In an airy studio classroom, Ezra Picard and his classmates are picking apart the painting he's just hung on the wall, a purple-hued work with swirls of muddied colors. They don't like it and neither does he. Too confused. Doesn't know what it wants to say.
Mr. Picard, a goateed man perched on a backless stool, his sunglasses resting on his blond-tinged dreadlocks, is showing his frustration: "I'm getting to the point where I want to fingerpaint."
This is what the Maryland Institute, College of Art has done for nearly 170 years: nurture young artists, a goal that until recently was pursued in relative obscurity on the school's Mount Royal Avenue campus.
But suddenly, the college finds itself in the spotlight for deciding that the best way to pursue its mission is to sell off a major art collection given to the institute to further the education of young artists.
The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery, which have housed the famed George A. Lucas collection for half a century, are fighting the sale, and some students have started a petition drive to oppose it.
The institute finds irony in the controversy. After all, says president Fred Lazarus IV, most of the college's 900-odd students have never seen the collection. Only 12 students each year see more of the 20,000 prints, paintings and sculptures than the small selection on view at the two city museums.
The millions of dollars the college hopes to raise from the sale would help contain tuition costs, bolster faculty salaries, help pay for the $22 million in recent renovations and construction, and buy the top-notch equipment students need to meet the 21st century.
And, Mr. Lazarus believes anyone who came to see life at the institute would realize that these days students learn not so much by studying great art as by trying, failing and trying again at their own work.
Consider the case of Mr. Picard, a sophomore from Berkeley, Calif.
His assignment was to improvise, to paint without any intention for what the message will be, and to allow the meaning to emerge. Fingers would have been fine, Timothy App, the abstract painter who teaches the course, told the class. Squeegees, sponges, tape, rollers, all these things can be used in applying paint to canvas, he said. Reflection leads to revelation.
Grades are not the coin of the realm at the Maryland Institute. "Crits" are. Teachers critique students. Students critique each other. Students critique themselves. It is constant, unrelenting, often negative. As Mr. App says, it takes courage to hang your thoughts on a wall for assault.
But students revel in the exposure, too. The school boasts eight galleries perpetually filled with student art, one of which is managed by students themselves. Recent displays included mixed-media exhibits in which a videotaped image of a man's elongated face was displayed on a television screen squeezed by a carpenter's vice. Another showed a muted watercolor of a sunset. In the old Mount Royal train station, now converted to classrooms and studios, an enormous sculpture that looks like a metal crash-test dummy on steroids dominates the ground-floor foyer.
During an introductory sculpture class, which runs five hours with an hour for lunch, students create a sculpture from a block of clay, whittling, manipulating, pestering the clay amid the intermittent comments of their instructor. And after each class, the students tear the clay from the supporting wire structure, clean up their small platforms, and prepare to do it again the next week.
Although most students at the institute have decided at an early age that they want to enter the world of art, they do not specialize from the start. All freshmen are required to take what is called "the foundation," a core of courses including painting, photography and at least one three- dimensional art class such as sculpture. In addition, all students are required to take related courses in history, philosophy, art history, and literature or languages.
During his 14-year term, Mr. Lazarus is credited with raising standards at the institute, the nation's first accredited four-year art college. The school likes to tout its ratings from U.S. News and World Report, which last year listed the institute as the fourth-best devoted solely to visual arts. The top three were the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Faculty at the institute like to claim the school is one of the three best in the nation, along with the Chicago and Rhode Island schools. That oft-repeated assertion tends to raise eyebrows outside Maryland, even among art educators who otherwise have good things to say about the private Baltimore campus.