SMFA at Tufts: A history of experimentation and collaboration

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts is pictured on Sept. 22. Ari Navetta / The Tufts Daily
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A spirit of experimentation permeates the history of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, formerly named School of Drawing and Painting, since its inception in 1876, just 22 years after Tufts enrolled its first class. Collaboration between the schools has embodied this spirit from 1945 through their merging in 2015, offering valuable lessons on the importance of experimentation and adaptability at a critical reflection point in higher education.

From the School of Drawing and Painting to the SMFA

The School of Drawing and Painting opened its doors from the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1876. The MFA had been founded just six years earlier out of the Boston Athenaeum to house its overflowing collection of art before moving to a new location in Copley Square, where the Museum School was born.

“It was part of a movement at the time to fund arts and educational and cultural institutions such as MIT, Mass Art,” Darin Murphy, assistant director of the W. Van Alan Clark, Jr. Library, said. “They were kind of rolling the dice on fine art … because contemporary fine art — and those terms are problematic and loaded — is by its nature going to be new.”

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The School of Drawing and Painting was officially incorporated as the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1901, bringing it firmly under the jurisdiction of the MFA. This transition came as a result of a $100,000 gift to the School, which could not be accepted without the merger.

In 1907, the MFA moved to its current location on Huntington Avenue, near the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. According to Murphy, the SMFA was housed in outbuildings on fair grounds adjacent to the Museum and it would not receive its own dedicated space until 1927.

Throughout the history of the SMFA, there has been tension between the students, with their eyes on the global, ever-changing art world, and a faculty rooted in a more traditional philosophy of fine art.

“The founding of the Bauhaus, and the period of the Weimar Republic, and then the rise of fascism and Hitler are leading up to a point where noted and accomplished artists are fleeing Europe and coming to the US,” Murphy said. “They’re coming with experience that … may be suggesting a greater sense of urgency, that contemporary art is about — going back to Cézanne — the eye and the soul and the psyche.”

Murphy cites this period as the beginning of the School’s shift from a traditional academy of fine art. He acknowledges that decreased enrollment during the Great Depression further encouraged the School to change, ultimately allowing students greater freedom of expression.

The Museum School and Tufts

A perfect storm of factors brought Tufts and the SMFA together in 1945 for the first in a long line of collaborations. Leonard Carmichael, faculty member of the art department at Tufts before he became dean, was put in touch with Head of the SMFA Russell Smith while trying to revise Tufts’ art curriculum.

While surveying Tufts, Smith conceived of a way to solve the respective problems of Tufts and the SMFA in one fell swoop. Following the end of World War II, the SMFA enjoyed increased interest as a result of the G.I. Bill, which provided educational funds to returning soldiers. The SMFA was not a degree-granting institution, however, meaning the aid did not apply to its students. A B.S. of education program established between the two schools allowed SMFA students in the program access to federal funding and gave Tufts students access to the SMFA’s expertise in art education. 

The SMFA was also struggling to compete with other prestigious art schools in the area, as many of them had begun to offer widely respected four-year degrees. Matters worsened when the School’s accreditation was withheld, blocking aid to SMFA students except those in the B.S. of Ed. program.

After the SMFA was told it lacked the resources to confer degrees, Smith initiated a joint bachelor of fine arts program with Tufts in 1956. A master of fine arts program with Tufts followed in 1959. 

Interaction between the schools’ two campuses grew as well, with several SMFA students and faculty exhibiting their work at the Cohen Arts Center. The 1955 murals in Cohen were painted in part by SMFA alumnus and faculty member Matthew Boyhan.

An experimental approach to art education

The postwar years initiated further growing pains for the SMFA as global events seeped into the art world, leading to highly experimental and emotional art-making at odds with some of the School’s philosophy.

“We’re soon going to have the Vietnam War raging, the civil rights movement,” Murphy said. “It’s 1966, the SMFA isn’t even having classes about conceptual art, and yet that is a global phenomenon, and students are making their concerns heard.”

Smith, who had been at the SMFA for over 20 years, saw the writing on the wall and began planning for the School’s future. While investigating new ventures abroad, the SMFA’s trustees initiated a change in leadership which resulted in Smith’s transition from head of the SMFA to secretary of the MFA. 

In 1968, William Bagnall was appointed to lead the School and set out to design a new way forward.

“It was decided that everybody who was connected with the school would be able to govern it,” Nancy Bauer, current dean of the SMFA, said. “There was going to be this very flat governance structure, so the students had a say, the administration had a say, the alumni had a say, the trustees of the museum [had a say]. The idea was that there would be this incredible equality through the whole thing.”

Bagnall also oversaw the implementation of the review board system to replace a more typical grading structure.

“They basically take everything they make that term, they meet up with two students they may or may not know, two faculty members they may or may not know, and they kind of just have to tell an honest story about what happened to them that semester,” Bauer said.

These changes may seem like the spontaneous overthrow of a rigid structure to some, but this is not the only explanation from Murphy’s perspective.

“My interpretation is that what is referred to as the 1968 revolution was a very deliberately planned shift in power to bring the SMFA more in keeping with the times,” Murphy said.

“In 1967 the Museum School underwent a period of self-study,” a 1977 edition of the Tufts Observer described.

No matter the impetus, the changes allowed SMFA students to create art in expressive and individual ways.

“With the review board came highly experimental art-making, which is also in keeping with art-making throughout the world at that time,” Murphy said. “It would have been absurd in 1969 to continue to pretend that there weren’t global problems, climate problems, patriarchy problems, racism, colonialism. It became wholly permissible for artists to challenge any and all hierarchies of injustice.”

SMFA at Tufts

The relationship between Tufts and the SMFA continued to grow throughout the later part of the 20th century. A shuttle between the two campuses was proposed in 1972, and the Cohen Arts Center hosted a gallery of SMFA student work in 1980. One of the most decisive events in the schools’ joint history, however, came in the current millennium.

Since 2012, Nancy Bauer had been overseeing the SMFA’s department of visual and critical studies, led by Tufts faculty, as part of her role as a dean of academic affairs at Tufts. Shortly before she was set to step down as dean, Bauer heard from SMFA faculty that the School was having administrative difficulties, as were many art schools at the time. The MFA announced it was looking for a university to incorporate the School, and within 3 weeks, Tufts submitted a proposal written by Bauer.

“My vision was to take this funky, hippie-dippie art school, and keep it exactly the way it is and support it better,” Bauer said.

This vision proved largely popular with SMFA faculty.

“We have long-standing relationships with Tufts, and when it became clear that the School of the Museum of Fine Arts as an entity managed by the Museum of Fine Arts was going to need a different type of support … we were immensely pleased when Tufts announced that it was going to be one of the parties at the table,” Murphy said.

The MFA accepted Tufts’ proposal, launching Bauer into a 6-month negotiation with the MFA over the transition. Bauer then planned to step down from her role and continue writing a book, but her work navigating the SMFA’s incorporation made her a natural choice for the first dean of the SMFA at Tufts. Despite never seeing herself in this role, Bauer eventually accepted. After 6 years as dean, Bauer will step down this December to continue writing and teaching philosophy at Tufts, which she has done since 1998.

According to Pam Hopkins, outreach archivist at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, despite the challenges that accompany any transition of this sort, Tufts’ incorporation of the SMFA has been widely successful.

“From my own conversations in the past with faculty, they were really excited about Tufts taking on this new role, and they felt like Tufts was providing this great layer of support,” Hopkins said.

The merging of the schools allows students on both campuses to take advantage of the other’s resources.

“I was on the shuttle this morning, and all the seats were full,” Hopkins said. “I have known degree students at Tufts who have just gone there to take a ceramics class or a painting class or a metallurgy class.”

Bauer also encourages students to explore their interests to the fullest extent possible.

“It’s important to think about, ‘What’s my next step,’ but it’s also really great to just take classes that just make your heart sing,” she said. “What can happen when you do that is your whole life trajectory can change. This is the one time you have to really play around and really take advantage of all of the different things. Obviously you can do something later on, but you can’t have this many choices all in one place.”

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