Michael Darling has been the king of contemporary art in Seattle, and it's been a Pax Romana. He's used his power for good, bringing Seattle artists back into the fold at Seattle Art Museum, where he has been the modern and contemporary curator for four years. Recently, he accepted the job of curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, starting this summer. Unlike past SAM curators, he never stood apart from the city and its talent, and he brought in audiences without sacrificing intelligence in two major exhibitions, Target Practice and Kurt. He earned the ability to criticize—and he has something to say.

"Seattle needs to revolutionize its master of fine arts program at the University of Washington... I think that's the number one thing holding back the Seattle art scene," he said in an interview in his office last week. He is lanky and has an innocent face—he doesn't set out to upset people.

"This is probably where I'm going to get into some real trouble," he went on, "but if you look at the faculty at the University of Washington, there are not a lot of people in that faculty who have a national reputation. I mean, you have it in certain pockets in certain disciplines—especially, I'd say, within the ceramics department—but these aren't people who are showing in big galleries in New York or L.A. or London, who are leading the discussion. And that's what students respond to—that's why students flock to UCLA, that's why students flock to Yale, that's why, nowadays, students flock to USC. USC is a big draw, and USC is an interesting case because they also offer free tuition for their MFA students, which has made it the most desirable MFA program in Los Angeles. And, of course, the UW's got a lot of financial issues, but I think that's well within the UW's possibilities. If that department had free tuition for MFAs and started to really bring in some hotshot professors who have name recognition, I think this city would take off like nobody's business when it comes to contemporary art."

Specifically, he sees a "lack of rigor" that leaves UW art grads with "blind spots." Compared to Chicago, Darling sees a gap in Seattle's whole art-school universe—that includes not just UW but Cornish College of the Arts (where there are only undergraduates and where, full disclosure, I have taught an art-history class for the last three years), and Seattle University (mainly undergraduate).

This is just one man's opinion—that Seattle is not going anywhere until its art schools get better—but he's a powerful, knowledgeable man, and it's a strong opinion, not easy to dismiss, something that's going to be argued over for probably years.

"It's too easy to blame the schools," counters Timea Tihanyi, a sculptor and mixed-media artist who graduated from UW with an MFA in ceramics in 2003 and is now a full-time lecturer there. "For heaven's sake, at least look at the ceramics program, where historically they made a huge effort of gathering faculty who would be cutting-edge, and they turned out students who became really well-known. This is a research university, not an art school, in a way, and we are trying to do our best to have an art school at a research university, but the university's priority, as you know, is not the arts."

Christopher Ozubko, chair of art at UW and a graphic designer, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Lois Harris, provost of Cornish—where David Ulrich, art department chair, recently resigned effective August 31—says it is too early to talk about what kind of chair the college will look for in its upcoming national search. An interim director will be appointed this summer.

"I'd prefer not to comment on improving the program, because that makes it sound like we come from a deficit position," Harris says. "Quite frankly, we're in a transition period. We're going to be doing some soul-searching in the next year that's going to determine the direction we'll be going. I don't want to say in any way that our main goal is improving. What we need is a little grace time to figure out, okay, what is the next big step and what are the next little steps we need to take to continue our role within the city."

Seattle University's comparatively small art department was sleepy until four years ago, when its Hedreen Gallery opened. The department has been steadily inventing itself since then, bringing Seattle's leading artists not only into the public gallery but also into the classrooms to teach such subjects as performance and video (Wynne Greenwood is teaching, for instance). "In the past, the university was sort of hidden and by itself," says art associate chair Francisco Guerrero. "We're starting to face the community."

For administrators, professors, and artists alike, Darling's words hit like a fireball.

"Wow! He went there! Finally, we're talking about it," says Sharon Arnold, a Seattle artist who graduated from Cornish after attending Pratt Institute in New York. "It feels like there aren't a lot of choices in Seattle, and the departments are lackluster. It's frustrating and confusing."

Matt Browning graduated from UW with a bachelor of fine arts degree in fibers in 2007 and is now represented by leading Seattle contemporary art gallery Lawrimore Project.

"There are little gems within the UW, individuals who are incredible, but I agree with Michael," Browning says. "I think the schools here are single-handedly the worst thing about art in Seattle."

Performance/sculpture trio SuttonBeresCuller is one of Cornish's proudest recent exports; the three recently completed a residency at MacDowell, the oldest artist colony in the nation—past guests include James Baldwin, Glenn Ligon, Stephen Shore, Thornton Wilder, and Francesca Woodman.

"I want to be proud of my college, but I'm disappointed in the direction Cornish has gone," John Sutton says. "It became a corporate identity with its move to South Lake Union. It's got plenty of talented people, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be providing a stellar educational experience, and I don't think it even comes close."

"The Cornish art department is at a crossroads," says Marc Dombrosky, an artist represented by Platform Gallery who was a popular teacher at Cornish (he now teaches at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where his artist wife, Shannon Eakins, is studying). "Given its history with artists, it's set up to be as innovative as it wants to be, but the curriculum is just dated across the board."

The godfather of art dealing in Seattle, Greg Kucera, graduated from UW in 1980 and a couple years ago delivered a commencement address there.

"When you think of what's brilliant about this university, should the art department be a brilliant thing like it is, say, at UCLA or Yale, where it's a renowned part of a renowned school?" he asks. "I wish it were more so—let's leave it at that."

L et's not.

The University of Washington has a special place in the history of artist education. According to Howard Singerman in his book Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, the master of fine arts degree—the equivalent of a license to be an artist, though its value is plenty questioned—itself was begun in the mid-1920s at the universities of Washington and Oregon, even before at Yale and Syracuse, the nation's oldest campus-based art schools.

In the 1970s and '80s, when hotshot Jacob Lawrence was a faculty member, UW was predominantly a painters' school. In the 1990s, the highlight was the ceramics program. It was ranked fifth among ceramics schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report (the overall UW School of Art is ranked 37th), and the ceramics grads had two things in common: They rarely specialized in ceramics and they became successful. Tim Roda, who makes gritty black-and-white photographs of himself and his young son in outlandish settings, is a classic example; Susie Lee, another ceramics grad who animates still objects with videos and sound, is another. Ceramics was just code for the best students at the school.

A restructuring three years ago means nobody gets a degree in ceramics anymore; now, the sculpture department is called 3D4M and the other majors are painting and drawing, photomedia, and interdisciplinary visual arts. The restructuring was an attempt to catch up (quite late) to the fact that few artists define themselves by medium any longer—more often, mediums are applied to ideas on a project-by-project basis, and development of ideas is as important as study of techniques. This has been happening in earnest since the 1960s, in part because modernism expanded the list of valid art materials from paint, marble, and bronze to include photography, everyday objects, newly patented plastics, moving images, bodies, entire swaths of land, and virtual reality—all the stuff of life. A university that isolates single mediums may well be putting graduates at an immediate disadvantage in their chosen profession, which is not so divided.

UW is still too divided, says Peter Nelson, a standout among this year's graduate students. He majored in photomedia, and for his final project, on display now at Henry Art Gallery, he interviewed his parents about the history of their relationship, then performed their words with his wife, each of them wearing papier-mâché masks and hands modeled after the parents. The resulting video plays the awkwardness of the costumes against the moving nature of the testimony, and at the opening last month, Nelson's parents themselves sang an original musical score along with the video. Someone in the audience audibly sobbed; plenty of other people talked later about having teared up. Nelson is leaving Seattle to teach photo and video at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in the fall; UW prepared him well for a teaching job, but he was hungry for more chances at artistic development within the program.

"My biggest complaint is the separation, both physical and philosophical, between photo, painting, 3D4M—and DXARTS [another UW department entirely, devoted to digital and 'experimental media'] is like a completely different world," Nelson says. "I don't even know my fellow students in painting, which I think reduces the rigor because I am only comparing myself to the few other photo students, and that goes for the other students, too; there's a sort of isolated and insular approach as a result of that physical distance."

Beloved ceramics professor Jamie Walker says the same thing: "I believe in less segregation. But it's a discussion we've been having for 20 years."

What does he think of Darling's indictment? If he were a young artist who wanted to make his name, would he go to UW for graduate school?

"Well, that's a good question," Walker says. He does not answer it. He explains that it's complicated: Funding is tight right now, and faculty members are expected to teach pretty much full-time, which keeps them from doing their own work (which keeps them from developing what they can then teach). "I love my job. I love these people. But there's no doubt that being a faculty member at the University of Washington is challenging."

It's easier (and more fun) to describe what's fresh and where the energy is. Starting with the anarchic, exploratory approach of the ceramics faculty. "We'll try anything," Walker says. "Sometimes that has led to spectacular failures, but that spirit is what makes it fun and interesting." And art. "Right. Right!"

Walker sees the art school as a research lab as much as, say, the science and tech departments that university bigwigs are more likely to recognize as such. He applauds the hire, two years ago, of artist Mark Zirpel to head a new glass program; Zirpel is skilled and wild and far-ranging, not a studio-glass fixture who'd prefer to run a production-line hot shop. But no faculty members have been hired since then or are scheduled to be, and Walker says there's a stubborn generation gap between students and faculty, who are, on average, in their mid-40s. He's trying to create a residency program to bring younger artists to campus as mentors.

According to Nelson and the buzz on the street, one of the most exciting things to happen to UW art students this past year was Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen's experimental lecture class that brought a sparkling lineup of leading contemporary artists from New York, Los Angeles, and Great Britain, among other places, to talk/perform every week. (The lineup of visiting artists at a single Portland art school—Portland State University's social-practice program, run by Harrell Fletcher—puts to shame all of the lineups of visiting artists at all of Seattle's art schools put together. A year ago, PSU brought Mark Dion back to Seattle to see for the first time since he installed it how his massive nurse log had grown at the Olympic Sculpture Park. A Seattle school didn't do that; a Portland school did.)

There's reform in the air. Fredericksen used to be as harsh a critic of UW as Darling, but even he's softened.

"I agree with Michael that strengthening the schools in Seattle—Cornish, too, for that matter—would have a huge impact on the city," Fredericksen says. "I don't get the sense that art is a huge priority for UW. But what I am interested in about UW now is their receptiveness, both at a student and faculty level, to new energy."

The move is simple: against narrowness. Two years ago, Cornish hired its first full-time art historian, Elizabeth Darrow (the critical-minded great-niece of legendary litigator Clarence Darrow), and its first staff curator, Jess Van Nostrand, assigned the job of creating a generative showplace. This fall, Seattle U begins a brand-new artist residency to galvanize conversation and augment faculty instruction; Browning is the first artist. Seattle U's Hedreen Gallery was steadily experimental under the direction of Yoko Ott, who organized performances, talks, and arguably the best exhibition in the entire city last year (10 years of intense videos by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi, which drew crowds at a university that barely had a gallery five years ago). Whitney Ford-Terry and Jessica Powers, Hedreen's new curators starting this summer, are kicking off with a manifesto worth cheering:

Our goal is to provoke thought and action, inciting change from the outside in. The programming... will reflect our shared interests in ad hoc collaboration, radical experimentation, free choice learning, social justice activism, interdisciplinary study, and endurance. We... plan to take full advantage of our ability to move and make faster than traditional organizations in the academy.

In the coming months, as UW struggles to make do with limited resources, as Cornish considers how to fill a major open position, and as Seattle U continues brainstorming its new identity, those words would make a good mantra. Radical experimentation... Inciting change... Provoking thought and action. What else is school possibly for? recommended