity in our institutions, growing bureaucracy, overemphasis on academic credentials, isolation of students and faculty from the world – a growing rigidity and uniformity that makes higher education reflect less and less the interests of society.”

I think it’s no coincidence that only a year later, in 1970, a professor of ours named Sonia Sheridan founded a new program called “Generative Systems.” Sheridan started Generative Systems to experiment with the artistic potential of emerging technologies such as 3M’s Thermo-Fax machine and Color-in-Color copy system, precursors to the copying technologies of today that offered her and her students new ways of reproducing and altering images.

With its early exploration of experimental research and collaboration, Generative Systems laid the groundwork for various subsequent initiatives and academic programs at SAIC that have explored the intersections between art and design and a diverse range of fields across the sciences, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities.

These developments at SAIC reflect what I often refer to as the “pursuit of the question,” which I believe is at the core of an interdisciplinary education, and which places the emphasis on the importance of asking the most compelling questions rather than simply providing seamless answers.

Indeed, from the moment our students first set foot on our campus until the day they graduate, we are constantly teaching and encouraging them to question orthodoxies, not the least of which is the way the world of art and design has traditionally been structured, the artificial barriers that have been constructed between different areas of thought and practice.

Yet where before this spirit of interdisciplinary exploration was localized to our campus and curriculum, today I believe it points the way toward a new future for art and design education, one that will be characterized by a growing recognition of the value that artists and designers, and art and design institutions, have to offer beyond their traditional areas of influence.

This can best be seen in two new programs SAIC has initiated in recent years—our Earl & Brenda Shapiro Center for Research & Collaboration and our Office of Engagement.

In their work, the Shapiro Center and Office of Engagement could be said to explore the central question: “What do artists and designers know?”

What do artists and designers know—a deceptively simple question with tremendous implications for the future of art and design education. It is a question that a Professor of Sculpture at SAIC, Frances Whitehead, has posed time and again to address the common misperception that artists and designers confine their practices to the making of, say, “beautiful” things.

Instead, Professor Whitehead is asking us to consider the many ways in which, more than ever before, artists and designers can help produce new knowledge, alter our ways of thinking, and solve some of the most intractable problems of our time.

In support of these considerations, the Shapiro Center is focused on deepening the connections between our community and academic and industry organizations in Chicago and beyond, while the Office of Engagement is responsible for all civic initiatives and partnerships at SAIC, especially those involving community-based organizations.

You could say, then, that the Shapiro Center and Office of Engagement are an attempt to build on SAIC’s interdisciplinary strengths to re-envision the boundaries of art and design practice overall, particularly as it concerns the following three areas: research, inter-institutional collaboration, and community partnerships.

In exploring SAIC’s expanding foothold in each of these three areas, we can begin to perceive various new paths for art and design education, and to reconsider what we have traditionally thought artists and designers know.

Let’s begin with research, a word we more often associate with the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This lack of identification is especially problematic in today’s world, which finds artists and designers using an ever-widening body of research in their work and, moreover, producing their own unique findings. Consider the Shapiro Center, one of whose core functions is to foster and grow a “research culture” at SAIC.

One research-driven program the Shapiro Center supports is called Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research, or EAGER, in which students are awarded seed grants to work in interdisciplinary research groups.

In 2014, for example, a group of SAIC students who call themselves the Textile Technology Research Group, or TTRG, received an EAGER grant to travel to the Netherlands. At a state-of-the-art facility called TextielLab in the city of Tilburg, TTRG members spanning our Departments of Fiber and Material Studies, Design for Emerging Technologies, Body, Fashion and Garment, and Art and Technology Studies experimented with the most sophisticated outsourced industrial textile manufacturing processes in the world.

The team’s research ultimately led to the production of several large-scale prototypes that explored how these new knitting, weaving, and embroidery technologies could one day contribute to innovation across art and design disciplines, and perhaps even beyond—who knows where their insights could lead.

But what is additionally striking about TTRG’s project is the degree to which its success was so dependent on collaboration with an organization exterior to SAIC, the TextielLab. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that schools of art and design are finding ways to partner with external organizations on significant problems, questions, and ideas, which brings me to our next topic: inter-institutional collaboration.

Although we live in an interconnected world, still the myth persists that art and design institutions are somehow “isolated,” that they exist in their own world. Despite being uninformed, this criticism nevertheless presents schools of art and design in particular with a tremendous opportunity—one that I am happy to report we are seizing on with fervor.

At SAIC, the Shapiro Center has taken full charge of our efforts to shed this false image once and for all by pursuing collaborative projects and partnerships with our counterparts in other areas.

Given that we are an institution of higher education, one of the Shapiro Center’s main areas of focus has been on forming research-based partnerships with other colleges and universities in the Chicago area. This includes global, highly prestigious research institutions like the University of Chicago.

For the past few years, in fact, SAIC has participated in the University of Chicago’s Arts, Science & Culture Initiative through a joint program called the Graduate Collaboration Grants, which fosters independent, interdisciplinary research between graduate students at both of our institutions in the arts and the sciences.

One recent Collaboration Grant project called “The Fabric of the Universe” paired Isaac Facio, an MFA student in our Department of Fiber & Material Studies, with Benedikt Diemer, a doctoral candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Together, Isaac and Benedikt devised an entirely new way to visualize the cosmic web of dark matter in the universe using 3-D digital textile manufacturing technologies.

Beyond the team’s considerable technical achievements and the potential applications of its work, I think it’s important to note as well the inherent value that both Isaac and Benedikt found in working with someone of an entirely different area of expertise and point of view.

As Isaac remarked of “Fabric of the Universe”: “It’s challenging my studio practice; definitely challenging my technique; and it’s really making me think beyond what I typically make…”

Benedikt, the doctoral candidate in astronomy and astrophysics, agreed. Where before he had to rely on large-scale computer simulations, after working with Isaac he was able to see the dark matter structure of the universe in a new light. Commenting on the experience, he noted: “It definitely has helped my intuition for what these structures are and what’s actually going on in these simulations. You can’t just take 30 gigabytes of data and look at it.”

In other words, collaborative work involving artists and designers has the potential to generate new knowledge and to transform how we look at the world…and universe.

Outside of our academic partnerships, the Shapiro Center has also undertaken numerous collaborative projects with leading corporations.

Consider our recent collaboration with U.S.-based home décor retailer CB2. Under the leadership of Professors Tim Parsons and Casey Lurie, two faculty members in our Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects, twelve of our students collaborated with CB2 to develop a line of products that addressed the following question: “What does it mean to live well within the context of home design?”

We’re also very proud of our partnership with Motorola, a leading manufacturer of telecommunications equipment based in the Chicago area. With Motorola’s support, in 2006 we developed a design and fabrication studio that we call the “GFRY Studio,” named in honor of the company’s former Chief Marketing Officer, Geoffrey Frost.

Each year, the GFRY Studio takes on a new project whose aim is to encourage students to apply creative strategies to solve societal problems. For example, one year our GFRY students examined how data and physical infrastructures can inform sustainable development in Chicago.

In another, our students worked with a public elementary school in Chicago to experiment with new cafeteria designs that could encourage young children to make better nutritional choices.

So while we’ve just seen how SAIC’s partnerships with leading academic and commercial organizations can support research in a wide-range of disciplines and inform important business decisions, I’d also like to suggest that, in the twenty-first century, there’s great promise to be found in how schools of art and design, and artists and designers, can support our communities.

As I’ve already mentioned, SAIC’s efforts to partner with community-based organizations is the central focus of our new Office of Engagement, which coordinates all of our civic engagement activities. But what, exactly, do we mean by “civic engagement?”

One definition I especially like is by the American scholar Darby Ray: “Civic engagement is bridge building for the sake of authentic understanding.” What I like about this definition is how it reflects a recent shift in how institutions of higher education in the United States are increasingly engaging with their local communities.

Before, the approach was more “unidirectional,” wherein efforts by colleges and universities were largely “top down” and regarded as a “public service” where the academic community descended as experts and the local community was the recipient. Today, however, U.S.-based institutions of higher education are taking an approach to community sponsorship that’s more “dynamic and reciprocal,” that’s based on collaboration and improvisation.

In the future, schools of art and design such as SAIC will be particularly well-positioned to leverage this new approach to the benefit of our societies—our institutions are “listening organizations,” unafraid to engage with diverse perspectives and to think creatively and collaboratively about some of our most pressing challenges.

To see how this new approach is already being put into practice at SAIC, let’s take a closer look at our efforts to support the Homan Square community in Chicago, the most ambitious community engagement project in our school’s history.

Homan Square is an area of the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago where the well-known American corporation Sears, Roebuck and Co. operated across a 55-acre property from 1905 into the late 1980s.

Over the last 30 years or so, however, the neighborhood has suffered significant trauma in the form of unemployment, crime, high incarceration rates, and failing schools as a result of systemic social and economic changes.

To help address these challenges, beginning in 2015 SAIC initiated a partnership with an organization called The Foundation for Homan Square. This partnership began as an intentional listening exercise on our part. What we mean by intentional listening is that we engage in active discussions with area residents, neighborhood leaders, non-profit organizations, and other community stakeholders; we learn what the critical issues affecting the neighborhood are; and we begin to think together about the unique role SAIC might play in a neighborhood such as Homan Square.

Ultimately, we found that SAIC could best support area residents through skills-building programs and by strengthening the neighborhood’s preexisting cultural assets and resources. These efforts include an Artist-in-Residency program we began last year with a remarkable individual named Scheherazade Tillet.

Tillet is an activist and interdisciplinary artist with a track record of leadership in social change, particularly as it concerns the difficulties experienced by African American girls and women in the United States.

In particular, Tillet used her residency at Homan Square to help African American girls in the area tell their stories through photography, producing an exhibition called Black Girlhood that’s currently travelling the country. But her work didn’t stop there. In tandem with her residency, Tillet also established a Homan Square-based outpost of her organization A Long Walk Home, which she founded in 2003 and whose mission it is to end violence against girls and women.

By embedding herself so fully in the Homan Square neighborhood, Tillet has instigated an emerging web of impact based on an organic approach to social change that is “more than the sum of its parts.”

Our hope is that Tillet’s work will echo throughout the community in various ways, establishing self-sustaining webs of influence that, we hope, will persist and thrive beyond her tenure as SAIC’s artist-in-residence.

So, what do artists and designers know? As I hope you’ve seen in these examples of interdisciplinary work at SAIC, and of how artists and designers and the institutions that train them are finding creative ways to impact the world: a lot, more than we’ve ever imagined before.

Our students, faculty, and alumni are making important contributions as research-based practitioners; they’re partnering with experts in seemingly far afield disciplines and the world of commerce; and they’re helping to build healthier communities and cities around the world. But if this is, as I have suggested, the “Future of Art and Design Education,” how do we sustain this push into what are, for us, relatively new areas of thought and practice?

To my mind, it is by remaining true to our interdisciplinary roots, by recommitting time and again to what I have described as “the pursuit of the question.”

By training our students to continuously question, to explore the world from different perspectives and angles, and to seek larger meaning and synergies between and among their interests, we not only prepare them to undertake the challenges of an ever-changing workplace, we also prepare them for a life of continual growth, learning, innovation, and experimentation.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotations by John Cage, a renowned American composer and artist in the twentieth century. “Art,” he said, “is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.”

Going forward, I invite you all to think of art and design education as an experimental station in which we test out the future. Thank you.