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F Newsmagazine spoke with students and faculty about race at SAIC.

By Uncategorized

One of the most difficult challenges facing the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is how a private art school can engender an environment where a multiplicity of voices is represented in the student body, curriculum and conversation. F Newsmagazine has published a series of articles and letters addressing these concerns. Despite our efforts, it seemed that every attempt to illuminate one issue uncovered countless others. In an effort to once and for all open up a dialogue about the all the issues surrounding diversity at SAIC, we invited a wide sample of students, faculty and staff to have frank and honest conversations about what is happening and (hopefully) how it can be fixed.

The response was overwhelming. Representatives from across the school were enthusiastic about the opportunity to express their views. In the interviews we gained personal perspective on how a lack of diversity affects discussion in the classroom, the self-esteem of students and the processes of art-making. We also learned that awareness of these concerns has spurred a variety of personal and communal efforts into action. Multiple groups are operating at the institutional level while student groups continue to organize, using the school and the city of Chicago itself as a laboratory for expanding and addressing issues of diversity. What became clear was that the agents of change are already in motion but there remains a fundamental lack of visibility for their efforts.

A troubling and consistent pattern we observed was a general sense of fear around discussing these issues. There is a pervasive feeling that “alternative” viewpoints are underrepresented and those who would represent them feel at best outnumbered, or at worst intimidated. It is F Newsmagazine’s sincere hope that giving voice to the variety of opinions and efforts about these issues will help soften barriers and show that the people who want to work toward achieving greater diversity at SAIC are not alone. Students, faculty and administration are listening, many are already in action, and many more are waiting for the call to act.


“SAIC is a school situated in a city center but it does not reflect that in its population. Virtually all of the student body comes from out of town or from the suburbs of Chicago. This is not a coincidence. The school should have scholarships and other programs available to make it possible for high school students to attend the art school in their own city instead of only recruiting from wealthy high schools that can send students to the dorms.” -Gabriella Brown, ba

“The school, in my opinion, has a central challenge and that is to attract more students of color from the city of Chicago itself. We have an enormous city and wonderful capacity for creativity in our young people but currently we give approximately eight Governors Scholarships per year, often to students of color who are limited economically. It is so important that we continue to work with our Office of Institutional Advancement to locate more scholarship monies to attract more of those students. If you think about our freshman class, for example, we had approximately 740 students this year and five of them were Governors Scholars. What would it look like if our student body had 50 Governors Scholars?” -Tiffany Holmes, dean

“I have identified a rather large group of students who are excited to use their skills to help mentor students in local underserved high schools like Crane. I don’t think SAIC realizes how interested our students are in volunteering and service learning. It’s something they want to do, they’re committed to it … I think we’ve missed opportunities to be involved in conversations about the quality of education in Chicago Public Schools.” -Barbara DeGenevieve, professor

“I think that the school could make incredible strides by reaching out a wider population and really engaging different types of communities. We have great relations with the AIC and MCA but what about our relationship with the Hyde Park Art Center, the DuSable Museum or the Museum of Mexican Art? Those are not institutions that SAIC engages with as often. I think that would be a very easy and natural way to have conversations about diversity … These multi-cultural institutions in the city would be able to not only bring different perspectives to the school, but also they would greatly benefit from having some of the students from SAIC working with them. There seems to be such a great opportunity to have an exchange and mutually beneficial relationship. Especially in this challenging economy, finding win-win situations for arts organizations and for emerging artists and students would be really great.” -Mia Lopez, ma


“Diversity, or difference, creates a discourse of many different voices. It allows individuals to discuss and appreciate what is heterogenous and unique about your community. When a student body is not diverse we enter into a dogma that espouses one perspective rather than a plethora of perspectives or ways to look at issues.” -Hiba Ali, ba / bfa

“Sometimes it seems that conversations about diversity are seen as paradoxical to studying “pure” contemporary art. I don’t think it is such an overt thing, but it is a thread that runs through. The inclusion of other texts, counter-narratives and personal stories can help. For example, we will be discussing issues of race or sex in a class and we’ll have read texts, so texts are this privileged thing. But then someone will raise their opinion or experience with these subjects, which is a very personal story and in a way a primary source. I think that it could be instilled in students that personal stories can be a way to bridge the paradigm of these texts in order to make new kinds of knowledge. I’ve had experiences where a personal story was told and it was seen as an interruption before getting back to the text. … I do think that it is something professors need to buy into because it does disrupt what they have been so fiercely taught. But it also enlivens a classroom, engages students and it becomes a closer community.” -William Ruggiero, ma

“I’ve talked to quite a few students of color who are frustrated because faculty and other students won’t talk about certain kinds of work. Or if the student brings in work that is not about their identity or race, they’re questioned as to why they are not doing identity-based work.” -Barbara DeGenevieve, professor

“What is missing is that perspective, way of life, reality, then it feels like the students who represent those realities are hitting a wall of always being the educators and outspoken ones in class … I think when students come here, we expect to learn. But when we become the educators for these types of issues we burn out. Especially since when I leave this place thousands of dollars in debt, I don’t think it should be my place to do that [educate].” -Jeanette Martin, ma

“As a student of color at the school it has been important that I raise certain issues that I felt weren’t being discussed, whether it be pointing out the omission of certain topics or artists and bringing in a wider range of theorists or just asking difficult questions that sometimes just weren’t on the table.” -Mia Lopez, ma

“Recently in my Sophomore Seminar class we were talking about work that was racially charged. One of the students said, ‘I’d like to talk about it but I’m really afraid I’m going to offend somebody.’ That’s a typical response that comes from faculty as well as students. I think we need to open up that conversation — even more than the issue of numbers in regard to diversity within the school. For as important as political correctness has been in exposing many problematic issues, it’s done significant damage to our ability to have conversations pertinent to the work being made here … Too many conversations shut down because of the fear of not using correct language or saying the wrong thing. That’s stifling in an art school where we should be open to all kinds of discussion, no matter how uncomfortable.” -Barbara DeGenevieve, professor

“There are moments in the classroom where you don’t want things to be censored but you wonder ‘where and why is this thing okay?’ It becomes a challenge. I feel like like race and class are not well-considered in the school.” -Felicia Mings, ma


“I think one thing the school is good about is having a climate of open conversation. There has been a lot of discussion lately about some of the artwork in exhibitions that have been racially charged. To be able to have a conversation that isn’t just about ‘is the work offensive?’ but instead to ask where the artist’s motivation is coming from, what is the role of the school in mitigating display and freedom of speech. I’ve been pleased to see people having respect for each other’s opinions and being able to agree to disagree on certain things.” -Mia Lopez, ma

“We’ve had some debates on campus recently about provocative artwork and the potential for this work to offend or upset people or make people feel like particular histories of marginalization are not being taken seriously or recognized at all. These are really serious and important challenges and I think as an art school we would do well to think deeply about provocation. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is something that helps move us to different places within our thinking and helps us learn. When provocation is really working at its best it is creating conditions for thoughtfulness. Provocation can give people an opportunity to grapple with uncertainty and conflict and come up with a new question.” -Karyn Sandlos, professor


“There are really deep and wonderful micro-pockets of practice, belief and posture in the world. When SAIC welcomes a diverse community within the school, what we are tapping into is those micro-moments that various students and faculty bring to us. It’s one of those dynamic situations where we not only need to support and respect the diversities of practice that come from geographic, economic, ethnic locales but we also need to find ways for students and faculty to bring that diversity of practice out into the world.” -Rebecca Duclos, dean

“We don’t want everyone to be the same. We don’t want an entire school full of figurative painters, we don’t want a school full of art historians interested in only early 20th century European art. Different stories and backgrounds contribute to a really interesting and dynamic place to work and to learn.” -Mia Lopez, ma

“I think SAIC is good for being a place that is full of people who are … crazy, in the best possible sense. Whenever you get a lot of creative people together most of us have experienced what it is like to be on the outskirts and to feel like we are not normal or that we don’t fit in. I think SAIC has been really good about encouraging alternative points of view and encouraging people to question why they do the things they do and why we feel the way we feel, not just in our own working but in looking at other people’s work as well.” -Simone Denise Thompkins, ma

“In the context of an art and design school, a diverse student body expands the dialogue around what it means to be a creative practitioner in the 21st century. You need a diverse student body to encourage students to explore their work from a multiplicity of perspectives.” -Tiffany Holmes, dean


“I think there is going to be change at SAIC, whether SAIC likes it or not. Diversity, on whatever kind of scale you want to place it, is changing and may at times look like it doesn’t fit into SAIC’s model. There are a lot of social projects being done now, there are a lot of partnerships with the city and other groups that students don’t really advertise that diversify the practices here. But I feel like the interface of SAIC is not really reading that. Eventually those partnerships and “informal practices” that students engage in will have to be included.” -William Ruggiero, ma

“I feel like a lot of positive things are happening pedagogically on campus and off campus but nobody knows about it. When you are at such a large school as this, that’s sort of normal, but what we need to do is harness the wonderful vehicle of web technology. I’m working with DAG and the Office of Communications to set up web pages that profile events, conversations and courses which highlight the various diversity initiatives at SAIC. It is a way we can actually group together all of these initiatives going on. The other thing we need to see on the site is a perspective from faculty, staff and students (and) let people who are thinking about coming to the school understand that this issue is under discussion and that they would fit in.” -Tiffany Holmes, dean

“We have a lot of talks and events, which are great, but they are always within the sphere of the arts. What other institutions have that we don’t is other departments that aren’t connected to the arts who have speakers who have to do with sociology or economics. I think it makes sense to bring those perspectives into the school more.” -Felicia Mings, ma

“I feel digitally fatigued a lot and I crave human contact. I think that SAIC is actually a place in the analog world where we can talk about what are often very delicate and difficult issues. … I think the ‘face-to-face’ is the space where we need to have real conversations together. The dynamics of diversity are very subtle and subtlety is not something the digital realm necessarily does very well.” -Rebecca Duclos, dean


“SAIC must foster communication between students and the administration to figure out ways to adjust the SAIC curriculum so that it includes a more diverse student body, faculty and courses.” -Oli Watt, professor

“There has been a good offering of non-Western classes available for students to pick, which has been great because the conversations within those classes have been quite fruitful. I have learned a lot. I think if more students took such classes, the sometimes monotonous re-hashes of concerns particular to tired Western traditions would ease into wider and more inclusive global interests that can foster greater awareness and healthier collaborative efforts.” -Kekeli Kodzo Sumah, ba

“I believe that diversity is not only about the student body, but also about curriculum; a shift has to take place in the curriculum in order for students of color to feel like they belong. It is imperative to examine art practice within a social and political climate, and for everyone to understand how marginalization (race, class, gender and sexuality) has impacted issues of representation. We need to engage with issues of power and privilege so that students reflect on the works they are making and what they express. It is our responsibility to educate students to be critical and responsible citizens.” -Savneet Talwar, professor

“I think SAIC does a really good job of including LGBT and gender issues into the curriculum. It is something I have felt come up in a few classes and an experience I have not felt anywhere else.” -Felicia Mings, ma


“There is more to diversity than just thinking about numbers. You want to think about the kind of culture you want to build in an institution. For me, a culture that is really taking diversity seriously is one where difference is at the forefront of everything we do. That we are constantly challenging ourselves through the arts to really think about our positions in the world … We should be grappling with big questions about difference and asking ourselves how we can address them through institutional structures.” -Karyn Sandlos, professor

“Every institution should be concerned with increasing diversity but I think that art schools have fallen behind in issues of representation, inclusion and community-building. …Art schools seem to be the last of the group [of secondary education institutions] to really take diversity seriously and make it a part of their institutional structure.” -Rashayla Brown, bfa

“I think diversity, or difference, is the product of a climate at the school and that is something that can be created over time. A change of the climate first and foremost would require a re-tooling of requirements, specifically of the Bachelor of Fine Art degree. A new version of the degree would consist of more global and comparative classes and secondly forums and journals from each department that would be released online. This would show how the students are actively engaged in a dialogue.” -Hiba Ali, ba / bfa

“The school, regardless of whether students are individually pushing the conversation, should always consider diversity a part of the institutional structure. If we waited for all the people who integrated schools in the beginning to get on board we would still be living in a segregated society.” -Rashayla Brown, bfa

“There is a big taboo around talking about differences, especially in 2013 America where people are pushing this image of being post-racial, post-sexual and it is absolutely untrue. It would be impossible to say we are place where these things do not matter. We really need to talk about it together and think about how our attitudes and beliefs affect the way that we see the world and the choices we make. …It seems that a lot of times when people try to bring up these issues there is a whole other wave of people telling them that they’re whining, exaggerating or that these problems were bigger issues before than they are now. In fact I think it is the opposite, I think that the longer time goes on the longer we put forth skepticism before we put forth receptivity then they become deeper-seated in ourselves and harder to talk about.” -Simone Denise Thompkins, ma

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