COLLEGE PRESIDENTS’ SERIES
School of Visual Arts: President David Rhodes
“He leaves behind a thriving art college . . . My father’s vision has been fulfilled,” beams David Rhodes, president of the School of Visual Arts (SVA), as he describes the legacy of his recently deceased father, Silas H. Rhodes. Starting as the Cartoonists’ and Illustrators’ School in 1947 with 36 students and 3 faculty members and catering to returning World War II vets, the institution evolved into the largest independent college of art and design in the United States. The name changed to School of Visual Arts in 1956 to reflect an ambition to be more than a trade school. In 1972, the New York State Board of Regents authorized the awarding of the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in four areas. Today, BFAs are granted in Film and Video, Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Illustration, Photography, Advertising, Animation, Cartooning, Computer Art, Interior Design, and Visual and Critical Studies, In 1978, SVA was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the only proprietary school to be so designated at the time. Graduate programs were established in 1983 and today include Master of Fine Arts in Criticism and Writing, Computer Art, Design, Fine Art, Illustration, and Photography. The MAT in Art Education and MPS in Art Therapy are also available. Awaiting approval from the State Regents are MFAs in Social Documentary Filmmaking and Digital Entrepreneurship. This remarkable college development story has not been without problems. Student numbers dropped dramatically in 1970-71 when CUNY instituted open enrollment, but snapped back in 1972 when degrees began to be offered. Other New York City art and design schools have not always been supportive of SVA, although, reports Rhodes, today “We get along tolerably well.”
A major source of the school’s strength is the engagement of working professionals as faculty, a unique idea established from the beginning by the school’s founder and, today, copied by many area arts institutions. Famed illustrator and designer Milton Glaser, who co-founded New York Magazine and created the “I Love NY” logo, has been a faculty member since 1961. Colleagues over the years have included artists Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Serra, and David Salle. Today, animators, digital artists, creative directors at advertising agencies and film and video companies, as well as potters and gallery directors join with those working in other creative fields to teach one or two courses at the college. According to President Rhodes, SVA “has a certain kind of edge because we’re not afraid to put student work out there . . . We print and publish a disc to show off kid’s work . . . Some student-produced books are award-winning.” A phenomenon has been graduates in illustration teaming up with undergrads in the once-again popular field of cartooning to produce books, which are often sold. Other informal arrangements include collaborations with student composers from Julliard School of Music to score SVA student films. The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) candidates seek out local public school principals who are interested in the arts and arrange practice-teaching stints. More hands-on experience is gained in the “Liberty Partnership” with the High School of Art and Design and its weekend and summer stay-in-school program.
During its rapid evolution, SVA has witnessed the movement of technology into the field of art, an interesting and sometimes controversial development. Rhodes sees a cyclical pattern between tradition and technology in art. “Oddly enough we’re going back to old processes,” he reports. “There is always a kind of looking back as things go forward.” Some faculty members are concerned that students “don’t use their hands enough,” and ban the use of computers in their classes. Because modern students don’t know about “leading,” a course in traditional typesetting is offered. On the other hand, being on the cutting edge is imperative. Rhodes established a department of computer art thinking of it as “goofy” at the time. It has become very popular. In a very new development, a course in digital sculpture involves designing a 3-dimensional object on a computer and producing it in layers with a polymer printer. The machines are leased because, “All this digital stuff is obsolete in two years,” confesses Rhodes.
Of the 3,300 undergraduates and 460 graduate students at SVA, 15 percent are foreign and hail from forty-three countries. The school is currently recruiting in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and India. About 10 percent of students are on “substantial” scholarships. Another 2,000 people a semester are enrolled in non-degree continuing education classes for “personal fulfillment or career enhancement.” The school is housed in eighteen buildings around Manhattan and is acquiring more. Residence halls are available and are the main source of personal interaction across disciplines, as students tend to identify with a particular school within the larger college. Finding jobs after graduation is easier than in the past because the art world has grown and film, TV, and video offer great opportunities. Rhodes is confident his students take away a set of skills and the ability to communicate, making adaptability to jobs outside chosen fields a possibility. However, he notes, “Of late we have been having terrific successes in placement in art areas.”#