Artists and Designers as Agents of Change

by Parme Giuntini, Director of Art History, Otis College of Art and Design

The annual AICAD conference on Artists and Designers as Agents of Change just wrapped up this past weekend and it met the most important factor on my internal conference list: it produced a definite “aha” moment for me. Conferences offer a range of opportunities from compelling papers and presentations to engaging conversations with colleagues. While I am a true fan of learning for learning’s sake, there is nothing as satisfying as discovering information that is applicable to one’s own field or discipline or institution. One of the advantages of the AICAD conferences is that they offer real world experience rather than focusing just on the theoretical, all the attendees are involved in art and design education, and the topics address common issues or concerns. Much like our students who are interested in the relevance of courses to their lives and career, AICAD delivered a relevant message to me, one that I could bring back to my department because of its timely message as we enter the next strategic planning stage.

The “aha” moment came on Saturday morning and it was bookended by a terrific session on Comprehensive Design and Sustainability delivered by Heidrun Mumper-Drumm of Art Center and an audience discussion that focused on art and design education. This is not to diminish the Friday sessions; they were informative and, at times, provocative but the “aha” moment was definitely a Saturday event.

Sustainability was a recurrent theme throughout the conference and one that art and design colleges cannot afford to shortchange or pigeonhole. Perhaps that is why Heidrun Mumper-Drumm’s presentation was so compelling. Acknowledging the necessity of all design education to incorporate sustainability, she presented courses that addressed both Liberal Arts and studio issues and moved far beyond the stereotypical “recycle, reclaim, reuse” mantra. Offering a new model of design education that she called Comprehensive Design, she demonstrated how these concerns could be fully integrated into any design class. The results were stunning student projects accompanied by critical, reflective quantitative and qualitative research to reinforce every aspect of the design process from initial conception to fabrication, packaging, delivery, and retail. With degrees in both science and design, Mumper-Drumm brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to the classroom. What immediately resonated with me was the correlation between what she proposed and its application to our own Integrated Learning modules and the seamless integration of sustainability into a curriculum.

Discussion is really a major artery of any conference. While there were certainly lots of individual discussions among the attendees, Saturday was the first time that we had the opportunity for a group discussion. It turned out to be worth the wait. Collaboration, rethinking art and design education, and assessment were the three main themes and many people weighed in on the conversation which kept John Gordon, the keeper of the microphone, hopping back and forth in the auditorium. I was pleased to hear so much support for trans-disciplinary collaboration; it truly was a buzz word for the conference. There was also a general consensus that art and design education, though presently very good in the AICAD consortium, definitely would benefit from thoughtful rethinking. Moving to new models that addressed the relevant issues of 21st century education and educational concerns seemed far less threatening to this year’s group and in subsequent conversations with representatives from Columbus College of Art and Design and Cleveland Institute of Art, I found similar agreement. Everyone, it seems, is rethinking what will work the best and many of them are open to new ideas, new models, incorporating themes, and new collaborations among departments. I was really encouraged by the interest that several of the deans and chairs of studio departments expressed in collaborating with their colleagues in Liberal Studies Departments. In much the same way that we cannot expect our students to be creative in a vacuum, there was consensus that their educational experience must mirror that kind of engagement.

These are the issues that our Liberal Arts and Sciences Department as well as other departments are currently grappling with in an effort to present the optimum curriculum to our students. There are no easy answers for this, no quick fixes, no magic wands. Everyone is struggling with the process which made me feel much better; we are not in this alone. What really impressed me, though, was the willingness to rethink, to imagine collaborations among departments, to consider poking holes in old disciplinary fences.