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New York City
May 2003

Presidents Series:
President David Rhodes: School of Visual Arts

A visit to the office of David Rhodes is a crash-course reminder that our lives have become increasingly oriented to the visual. From his own professional quality photographs of sea turtles and manatees—although he insists that he is only an amateur—to the design projects of his former students, the walls and shelves are lined with tributes to the increasing ubiquity of imagery in our daily lives. Rhodes, the President of the School of Visual Arts, draws more evidence from the nightly news. “The person who saw the beating of Rodney King would not have been believed if not for that videotape,” he explained. “Viet Nam was a living room war—but on thirty-six hour delay. Now it’s instantaneous. It’s live. Whatever happens happens.” He views part of his mission as a college president as that of training the young men and women who will shape this visual world in the future.

When the School of Arts was originally founded in 1947—the collective effort of David’s father, Silas H. Rhodes, and Tarzan illustrator Burne Hogarth—it was known as the Cartoonists’ and Illustrators’ School. “It was what was known as a GI school,” Rhodes explained. “Most of the students were returning veterans.” In the fifty years that have followed, the school has evolved rapidly in both size and the diversity of course offerings. “The greatest challenge of my career,” added Rhodes, “has been seeing our transformation from an art school with three year courses to an art college with graduate programs.” The school changed its name in 1956 and began to offer BFA degrees in 1972. The first MFA programs were accredited a decade later. Now the school offers undergraduate programs in advertising and graphic design, fine arts, illustration and cartooning, interior design, photography, computer art, film video and animation. The graduate school menu includes programs in fine arts, illustration as visual essay, computer arts, photography and related media, and design. In addition to the BFA and MFA degrees, the School of Visual Arts also award a Masters of Professional Studies in art therapy and has recently established a MAT program for future teachers. “We’ve become an important member of the arts community and also of the art education community,” noted Rhodes. “And it has all occurred rapidly over the past two decades.”

One of the most significant changes has been in the composition of the student body. “Our undergraduates are more and more like college kids everywhere,” observed Rhodes. And demographically, this may be true. They are exceedingly geographically and ethnically diverse: 50% come from outside the New York Metropolitan Area, more than 30% are racial minorities and 15% are foreign. At the graduate level, nearly half the students are from abroad—which Rhodes pointed out, is “not untypical” for such programs in the United States. One third of the school’s 3000 undergraduates now live on campus. Yet there is something distinctive about School of the Visual Arts students. “They bring something with them when they come in and they take it with them when they come out,” observed the college’s president. “That is that they’re focused. They tend to be much more focused than your typical undergraduate at a typical liberal arts college.” Students are admitted directly to a specific program and many know their long-term career goals from the outset. These might include a job in industry, either of the sort with “a title on a desk” like those of art directors or free-lance positions such as editors, or on to graduate school. Many School of Visual Arts students continue their graduate studies at the institution; among the other popular choices are Yale, Rutgers, UC-Davis and Columbia. Celebrated graduates include the artists behind Mad Magazine and the illustrator Paul Davis.

Although the economic recession and the dot-com bust have witnessed some decline in the number of students majoring in design and computer art, graphic design remains the school’s most popular program. That may be, in part, because the field itself is broadening. “It used to be anything that was done on a flat page was designed by a graphic designer,” Rhodes elaborated. “Now it’s anything done on a flat page, anything on a screen. And it’s no longer just static. We have a whole series of courses that, for lack of a better term, are digital video and they’re moving pages.” As a result, “the boundaries between the various disciplines are becoming more and more blurred as the world becomes more and more digital.” Rhodes offered several examples: “It’s suddenly become much easier, if you’re a photography major, to slide over into video—which is really photography at thirty frames per second. And if you’re in design, it becomes much easier to slide over into interactive work on the web.” The opportunities for study are expansive, yet these rapid developments pose a challenge to educators. “All of this certainly makes life interesting,” said Rhodes. “You’re constantly changing the curriculum.”

Rhodes—after the caveat that predicting trends is difficult—prophesies an increase of interest in illustration. “A couple of years ago we saw a diminution of interest in drawing, but that has rebounded,” he observed. “What I think we’ll see is, for the near term, a return to doing more work by hand. It has a human touch to it—it’s something that you can’t imitate as readily…. There’s something you cannot yet duplicate on the screen very well that you can do by hand, that you can do readily with pen and paper.” Among the various examples of such work are Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War,” political cartoons, and graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. He also added some praise for Walt Disney. “The real beauty of Disney is that the animation is splendid, done with extraordinary care, as opposed to the Saturday morning cartoons that are just slapped together.” Yet Disney cartoons “start off as hand drawings.” Rhodes expressed his confidence that illustration—what he calls “storytelling in pictures”—“may go out of fashion, but it never goes out of favor.” Not only was drawing at the heart of the original school’s mission, it remains “at the core” of today’s multidisciplinary college.

Additional expansion appears to be in the school’s future. “My main goal going forward is to ensure the continued increase in the reputations of our programs,” explained Rhodes. “At the moment that primarily entails us finding additional space, really a building for the graduate programs.” He would also like to add a library and a theater suitable for a film festival. In the longer term, he’d like to add new academic programs. “We need something in advertising at the graduate level, something in copy writing at the graduate level. We need to do a small graduate level film program. And at the undergraduate level, we need to do something more substantial in product design. I also want to do a writing program in criticism. I think that would be an interesting addition to what we do here. We have a large art history program, but we don’t do enough yet in critical writing.” Rhodes is also exploring on-line learning options.

The college president began his own education as a student of philosophy. He graduated from the College of Letters at Wesleyan and then studied at Columbia University. At the same time, he began a teaching career in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. As he became increasingly interested in issues of social justice, he shifted his studies toward economics. Yet as an eldest son, he knew that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and head the School of Visual Arts. “That gave me a certain kind of freedom,” he observed, “to study things that from a monetary perspective might be useless.” Yet these are the very sorts of things—philosophy, the western tradition—that one would hope to find readily at the fingertips of a college president.#


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