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In Defense of Art: Preserving Studio Art at Geneseo

November 24th, 2010 by admin

My alma mater, the State University of New York at Geneseo, recently announced that due to a 7.2 million dollar deficit they will be eliminating the Studio Arts branch of the school in three years time.  This is among other cuts in the name of balancing the budget, but emotionally this strikes me the most.  The following is a letter to Christopher Dahl, current President at SUNY Geneseo:

Greetings President Dahl,

I hope this letter finds you well in the midst of difficult times at Geneseo. I’m writing in response to your recent announcement concerning the termination of the Computer Science, Communicative Disorders, and Studio Art branches of Geneseo in three years’ time. More to the point, I’m writing to discuss the shutting down of Studio Art, as the other departments fall largely outside my Geneseo experience. It is my opinion that if this plan is carried through to its full resolution, the character of Geneseo will be harmed in a profound and irrevocable way.

But first, an introduction:

My name is Mike Varley. I graduated in 2006 with a degree in the then-new Creative Writing major, minoring in both Art History and Studio Art. I presently live in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, pursuing the path of the artist in various mediums. I’ve exhibited work in four of the five boroughs (Queens still eludes me), written and directed my own feature-length film, produced a spoken word CD covering the 2008 election and recently was named by Curate NYC as one of New York’s emerging artists.

None of this would have been even a consideration without the existence of the Art department at Geneseo. It started with the core requirements of our liberal arts degree, when the sculpture professor at the time recognized my efforts in a survey course sketchbook and invited me to join her class the following semester. The fruits of that effort can still be seen in the Brodie courtyard totem poles – mine is the one that sits in the back, too tall to fit under the awning.

Previous to that, English was my only interest. I began to discover expression beyond the defined limitations of words. With the introduction of present sculpture professor Dan Dezarn, the true vastness of human creativity revealed itself to me. I began working on pieces that combined sculpture and performance art. One piece involved setting up a fictitious front door in the quad of Brodie and staging a six-week running narrative, with new, subtle elements added every day. Another work was called “Bloody Knuckles,” an interactive piece I set up on the Green during free hour that called for viewer destruction of the work in order to make the piece complete.

My senior thesis piece is actually one we’ve discussed in person as I was wheeling it back to the sculpture studio one day. It involved a plywood board gridded out with 5,720 boxes – one box for each student and faculty member at Geneseo. People would choose one box, then nail a nail into it and paint the nail head a predetermined color. Over two months, an image gradually revealed itself that represented the Geneseo community. I called it community pointillism. You were polite and impressed.

The effects of these projects goes well beyond my personal discovery. With no intention of hubris, I can tell you story after story of students that came up to me to express their thanks and support. The Brodie Theatre kids took to coming down to the quad everyday to see my door, even if they didn’t have class that day, just to see the next piece of the puzzle. For the community nail project, one girl flagged me down in front of Mia’s and actually told me the project “made her college experience.” Needless to say, I was deeply touched.

This is the kind of impact art can have on a college campus. It is human spirituality exposed in paint and 2”x4”s. It’s community building at the most fundamental level – beyond the reach of business mixers, past the grasp of brand affiliations, asking nothing from the public but to stop for just a moment and consider the song of another. In the freely given melody exists a commonality. I can think of fewer important lessons for an 18-year old.

If we are to truly pride ourselves on being a liberal arts institution, we cannot remove the element of the impractical from our campus. Dealing exclusively in the realm of common sense solutions and stepping stone degrees is the surest way to close a bright mind to inspiration. Though I have nothing against them intrinsically, Geneseo is not a trade school. Its beauty lies in its aim to produce well-rounded citizens, capable of succeeding in any field. The function of art in this equation – even for a student who only takes one class – is to teach the value listening to one’s self. To find the answer within rather than glean it from a textbook. And then, to not only find that answer but manifest it in physical form. It is within ourselves that we find tomorrow’s innovation and possibilities yet to be born.

You should know that I do not think you some magic man from Oz with the power to make this problem disappear should just the right letter touch your heart. Nor do I think you a feckless dictator paying for his African safari with rechanneled art funds. I’m sure this decision, made collaboratively after countless, fruitless math sessions, hurts you as deeply and uniquely as it hurts me. In truth, I admire your courage to make the cuts and speak publicly about it, in a political era where tough decisions are put off routinely in favor of another turn on the merry-go-round.

So I write you today from a place of empathy, as equally as I write you from a place of sorrow. But most importantly, President Dahl, I write you from a place of hope. I have not met a Geneseo graduate that I did not find capable of passion. Passion for learning, passion for people and passion for our school. You may not have the money, but you now have our attention. Use that attention to appeal to those passions. Show us the avenues of resistance, and then be open to the possibility that we might surprise you. I can’t guarantee a Hollywood ending, but I can imagine a force of effort in the name of Geneseo that would do more for our school than a dozen art facilities.

I’m asking you to lead, President Dahl. Lead us to the path of civil virtue, and I will do my best to follow.

Thank you for listening.

With Regards,

Mike Varley

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