This week, the University of Washington announced its largest art faculty turnover in recent memory. The school has hired five full-time lecturers—two artists, an art historian, and two designers—and will soon add a sixth (sculpture). These changes come less than a year after two other major UW appointments: Jamie Walker was named director of the School of Art + Art History + Design and Scott Lawrimore became the first-ever director of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery.
The hires are: Aaron Flint Jamison, photomedia; Michael Swaine, 3D4M (sculpture); Adair Rounthwaite, art history; Justin Hamacher, human-computer interaction and design; and Jason Germany, industrial design.
The changes thrill Paul Berger, one of the artists whose retirement made way for the new crop.
"These are major, major changes, and there will be more in the next few years with more retirements," Berger said. The new hires are "a gamble," "exciting," "forward-looking," he said. "The courses themselves will change. The interactions between the previously tracked programs will increase. In all these cases, there was a really safe, solid person [up for the job], and someone who was edgy, and they went for the edgy—and when you get that going, you can really change a place."
The change is intentional.
"It signals something ridiculous and exciting," Lawrimore said. He meant "ridiculous" in the best way. "They're going to raise the profile," he explained. "How do [new] professors with a really international career change the psychology of the school? The examples students aspire to? The super-pragmatic knowledge they get about dealing with museums, grantmakers?"
Students I interviewed told me they want tougher and broader analysis of their works. And along those lines, Lawrimore praised Jamison for his "ruthlessness" and "intense criticality"—exactly, he said, what the school needs now. Given that mandate, and the school's goal to prepare students for an interdisciplinary, global art world, let's apply some "intense criticality" to the hiring decisions.
I was able to reach four of the five new hires. They all gave the impression that designer Hamacher described: "Cross-disciplinary exploration is blooming and getting significant institutional support, even from people very high up."
Rounthwaite is a contemporary art historian—a statement in itself, since the school could have chosen an art historian of any era. A native of Canada, her specialty is participatory and performance art with a feminist bent, and her latest essay (available online) is both a great read and a great bit of scholarship. It's about a fight over a Martha Rosler piece involving homeless people in New York in 1989. (She's working on a related book to come out fall 2016.)
As the two fine artists taking Supreme Court–like tenure-track professorships, Jamison and Swaine are the biggest news. They're both interesting artists.
Jamison, who lives in Portland and had an exhibition at Open Satellite in Bellevue a few years ago, makes installations, sculptures, and books that are alive with details and laconically confrontational. He shows at Miguel Abreu in New York and Air de Paris in Paris, galleries that represent artists at the top of the art food chain. The idea is that he is poised to help students make connections.
Swaine was recommended for the job by ceramics hero Jim Melchert, and it's not uncommon to hear Swaine referred to online as a "hero," too, for his socially conscious creative work. Since 1998, Swaine has collaborated with an international band of food-justice-related public artists/activists called Future Farmers. For the last 12 years, his best-known piece is a performance of sorts: He camps out with his sewing machine all day once a month on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin, mending whatever clothing and bags people bring him, for free.
The best art schools rely on professors who are good artists and also big names. The names are useful for attracting prospective students and increasing the competition so the program ends up with the best students. I asked Michael Darling, chief curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, about this. During his tenure as curator of Seattle Art Museum, he criticized Seattle art schools as unambitious.
Darling was a little deflated by UW's new hires, comparing them unfavorably to the trifecta of artists recently brought on at the University of Pennsylvania. He pointed out that in addition to being artistically strong and carrying name recognition, David Hartt, Sharon Hayes, and Ken Lum have the added virtue of not being white dudes—unlike Jamison, Swaine, Hamacher, Walker, and Lawrimore. "These are white males in a pretty white and pretty male department," Darling (a white male) said of the new UW faculty.
Wondering how these hires fit into the existing faculty makeup, I counted. The full faculty (not adjunct or visiting) is about 56 percent men and 44 percent women, and about 85 percent white and 15 percent people of color.
Walker, UW's director, said openly he's dissatisfied with the disparity. The school "goes to extraordinary lengths" in recruitment, "but we can't force people to apply." He added that "we've been going into every search for decades thinking about gender balance and racial diversity." There's no reason to believe Walker's intentions are anything but sincere, though the fact remains that of the five new hires, all are white, and four are men.
When I asked Lawrimore about being on the hiring committee that chose Jamison, he described Jamison as bringing "ruthlessness" to balance out the current faculty members—two women, whom he characterized as "a cheerleader and advocate" and "motherly," respectively. (Lawrimore also described Wynne Greenwood, another fairly high-profile artist who was in the running for the job, as "motherly.") I asked Lawrimore why he set up a gendered dichotomy, and he said, "I don't see it." Later, he sent an e-mail: "I'm so surprised at where the conversation is going (gender/diversity)... I think you need to dig deeper about what these hires are bringing to the program and signaling to the world, not what they seemingly, reductively 'lack.'"
When I asked Ellen Garvens, the professor described as "motherly" by Lawrimore, she provided a corrective about who was being reduced by whom.
"To say that I'm a mother figure reduces it down to this emotional level, and that's not fair for any female professor," Garvens said. "It does happen, but I kind of take offense... A cheerleader and a mom—these are classic female stereotypes that diminish our contributions to the photomedia program, the school, and the university."
When the now-retired Berger came to UW in 1977, it was an old boys' club with "like, 21 painters." No photo. No video, performance, installation. If you wanted to see that stuff in Seattle, you went to an artist-run space. Those UW men had a long way to go, baby. If I were an art student entering this fall, I'd be excited at what's new, and ready to push for more.