Department Dossier: David Ross

March 18, 2011

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

The new academic year officially begins in the fall, but in July SVA is breaking ground on a new graduate program, the MFA Art Practice Department. The department is a low-residency, interdisciplinary course of study that will alternate summers in New York City working on studio projects with fall and spring semesters online, focused on criticism, history and other academic aspects of the program. The department will be chaired by educator, art museum professional and musician David Ross, who spoke with the Briefs about how he assembled the program’s curriculum and what he’s expecting from the inaugural class of students.

What is the origin of the MFA Art Practice Department’s title?
The idea was to find a term that went beyond or around the ideas of fine art or craft or design and would be inclusive and less proscriptive. I find it’s in current use by most artists when they describe their work: ‘My practice is defined by…’ The word ‘practice’ involved more than the idea of ‘my work’ or ‘my painting,’ but looks at the totality of an artist’s activity. So practice then becomes a good word to describe the totality of what an artist does: The production of objects, teaching, writing, performing—it can involve any number of things.

What sort of curriculum should a student enrolling in the program expect?
The intensives in the summer are centered around studio work and are critique centered, along with seminars and workshops. Each day is led by a different seminar leader, who will impart a different tone to that day. In the online courseware, the courses run from art history to critical theory, criticism, writing and reading of artists’ writing.

What are you looking for a in a student?
We’re looking for people with intelligence and talent, with a demonstrated ability to work independently, who have already begun to establish their practice in art, who are at a point in their development where they recognize the need for the opportunities our program creates. People who are intellectually curious, who don’t believe they have all the answers, their attitude toward making art doesn’t come from a fixed place. The kind of artist were looking for asks, ‘What’s my job as an artist?’

What from your background working in museums informs the program?
Since 1971 I’ve worked as a museum professional and became the director of three really extraordinary American museum institutions: The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. During that time, I spent thousands of hours in the presence of great art and great artists. The collective experience of knowing those artists and their work informs my ideas of what good art is.

You’ve already launched a Web site and have an active Twitter feed. Why are these online media important?
This is a program that is taking full advantage of the advances of online rich-media educational courseware. Those who haven’t experienced it would find it incredibly rich and easily personalized to serve the needs of people who don’t live in the New York City area, have jobs they can’t afford to give up and/or families they can’t leave for two years. We have applicants from Brazil, Los Angeles, Saudi Arabia, Maine, as well as people in the New York area. These people will be able to go back to their homes and studios, and will have an ongoing critical relationship with a mentor who is giving them continuous feedback on their work and practice.

What are you most looking forward to in the summer?
This is still an idea in process. As well as we believe we’ve designed this program, no design is really real until it’s road tested. We’ll see how the program works with a group of very interesting men and women. We’ll hopefully enjoy the process of refining the program and begin attracting our second and third classes. I’m looking forward to the time when we have three class operating in parallel, because the dialogue will be that much richer.

Image: ©Visual Arts Briefs, Ltd., 2011.

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