Paula Owen, president of the arts-educational entity known originally as the Southwest Craft Center, then later as the Southwest School of Art and Craft, and newly, the Southwest School of Art, sat down with us to talk theory, hope, and specifics.
Where does the Bachelor of Fine Art program at the Southwest School fit into the San Antonio art-education landscape?
We really want to work closely with the existing schools, the Alamo Colleges in particular, in order to provide talented, hardworking students of studio art a next step — a college education based heavily on studio practice. … We’re working on it so they’ll be able to transfer credits from SAC or Palo Alto, for example, and continue their education here rather than heading for another city. And we want to work with area highschools, with `nonprofits` like Say Sí, to provide an art-educational track for talented young artists to get a bachelor’s degree. But we’ll hopefully attract students and faculty from outside San Antonio and outside Texas, too, which is great for the local art community.
Will you be recruiting in the high schools?
We do plan to, yes. We plan to be involved at the high-school level — you know, one of `the contributors to` our high dropout rate is that artistically-inclined students are divergent thinkers, those who think outside the circle and who are eccentric, and they really chafe against a regimented system. Public schools just aren’t meeting `students’` needs, and even if they’re interested in art, they don’t see how to go on with it, how to make it a career. It’s such a waste when creative kids aren’t stimulated and get into doing something possibly destructive, or self-destructive. `SWS` wants to be something to aspire to, a place to bring that creative thinking and develop it.
How long has the plan for a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts degree been brewing at the Southwest School?
Oh, for a long time. A very long time. `I was` involved at the San Antonio Art Institute, and its `closing` served very much as an object lesson for me, in how not to start a `degree-granting institution`. … There was too much emphasis and too many resources put on buildings, `whereas` we’ve worked to design the actual degree program and the curriculum focus and mission first. Our board has been great. We feel it’s the right thing to do, an exciting thing and actually, finally, after a lot of research and planning, it’s doable. Our first semester will be in 2013, and in the meantime we’re working to raise scholarship funds, since `a prospective degree-granting school` has to put in four years and graduate a class in order to qualify for accreditation or for FIFA `Federal financial aid money`.
How expensive will the program be?
Well, we really want it to be affordable, it’s extremely important to our mission that students have access, and that nobody be turned away for lack of money. Since we don’t qualify for FIFA yet, we’re getting money elsewhere, from private donors and institutions. We’re determined to provide as much scholarship money and aid as possible. … The ballpark figure, without financial aid, will be about comparable to Texas State — about $600 per credit hour. We’re also working on making `SWS` a residential institution by `reallocating` some of our current physical space. We want to construct `a new dormitory,` but that may be a ways away.
What should prospective students know about the Bachelor of Fine Arts program? What can they expect?
Prospective students should know that this will be an extremely rigorous program, with a real emphasis on studio work and on making: techniques of handmaking, building work. They should have a really strong portfolio; that’s the main factor in admission. If they’re looking for a truly challenging program based on intensive studio practice and techniques, they should look at the Southwest School.
You mention hands-on techniques. So there’s less of an emphasis on multimedia, say, or conceptual art?
We have multimedia, video, photography, and as contemporary art changes, there will be changes at the Southwest School. But really, we want to play to our strengths: ceramics, printmaking, photography, metals, book arts, printmaking, fiber arts. But, see, with fiber arts, for example, the fibers could be optical fibers, monofilaments. None of the materials or techniques are inherently old-fashioned, there’s tremendous innovation in the disciplines we teach and will be teaching. For many young artists, there isn’t access to the kinds of materials and equipment we have, that `students` will use to build work and to build their own skillset.
There’s this perception that things like fiber art and the actual making of things has been somehow ghettoized. The word “craft,” for example …
Absolutely. And that’s some of why we dropped the word “craft” from the `name of the school`, because of what that has come to connote in the minds of some of `the contemporary art world`. But what we did not do, was to de-emphasize the process of hands-on technique as important to artmaking. We want students who want a hands-on studio experience. With our resources, they’ll be able to `enact their art ideas` with much bigger scale, which is really impactful, and hard to do without photo labs, kilns, large-scale printers, the kinds of things a studio program has to offer.
Right now at Artpace, there’s a fabuous installation at the Hudson Showroom by an artist named Matthew Ronay. It’s a room environment full of sculptural elements and garments and textures that he made. It represents, I think, an emerging contemporary focus on technique I’ve noticed elsewhere, too, a moving away from the Damien Hirst model.
Right. Artists were turning towards farming out the actual fabrication of the work to others — and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that often you work out your ideas in the process of making. The process allows for those happy accidents and inspired changes in direction. You learn a better way or a new twist to constructing or fabricating. … Other ways of artmaking and imagemaking aren’t as open to that. You get to really understand materials and gain skills in working with them.
In that way, `SWS` is right at the forefront of contemporary art making. I drew some inspiration from other institutions, such as the San Francisco Art Institute and even the Chicago Art Institute — the New School `in New York` is another example of an educational institution that built an excellent program, then added a degree option. And when our BFA program begins, we will be the only independent degree-granting art school in the state of Texas. While we were conceptualizing it, I thought, “Why shouldn’t Texas have it’s own RISD?” `Editor’s Note: the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the premier degree-granting colleges in contemporary art.` San Antonio has the talent for it, a tradition of imagemaking, and it’s so exciting to offer this kind of opportunity.