By Design, a “Big Umbrella”

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here were just two drawbacks to the Graduate School of Fine Arts’ title: the school teaches undergraduates as well as graduate students, and fine arts is only one of several graduate programs —the smallest one, at that.

At its June meeting, Penn’s board of trustees formally approved a new title—the School of Design—ending a debate that has gone on intermittently since at least the 1950s, says Dean Gary Hack. “Design at least deals with the central tendency of the school,” he says. “Every field in our school has something to do with design—not all equally and not all would say that’s the centerpiece of what they do, but they all have something to do with it.”

Hack recalls the subject of a name change coming up at his first faculty meeting as dean some seven years ago. Going further back, he notes that when former dean Holmes Perkins “reestablished the school at the graduate level” in the 1950s, the question was raised, but “many of the faculty were wedded to the Beaux Arts tradition of teaching and felt that it would represent a loss of continuity with the past.”

Feeling that his first priority as dean was to “get the school back in shape,” Hack deferred action on the name until two years ago. Two concerns guided the decision on a new one, he says. The first was that it “not only spans across the existing fields of the school but leaves us open to add things in the future—it ought to be a big umbrella.” The second was that it not be a “string of names,” he adds. “It’s very hard to identify with that.” As an example of the dangers of going that route, he cites MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. “The anomaly there is that one of the biggest and most vigorous programs is visual studies, and it’s not in the name of the school.”

Of course, it’s one thing to not have your program added to the school’s name and another to have it removed. While he puts overall alumni approval at about 90 percent, he allows that some fine-arts alumni felt GSFA was just fine the way it was. But fine arts is the smallest graduate program, he notes, and adds that the definition of the field has been changing, “so, for example, photography and graphic design and digital media design and ceramics are all part of our fine-arts department, as well as painting and sculpture.” Also, while fine arts may be losing out on the school’s name, it has actually gained in stature, growing from one standing faculty member to seven and getting a new, high-profile home in Charles Addams Hall. “It wasn’t exactly as if we were neglecting fine arts,” says Hack—which the majority of alumni realize, he adds. “Most of them say, ‘It’s a great idea, let’s do it.’”

As for jettisoning the “Graduate” in the title, Hack notes that “we’ve had a huge growth in our undergraduate teaching,” rising from 300-400 students taking courses annually to around 1,200 now. A third of the department’s teaching is currently of undergraduates, with more to come, according to the school’s strategic plan. “I want personally—and I think most of our faculty share my commitment—to give every undergraduate at Penn an opportunity to expand their visual sense,” he says. “So much of the world they encounter these days comes visually that having some capacity to understand what it takes to communicate through visual means is really very important.”

If nothing else, the school’s new name will simplify introductions for Hack, whose own field is urban planning. “I almost never use ‘fine arts,’” he explains. “Because to say I’m the dean of the fine-arts school at Penn usually causes their eyebrows to raise and they say, ‘How is it that architecture or urban design is in fine arts?’, so you have to go into this elaborate history of the place.” —J.P.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

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