Just a decade ago, the art and art history department had just three art professors, two art historians, a music professor and a theater professor, according to John Morrell (COL ’73), director of undergradute studies in art. Today, 350 Georgetown students take a variety of art classes with core faculty members and can access an exciting number of exhibits and programs in the Hilltop’s gallery spaces.
In 1967, professor Clifford Chieffo arrived at Georgetown, establishing a coherent visual arts program. By 2017, the department looked markedly different from 50 or even 10 years ago.
The demand for visual arts education at Georgetown has even existed since the Vietnam War. Morrell shared one story about the student protests for the arts during the era. The Lauinger Library special collection houses a photograph from that time depicting a student with a sign reading “Give Us the Gallery Now,” showing the degree to which students were fighting for change. Current Georgetown students finally have access to an evolving, comprehensive arts education.
The department of art and art history has been improving its facilities and spaces since 2016 to create more opportunities for exhibitions and programs in the galleries that can be found nearby. Artwork from students, faculty and professional artists is now more accessible to the Georgetown community and wider public.
In August 2018, the university finally opened the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Gallery in the Edmund A. Walsh Building after a yearlong delay with an exhibit featuring Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson’s “DON’T MAKE ME OVER.” Moreover, the annual senior art major showcase in April will be held in the de la Cruz Gallery for the first time.
The space is also trying to expand its reach to professional and international artists, according to Katie Clausen, curatorial assistant to the galleries.
“Now that the de la Cruz Gallery has opened up, we’re really making a push to bring in professional artists and look internationally in scope as well,” Clausen said in an interview with The Hoya.
However, the galleries particularly aim to establish a specific connection to Georgetown to distinguish themselves from the plethora of art galleries in Washington, D.C., according to Al Acres, chair of the art and art history department.
“We really want it to be a university art gallery,” Acres said.
The next exhibit coming up in the fall of 2019 is Design Transfigured. This special exhibit in the de la Cruz Gallery will bring in artists working with toxic, discarded materials, transforming them into design objects as a way of engaging with global warming and the human impact on the global environment — an effort Clausen believes can appeal to all students even beyond the art department.
“You don’t have to be an art student to appreciate that side of things,” Clausen said.
In addition to these new exhibits, galleries will host lectures and talks to engage students. These new developments in the galleries represent a notable shift in the state of visual arts on the Hilltop, as the once-small art and art history department has been expanding in scale both through faculty and exhibition spaces, according to Acres.
“It really feels like a new era for the visual arts,” Acres said.
The growth of visual arts is evident not only in the gallery spaces on the Hilltop but also in the department of art and art history itself and in other art spaces throughout campus.
Opportunities to engage with visual arts on campus have also increased as a consequence of the art department’s expansion. A variety of art classes are offered to students regardless of whether they are art majors, minors or just interested in the subject.
Since the early 2000s, a push has been made for more courses focused on digital media, expanding previous offerings in acrylic painting, drawing, oil painting and printmaking. Such efforts have led to the opening of the Napolitano Digital Art Studio in 2000 and classes like “Introduction to Graphic Design,” which was offered in fall 2018 and will be offered again next semester, as well as an advanced graphic design course for those who have already taken the intro class.
Students are seeking a diversity of artistic mediums — materials and types of art — and not just concepts in their arts education at Georgetown, according to Acres.
“Students explore all kinds of themes and topics and ideas, but there is always an insistence upon knowing how to work with materials, knowing how to work with equipment, which is not always the case these days,” Acres said.
However, art courses present their own set of challenges. During a time when university tuition is at an all-time high, studio fees may discourage some students from taking art courses. The fees will likely decrease, however, and the department is actively working on ways to increase financial accessibility, according to Acres.
“Beginning next year, we think everything is in place now for us to significantly lower the fee associated with studio art classes,” Acres said. “We’re excited about that and we’ll see how it goes.”
Classroom space availability also poses an obstacle to art classes. Given that roughly 25 courses are offered each semester, many of which students take as electives, classes fill up relatively quickly.
“So those kind of spaces [classrooms] would be nice to have, but again in Georgetown, that’s part of the trade-off of having a small campus in a big city compared to a university that has a lot more real estate to work with,” Morrell said.
Students should also not let the commitment discourage them from investing their time in art classes that could become a notably fulfilling part of their Georgetown experience, said Audrey Chambers (COL ’19), an art history and economics major.
“Definitely don’t be discouraged by the 2½ hour time commitment that an art class is, because the time always flies, and I wish I had taken more art classes here because it’s been really fantastic this semester,” Chambers said.
The Maker Hub, housed in the Gelardin New Media Center, is one of those spaces that students can take advantage of, offering advanced opportunities to get involved in the arts on campus thanks to the efforts of Lauinger Library staff, according to Acres. For 15 years, the Maker Hub has offered specialized, cutting-edge equipment, including a 3D printers and laser cutters.
Student-run organizations on campus also allow students to explore the arts. Founded in 2007, the group GU Art Aficionados aims to make Georgetown a more creative place by linking students to artistic opportunities on- and off-campus. The public Facebook group GUCCI, Georgetown University Collective for Creative Individuals, provides a space where all artists can convene and share information about art events in the D.C. area. In the discussion, students can also post their artistic works, hopefully connect with other creative people within the community and inform others of possible resources, according the group’s mission statement.
Embracing the Arts
While both educational and gallery spaces have amplified the prevalence of visual arts on campus, students can still take simple moves to become a part of the community if they are unsure where to start.
Students seeking to engage with visual arts opportunities at Georgetown have a variety of options from which to choose to take that first step toward pursuing a passion or passing interest.
First, of course, students should not be afraid to take classes even if art does not fall within their academic focus. Morrell was a psychology major with a philosophy minor at Georgetown, and he took his first studio art class as an elective during his senior year. Now a landscape artist and beloved professor to many, he tells students that it is never too late to take a class.
“The best I can say is if they’re interested in developing their talents that they should be persistent and consistent in terms of working at it all the time. Don’t expect it always to be successful, but things grow in surprising ways,” Morrell said. “Discovering those things is actually what makes the art fresh and interesting to future viewers.”
One of Morrell’s former students became a part of the department of art and art history this year. Ian Bourland (SFS ’04) is a new tenure-line assistant professor in art history, specializing in modern and contemporary art. Despite initial career plans to pursue law or foreign service, Bourland found the arts to be crucial for laying the groundwork of his education.
“I had a drawing class with professor Morrell in the Walsh building, which is where the department still is, and I never worked harder on a class in my life,” Bourland said. “It really was the most rewarding experience that changed my life.”
Students should also be bold and expressive about how they live, feel and think without fear about whether their artistic pursuit will pan out, according to Morrell.
“It’s often I find that a number of students are too tentative. They’re afraid to try things. They want to be sort of told in advance, ‘this is what will work,’” Morrell said. “And the other thing I’d suggest is that they think about making art, whether it’s as simple as sketching or drawing, making art that somehow reflects their current existence.”
Visual art is a fundamental part of how people relate to each other, both at Georgetown and in the world at large, making its study a potentially vital part of the human experience, according to Acres.
“It’s becoming clearer than ever at Georgetown, as it is in so many other universities and colleges, that visual arts are not something on the side in the world,” Acres said. “They have always been a part of how people engage, how people figure things out, how they address each other either individually or as communities. This is in the DNA of humanity, always has been.”
Correction: The time period during which the art and art history department had the smaller faculty as described was three decades ago. An earlier version of this article stated it was one decade ago. (Dec. 10, 2018)