MICA's new Brown Center houses the future of art

October 17, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The new $20 million Brown Center that officially opens today on the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art is a big, gleaming statement about the future of art education in America as well as about the kinds of art being created by contemporary artists.

The new building, a futuristic concrete-and-glass structure with a rakishly angled wall that juts toward Mount Royal Avenue, will house newly created departments in fields such as digital imagery, video, animation, interactive media and graphic design - fields that for the most part didn't exist mere decades ago.

"This building makes a statement from the design viewpoint that represents 21st-century innovation and who we are as an institution," said MICA president Fred Lazarus. "It reflects the great changes that have occurred in art and art education over the last 20 years."

Those changes, brought about by advances in computer and digital technologies, have prompted top art schools across the country to revamp their curriculae and add new programs, departments and majors to the traditional disciplines of drawing, painting and sculpture.

"To be competitive in the 21st century you need to make this step," said Bill Seaman, head of the digital media program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. "Because computers are proliferating in every aspect of business, design and creativity, every single media has a digital process attached. To deny that basically puts you outside the mainstream of how the world is functioning today."

Seaman, whose department at RISD opened this year, said all art schools are wrestling with these changes. "The kind of people I'm training are learning about the creative use of this technology and transcending its prescribed uses," he said. "How can I use this as a creative vehicle? Who can I bring together to make that happen? So instead of just accepting what's there, it's more about thinking about what these new technologies can be in a cultural sense and expressive sense."

With the Brown Center, administrators aim to position MICA as a leading art school for art and digital technology studies, said Leslie King Hammond, dean of the institution's graduate school. "This building, combined with what we already have built, makes us one of the top competitors in the nation."

The new high-tech facility doesn't mean MICA is abandoning the traditional curriculum, however. "Art is not moving away from traditional media and materials, just embracing new ones," Hammond said. "We will still teach traditional design, painting, drawing, at the same time that we are embracing new ways of making images and objects."

The majority of MICA's 1,328 undergraduates still choose to major in traditional disciplines like painting, illustration, graphic arts and general fine arts. This year, only 15 are majoring in video, with seven in experimental animation and three in interactive media. But MICA administrators clearly expect those numbers to increase, and the new building sends a powerful signal about the growing importance of new technologies in the arts.

MICA's recent exhibitions may provide a glimpse of the future. A show of contemporary photography last year reflected a defining historical moment in the medium that graduate photography program head Will Larsen called "the transition from the mechanical to the electronic production of the image and our ability to fabricate virtually anything we can imagine."

"It's a huge commitment on the school's part to create a building to house these disciplines and allow them to flourish," said Patrick Wright, chair of MICA's new video department. "The digital arts bring in a new era of art-making, in the sense that art is now more expansive than just galleries. What digital arts imply is broadcast, the Internet, cable - all works that can be copied endlessly and cheaply. So it's a medium that has all kinds of new exhibition possibilities. The school's embrace of that is an opening up to these new ways of making work."

Wright's department is one of four newly created graduate and undergraduate programs to be housed in the Brown Center. The others are undergraduate majors in experimental animation and interactive media, and the master's program in graphic design.

The center will also house MICA's established master of fine arts programs in photography and digital imaging, master's program in digital arts and its undergraduate program in graphic design.

These programs will train students to work in a variety of jobs involving new media, from designing Web sites and television motion graphics to gallery exhibitors and film directors.

"What the Brown Center contains is new media, which is the future of art and artists," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"My sense is that the most progressive art schools are all struggling with the issue of technology and not only how to incorporate that into curriculum but how to transform the curriculum completely," she said. "It's not just adding new media to the curriculum, it's that whole curriculum will undergo a sea change as a result of the new media."

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