Thursday, February 22, 2024

Bachelor of fine arts program on pause

By Aleksandra Sidorova

SUNY Plattsburgh’s art department made the decision to pause its bachelor of fine arts program due to being understaffed, no longer accepting new students.

“In the situation right now, I think everybody’s really upset,” said Student Association Coordinator for Arts Alexander Finkey, who is also a senior in the BFA’s last batch of students. “Watching the art department fall apart is not what I wanted to see before I left.”

When aspiring artists pursue a college education, they usually choose between a bachelor of arts and a BFA. A BA is broader than a BFA, while a BFA has a deeper focus into a concentration. At SUNY Plattsburgh, BA concentrations require four classes in a particular artistic discipline, and a BFA requires seven. Neither degree is “better” than the other, but the BFA attracts students because it is rigorous, demands hard work of its students and culminates in a senior art show. Students not only become experts in their concentration, but learn to present and market themselves and their work.

An intense focus in one or two concentrations combined with skills learned from breadth courses create experts who are artistically well-rounded. Those additional skills help Erin Doescher, a ‘20 alumna who teaches both high school and adult students in Massachusetts, introduce her students to different kinds of art. She also runs her own business selling ceramics, applying photography and graphic design skills to create her website and present her work.

“Taking all those breadth courses, it makes you more knowledgeable and able to adapt and problem-solve,” Doescher said. “I credit a lot of my work ethic and drive to Plattsburgh and I’m proud of it.”

A BFA also comes in handy for graduate school, not just a portfolio to show, but the skills to conceptually and academically think about art. Hannah McCasland, a ‘20 alumna pursuing a master’s in fine arts at The Ohio State University, said her MFA program feels almost easier than the BFA was thanks to the backing she received “to be a better artist.” 

McKenna Brazie, a senior in the BFA’s last batch of students, is currently applying to grad schools, and said she worries about her chances of getting in with the program going on pause. 

“The school I’m applying to looks back and wants to see what my program looks like, and they see my program is not there,” Brazie said. “That doesn’t look good for the school. That doesn’t look good for me.”

Alumni also fondly look back on the community the BFA program created. They recall gathering at the studios at night to work on their projects and critique each other’s work.

“You got really close with your class. Everyone always helping each other, both professors and students of all years, especially older students helping younger students, was a really beautiful thing in our program,” Doescher said. “There’s always someone there to help, to answer questions, to bounce ideas off of. It used to be that the art building was the only building where the lights would stay on all the time. We would work through the night.”

However, that dynamic has changed. Students sometimes approach Brazie, who is the president of the Plattsburgh Association for Visual Arts and a teaching assistant in an introductory painting class, asking her how to join the BFA program. She has to tell them that they can’t. 

“They had no idea that the BFA was gone. No one had told them that, not even their adviser,” Brazie said. “I think a lot of people would have transferred over the summer had they known that was the case. It is sad because I see all the potential in their work and I know that they could get to that level if they only had the classes and the opportunity with the BFA to do so.”

Department Chair Ali Della Britta said that when the department sent out its email calling for students to apply for the BFA program last year, it noted that it was the last time it would be accepting students. Brazie thinks there could have been more communication around the decision.

“Having poor communication is the reason that I left the school I transferred from,” Brazie said. “I don’t want to see that happen to Plattsburgh.”

Finkey said putting the BFA program on pause would lower student enrollment as it was one of the strongest forces attracting students to SUNY Plattsburgh’s art department.

“I don’t know what’s happening and it makes me really worried, because now we’ve lost the BFA. Why are students going to come here for visual art if there’s no BFA? There’s no point,” Finkey said. “That was the whole reason I came.”

The BFA carries a long legacy of SUNY Plattsburgh’s art department’s excellence, having been around since 1999. 

“It breaks my heart to hear of the program no longer existing. It changed my life, and I want that experience for future students. It’s really sad, that not being a potential possibility,” Doescher said. “My disappointment and my sadness about the program being no longer is a testament to what a great program and what great faculty they have there. It’s a good thing they have going.”

If the college no longer attracts art students, there will be less involvement in the arts, Brazie said.

“It’s just sad, because I myself have worked so hard to get this program going again after COVID, between the art club and the art auction and working with art acquisitions and doing all these things to try to make the art program so strong again, and now I feel like they’re just knocking us back another level,” Brazie said. “It’s very disappointing, it’s disheartening, because I imagined myself as an alumna coming back and seeing the BFA show, but now the department is dying and it’s sad to think about.”

Not only might enrollment go down, but so might retention, as students’ desired program is now out of sight, even if temporarily.

“So many people are leaving this school,” Brazie said. “They think, by doing this, they’re saving money, but they’re going to lose money, because people are going to transfer and leave.”

The art department used to have 12 full-time faculty members in 2017, but now is stretched thin with four. In these six years, there was one new hire. 

“Art experienced a large number of retirements in the past year or two, coupled with the history of the university being unable to replace lines from earlier retirements due to budget constraints,” Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Meg Pearson wrote in an email. “Making sure our degree programs have the staff they need to provide courses for our students is always my top priority. The challenge during tough economic times like the past several years is balancing the hiring needs of dozens of deserving programs across campus.”

Much of the depth the BFA offers comes from one-on-one time with faculty. Understaffed, the current faculty’s workload has increased, and the department is therefore unable to offer the depth of education that a BFA promises, Della Britta said. However, the BA program is still an option.

“We’ve taken the first steps to make sure that the education our students have is a good and thorough education, so we could no longer, with the staff we had, do that for the BFA,” Della Britta said. 

A shortage of faculty at universities is a nationwide phenomenon, whether due to deliberate layoffs and cuts or not hiring replacements.

Associate Professor of Art Drew Goerlitz wrote in an email statement: “My hope is that no other department goes through the same uninformed deactivation of a program due to lack of full time faculty the way the art department did. Without leadership and communication from the administration we were left in limbo. The lack of leadership has caused students to attend our program in hopes of acquiring a BFA only to find out it is no longer available. There are three years to reactivate the program and that plan seems to be left for a new provost that has a ‘hopeful’ start date of August of 2024. The unwillingness to plan for the future of our program creates low morale among faculty and staff which does not foster a positive learning environment for our students.”

A shrinking art department could have consequences that extend far beyond art majors or even the SUNY Plattsburgh campus as a whole. Doescher, who as a student was “really advocating of the program,” said art classes provide students in other majors outlets for creativity and thinking differently. Additionally, the art department and the museum frequently engage with the Plattsburgh community. For some, SUNY Plattsburgh’s art department is the only way they can access art.

“See what these students can do,” Finkey said, encouraging students to attend the art and music departments’ events and shows. “When you see how fantastic students are, you’ll recognize that programs like this can’t go away, because you’re actively hindering creativity.”

A gen ed art class completely changed the life trajectory of ‘20 alumnus Matt McGarr. He originally transferred to SUNY Plattsburgh from Clinton Community College to study computer science, but switched to a BFA. Now, he is a full-time self-employed artist in Plattsburgh.

“It helped me to just become a better person, as lofty as that may sound, because I got to explore so many things in that environment, that very supportive environment. It’s a real shame that it’s going away,” McGarr said. “I was a little nervous, thinking [the BFA] would be more intensive, but I took it on and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Neither Finkey nor the art department are giving up hope for bringing the BFA back.

Finkey said he and other students have been considering creating a petition or writing a letter to College President Alexander Enyedi.

“A lot of the problem with it right now is that the people who want to do this are so busy right now,” Finkey said. “We’re just so busy, we can’t do it.”

Administration, however, is already aware of the issue. Della Britta said, and Pearson confirmed, that the art department frequently meets with administrators to discuss both issues of understaffing and the next steps after pausing the BFA program, whether that’s bringing it back within the next three years or creating a new one.

“We’ve been asking for support for a while,” Della Britta said. “Every retirement, we ask for support.”

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