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By Eric Nicholson
Pity the poor art student; or better yet, imagine what it would be like to be one. Wriggle your toes into a pair of badly bruised Birkenstocks and walk around. Pretend you're young and enthusiastic, and people keep telling you how talented you are. Imagine you've had the 10th fight with your father, who mutters that "art is for sissies," and then insists that you minor in business so you'll have "something to fall back on." If Daddy's paying, you may have to listen to him; if not, you're on the path to a lifetime of student-loan payments. But at this point, you don't really care. You're walking confidently across some nice university campus where the golden light on an autumn afternoon reminds you why you are driven to paint. You find a seat in a crowded classroom and watch as your professor, who considers himself an artist first and a teacher second, cleans his glasses on his paint-splattered shirt. He begins to speak, and you're shaken from your art-student reverie with this booming pronouncement: "Five years from now, about 90 percent of you will not be making art, much less making a living at it."
"That's bullshit," says James Sullivan, division of art chair at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts. "Or it should be." Sullivan, 48, has been shaping the university's art program for 12 years. He is slight, silver-haired, and rumpled, having spent the morning making midterm studio reviews of MFA candidates, assessing their progress, gauging their productivity, nurturing their talent, soothing incumbent frustrations. He's a sculptor himself, working in plaster and straw. He did his undergraduate work in philosophy at Yale, earned an MFA in sculpture at California State University, Long Beach. His three-page résumé enumerates decades of solo and group shows, grants, awards, residencies, and lectures alongside teaching and administrative experience.
Sullivan thinks out loud, doing a quick statistical analysis of what he knows about his past and present students. "I think of the population out there who have graduated in the last 30 years, we've got 30 to 45 percent still working," he says. "Of the MFAs, I know it's more than half." He believes he knows why the art school's track record is better than the norm, even though the young-by-art-school-standards program isn't particularly well-known outside Texas and doesn't elicit the immediate respect that counterparts such as New York City's School of Visual Arts or Los Angeles' California Institute of the Arts would. "It's unusual," he admits. "I think it has to do with the fact that the program has never been huge, and we've always been very selective in what we've done. We've taken care of the people that are here, and the faculty has always been really interested in teaching as well as being artists." The art program is small--12 full-time faculty, 60 undergrads, 10 graduate candidates--and selective. "We choose about 10-15 percent of the people who apply for graduate school," Sullivan says.
Sullivan, along with SMU grad Beth Taylor, former gallery assistant at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art and current collections manager for local mega-collector Howard Rachofsky, has mounted an unprecedented alumni exhibition on campus at the Meadows Museum as a measure of the art school's success since 1971, when the first MFAs were awarded. It's a first in its scope, and sumptuous in both quality and diversity, and it's a testament to what Dallas can produce and attract to its oft-criticized art scene. Departure/Return showcases current work by 75 former master's and undergraduate students and is distinctive in that none of the work is dated; you cannot distinguish a 1970s-era MFA's painting from a recent grad's. Sullivan says that's how they planned it. "One of our ideas was to say this is all going on now," he says. "We favored juxtapositions of people who were part of the old history of the department hanging right next to people who are graduate students right now."
Departure/Return also serves as a benchmark for the division of art. "We also did it to measure the quality of the program," Sullivan says. "The current contemporary judging of schools has to do with having a very specific identity, so that you know what a Hunter grad's art looks like, or you know what an SVA grad's looks like." Sullivan doesn't see SMU on the same path. "That's more about the school absorbing students rather than reacting and bringing out qualities in the students," he says. "We're interested in bringing out the voice of the students that are here. We don't have predictable blinders on, or try to balance representational art with abstract art, or have a clear preference for certain materials." Sullivan says people were surprised at the exhibition's opening on October 13 when alumnus Yikwan Kim presented a surreal performance piece. "We didn't teach him to do performance art," Sullivan says, "but he had something within him and his experiences here that allowed him to do it."
Kim's wire and wood boxes remain in the center of the Meadows gallery, leftover props from his performance piece. Flanking them, and fighting for attention through its sheer size and dark mood, is David Bates' "Hawkins," a 1991 piece in the artist's signature series of thickly ridged paintings of people and points of interest along the Texas Gulf Coast. Bates and Dallas artist Sam Gummelt represent the kind of artists SMU attracted in the 1970s as well as two of Dallas' top producers and sellers. Other big names from the 1980s and 1990s--Jody Lee, Kaleta Doolin, Julie Bromberg, Lorraine Tady, Nic Nicosia, Dan Rizzie, John Alexander--were selected for the show. Recent graduate Demian LaPlante's elaborate, mirrored construction with video competes with Nicosia's art film, which landed the Dallas native in the Whitney Biennial 2000.
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