A Brief Historical Overview of the School of Art at Mason: The Birthing of Artistic Excellence at George Mason University, 1972 to the present.
The School of Art at George Mason University began when George Mason College received university status in 1972. Organized within the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), the first Department of Fine and Performing Arts included an Arts Division, which offered studio art and art history, dance, theater, music, and communication. Housed in the old Fairfax High School building (now Paul VI High School) on Route 50 in Fairfax, the visual arts at Mason began with a basic set of studio concentrations including drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Generously sized studios were especially convenient for teaching art because their doors opened onto loading docks, making it easy to transport heavy bags of plaster and clay used in sculpture and foundation design studios.
Walter Kravitz, professor of art/painting and drawing and one of the founding fathers of the program, remembers the old Fairfax High School building fondly, recalling that the “fifteen-foot-high ceilings with surprisingly good light and ventilation provided a terrific studio setting for our disciplines. There were usually 15 to 20 students per studio. Art history enrolled 25 in the introductory courses and 15 in the upper level. We began with three studio art faculty members when I came on board in 1976 and three art history faculty members who taught a range of courses from Ancient Greek Art through Impressionism.”
The first of several chairs overseeing the operation and growth of all the fine arts programs was an individual from the music component of the program. From the beginning, the performing arts were a strong component of the department’s academic programming. Early on, the goal was to build audiences and community involvement in the arts at Mason through support of performance-based disciplines (music, theater, dance) and to fold the visual arts into the department in support of these programs. Graduates from the program received diplomas broadly naming their discipline as “Fine and Performing Arts” without specification of curriculum on their transcripts. Eventually, studio art and art history grew in size and importance within the department to become its own voice in the mix of all the fine art programs.
As enrollment grew, the art programs sought larger quarters. In 1983, the School of Art programs moved into College Hall and Mason Hall. During the building’s construction, classes had been temporarily held in trailers near the Student Union I building. With technology and enrollments on the rise, the studio art and art history faculty grew to five members each. In the early 1980s, photography became a program within studio art; soon thereafter the university supported a search for its first photography faculty member.
In 1993, the studio art and art history programs were separated. studio art joined the Institute of the Arts and art history joined the history department. The two programs continue to have a close reciprocal relationship. Studio art students now take art history courses as an integral part of their curriculum requirements in the Department of History and Art History, while art history students pursue a range of lecture and studio art courses offered in the School of Art.
As a new over-arching approach, Mason instituted a type of conservatory philosophy regarding the fine and performing arts by creating an Institute of the Arts—an independent body within the university with an academic liaison to CAS. The purpose behind this new approach to academic reorganization for the arts was to advance the mission of the arts at Mason through a greater autonomy and freedom of operation. Among the institute’s initial priorities was the formation of the Center for the Arts and the Theater of the First Amendment program as part of the continuing legacy of performance education at Mason.
In 1993 Evans Mandes, professor of psychology, was appointed associate dean for academic affairs for CAS and academic director of the Institute of the Arts. He was given the task of collaborating with faculty colleagues to form a new and exciting interdisciplinary curriculum within the institute for all students. The influence of this program and many of its courses in aesthetics, visual thinking, creativity, and perception are an integral part of today’s School of Art, and a tenet of its philosophy of interdisciplinarity.
Strong enrollment trends during the 1990s in the fine and performing arts around the country were especially true at Mason. Institute enrollment climbed from 200 to 500 students. The growing interest in technology through digital arts, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, and photography played an important role in the dramatic growth in enrollment of the visual arts at Mason.
In 2001 the university administration, with input from the faculty, reorganized the Institute of the Arts into the College of Visual and Performing Arts with departments of Art, Music, Theater, and Dance. The visual arts faculty expanded to 12 full-time members in keeping with an upsurge in enrollment.
Scott Martin was appointed the new chair of the Department of Art and Visual Technology. With a background in both technology and music, Martin helped focus attention and develop technology initiatives within the program parallel to the support and the interests of higher education programs in art. He also drew upon the interest of the business community in the Northern Virginia region to support a new media program.
The digital arts and graphic design concentrations at Mason were now coming of age. The dramatic growth in enrollment helped expand the graduate concentrations from digital arts (now New Media) to include painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and critical art practices. Studio art, first renamed “Department of Art and Visual Technology” (AVT) and now named “School of Art” (SOA), grew to its current size of 24 full-time and 25 part-time members as enrollment grew to more than 550 students to place the department on the map regionally and nationally as a significant visual arts program. To meet the need for preparing highly qualified art teachers in metropolitan Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (with more than 130 employment opportunities available annually), the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Art Education Program was developed by Renee Sandell and approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in 2005. Enhanced by partnerships with area museums and school systems, the MAT Program provides PK‒12 certification while helping art teacher candidates expand their knowledge of art and education to develop skills in curriculum design and educational leadership. Begun in fall 2008, the Art Education Concentration for the Advanced Studies in Teaching and Learning (ASTL) Program offered area art teachers the option of earning an MEd in curriculum and instruction or a graduate certificate in art education.
The visibility of art on campus has flourished in recent years because of several successful programs now in place and other amazing events—especially the opening of the award-winning Art and Design building in fall 2009. Tom Ashcraft, associate professor of sculpture and associate director of program development, played an instrumental role in serving the architect, Ayres Saint Gross, and Mason faculty members by acting as design liaison between all the involved groups, including university administration. The building has earned three American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards for design excellence (the AIA Design Excellence Award, Baltimore Chapter, and two similar awards from the Potomac, Maryland, and the Fairfax, Virginia, AIA chapters) and serves students well in their pursuit of excellence in the visual arts. Come visit this magnificent studio art complex with light-filled studio spaces for every concentration.
The gallery program has blossomed into several venues for student and professional exhibitions in addition to the gallery spaces in the new Art and Design building. These include the Fine Arts Gallery housed in the Art and Design Building and the the Mason Hall Atrium Gallery for special exhibitions, and several smaller spaces in and among academic complexes in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Partnerships in the mid-Atlantic corridor provide exhibition venues for students intermixed with other academic and alternate nonprofit and institutional communities.
The Mason campus showcases its patrons’ generosity by displaying works such as Margarida Kendall’s gift of Charters de Almerda (an outdoor sculpture beside the Concert Hall), and long-term loans Katzen and Halegua from the National Gallery of Art. Also prominent in the ongoing experience of the arts on campus was the publication of the booklet “Arts on the Fairfax Campus” published in 2001. The Friends of Art and Navigation Press program initiated in 2005 brings nationally ranked artists in printmaking, book arts, and multiples to campus each year to work in a unique collaboration with students in the production of an original edition of prints.
The ArtsBus program began in 1987. ArtsBus was the inspiration of Jerry Clapsaddle, professor emeritus, and is the current responsibility of Peter Winant, an assistant professor at the School of Art. ArtsBus offers students and area residents numerous opportunities each year to travel to significant exhibitions at preeminent museums and galleries in New York City, as well as enjoy cultural life in the Big Apple.
The School of Art is flourishing with bright ideas and a dynamic future. For more information about lecture and exhibition schedules, or to become a Friend of Art and participate in sponsored behind-the-scenes trips to top museums, collections, and galleries.