Butkowski: Neglected art program weakens true liberal arts education

Geneseo differentiates itself from other schools within the State University of New York system through its liberal arts mission––specifically the oft-debated humanities courses. HUMN I and II professors are required to conceptualize Western history mostly through literature, but they often involve at least a cursory analysis of period artworks as well.

As HUMN professors set time aside in these vast humanities surveys to subtly emphasize the importance of visual art in unraveling the fabric of history and literature, the courses exemplify another aspect of Geneseo that separates it from its supposedly inferior SUNY counterparts. Despite committing steadfastly to an ideology focused on cultivating well-rounded citizens, Geneseo has no art program.

The lean toward sciences on this campus is obvious—science is quantifiable and we need results; science is easily monetized and our state funding is decreasing. Art isn’t just important for the sake of cultivating well-rounded individuals, however.

Art students—often visual learners and creative thinkers—are necessary for cultivating a well-rounded campus. Now that an academic year has passed without the studio art program, this blatant preference for science needs to end more than ever. Administrators must at least begin to equalize their treatment of arts and sciences at Geneseo.

The administration has, however, made some efforts to maintain an artistic presence this year. It retained three studio art professors to teach basic design, drawing, watercolor and photography courses since the department closed in fall 2014. These professors currently offer six courses serving about 120 students. The art history department has remained and hired a visiting professor on contract. The three small campus-run art galleries still exist, and an interdisciplinary museum studies minor has emerged.

At the same time, previously vital studio spaces in Brodie Hall—like the jewelry and ceramics studios—remained locked and deserted this year as their valuable equipment decays. The art history department has only one full professor. Brodie, an architectural landmark designed by famed architect Edgar Tafel, is noticeably excluded from campus buildings designated for renovation by 2023. Standing next to the gleaming facades of Doty Hall, Bailey Hall and the Integrated Science Center, faded Brodie looks sad and shabby.

The most vibrant efforts to maintain art at Geneseo have come primarily from students. In the past year, students created or revived Art Club, Photography Club and Art History Association. Entries to the campus-wide art contest Battle of the Artists increased by 20 percent. Art-centric student events arise frequently. There is a demand for visual art on campus.

Art education faces a pervasive funding problem nationwide, but other colleges have integrated art in inventive ways. Some are reinventing their STEM programs as STEAM programs, which add art to science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines to promote creative decision-making and ingenuity. As a liberal arts college, Geneseo should be involved with this effort. Instead, professional colleges such as Rhode Island School of Design are moving it forward.

While the decision to eliminate Geneseo’s studio art program—alongside its computer science and communicative disorders and sciences programs—must have been difficult, the most common explanation I’ve heard is that the school removed some weaker programs in order to avoid compromising in other areas. When we think of Geneseo as a business, this argument is completely sound. When we think of it as a liberal arts educational institution, however, it becomes problematic.

Geneseo was never the best art school, but a liberal arts education shouldn’t be about being the best at everything—or anything for that matter. It’s about developing a broad knowledge that prepares students for groundbreaking, interdisciplinary problem-solving in the real world. Art is a necessary part of that equation and Geneseo needs to recognize it.


            Editor’s Note: Chelsea Butkowski is the Arts & Exhibits Coordinator of Activities Commission and she co-organized the Battle of the Artists Competition in the Kinetic Gallery.