Search F News...

SAIC ends its only journalism department

Is closure of New Arts Journalism a red flag of a larger problem?

By and Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Shu Yin (Kitty) Lai

Since 2008, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has offered a graduate degree in New Arts Journalism (NAJ), one of the few U.S. journalism departments at an art university, which has attracted students from all over the world.  This was a program designed to produce and train art and cultural journalists, who could critique the art institutions and systems.

Lisa Korneichuk (MA NAJ 2023), a Fulbright Scholar from Ukraine, came to SAIC because she was drawn to journalism in an arts context. “I’m not into writing this dry academic text. I want to do interesting, exciting storytelling about art, which combines art theory with this important, relevant storytelling about what’s going on at the current moment rather than historical things.” SAIC is one of two schools (the other at Syracuse University) that she considered for arts journalism. Co-founder of VONO, a small Ukrainian art newspaper, Korneichuk has found that NAJ’s program encouraged the type of experimentation that she wanted, “not only with writing but with other processes around it, like designing, printing, getting it spread.” 

As of Fall 2023, however, SAIC will have closed this department. During its existence, NAJ has produced more than 80 graduates who have successfully continued working as artists, writers, journalists, and scholars.

History of NAJ

In 2008 the school introduced NAJ under the leadership of late professor and art critic James Yood. Initially, the school packaged NAJ as a diverse course “giving students the skills needed to attain a place as art and design journalists in an array of fields from magazines and newspapers, to radio and television, to new media outlets such as blogs and podcasts,” wrote Carrie McGath (MA NAJ 2010), poet, visual artist, and one of the first students of the program in a blog published in 2010.

For almost eight years, NAJ had no full-time tenure-track faculty member. According to  T. Camille Martin-Thomsen, Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs at SAIC, in 2016, Yood’s part-time position was converted into a full-time position. That same year, SAIC also hired Dushko Petrovich, the current program director of NAJ, in a full-time position. 

In addition to Petrovich, the department now has seven part-time faculty members. Yood passed away in 2018, leaving Petrovich as the sole full-time faculty. 

The Program’s impact on Students

Olivia Canny (MA NAJ 2021), an associate podcast producer for Gilded Audio, told F Newsmagazine about the important role NAJ played in her life and how it helped her to carve her professional career. “I am skilled in editing dialogues and writing scripts. These are the skills that I learned at NAJ. I think the program definitely helped me to learn the ins and outs of working in the media, what sort of stories are important, and how to package them,’” she added.

Darshita Jain (MA NAJ 2020) moved from Gujarat, India, to Chicago to pursue studies in NAJ. “NAJ helped me get disciplined,” Jain said. “It helped me understand the kind of questions I want to ask, and can be asked even within the institution.” While her professional career took her into arts administration, she believes NAJ has shaped her in many ways. “Because of NAJ, I never sit on my first opinion. I have learned never to be lazy in my thinking, and never believe the first thought I have or the first feeling I have. Because of the questions I was trained to ask while studying NAJ, it helped me design better systems in art, which I am currently doing,” explained Jain, who is now the Director of Outreach and Artist Programs at Lillstreet Art Center. 

Parker Yamasaki (MA NAJ 2023) was drawn to SAIC’s NAJ program, much like Korneichuk. She didn’t want to study at a journalism school where culture writing would be at the periphery. Did it work? “It has completely exceeded my expectations of what I would get out of it,” says Yamasaki. “I’ve been really satisfied with all of the courses and the instructors and all of the different vantage points and perspectives that have been brought into our curriculum.” 

How stakeholders learned NAJ would end 

Anjulie Rao (MA NAJ 2014), an NAJ alum who is now teaching in the department, told F Newsmagazine that the school did not provide a reason for closing the department. “We all knew that there were fewer applicants. It’s like, pretty obvious. I am assuming that it was a business decision,’’ said Rao. 

Rao recalls a Spring 2022 faculty meeting where the idea of sunsetting the program was introduced. “This was not a meeting to solicit feedback or take the temperature of what we thought should happen or why things were happening,” said Rao. “It was just sort of like, this could happen.” Then, in Fall 2022, according to Rao, some faculty casually mentioned that the faculty senate had voted at some point over the summer or early fall to sunset NAJ.

Both Yamasaki and Korneichuk learned the news from graduate students in other programs in their shared lounge. “I don’t even remember who was talking, like some people from the Art History department, and we overheard, and we were like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ I don’t remember the timing exactly, but shortly after we were told by Dushko that the department is closing,” says Korneichuk.

Why is SAIC closing the NAJ program?

A number of factors were taken into account, including consistently low enrollment numbers, a small market for degrees, and notably, limited future prospects for students,” Martin-Thomsen told F Newsmagazine.

According to Lori Waxman, senior lecturer in NAJ and Art History, Theory and Criticism, the decision had been discussed for a while, because of “dwindling admission numbers.”

The final call to end the program was made in June of 2022 based upon recommendations made by the Long-Range Academic Planning (LRP) initiative, a faculty-led committee formed in 2021 to make plans for the post-pandemic school. According to Martin-Thomsen, the LRP initiative ran quantitative and qualitative data on the health of all programs at SAIC, circulated an all-faculty survey, and researched other art schools’ programs and concluded the school should  “sunset” the NAJ Department. 

Delinda Collier, Interim Dean of Graduate Studies, who was also a member of LRP, has not responded to email inquiries by F Newsmagazine.

Petrovich responded to F Newsmagazine by email, noting, “I enjoyed chairing NAJ and was saddened by the decision to sunset the program.” 

Illustration by Shu Yin (Kitty) Lai

Were efforts made to prevent the closure?

Yes, according to Martin-Thomsen. Over the years, the school has attempted to bolster NAJ. This includes hiring Petrovich as full-time tenure-track faculty with responsibility to “remake the curriculum and stabilize the program.” 

“After a multi-year effort to bolster the curriculum and attract new students, the program was still unfortunately losing enrollment,” she added.

The merger of NAJ with other departments such as Writing or Visual Critical Studies, was considered by LRP. However, based on LRP’s analysis, SAIC decided to wind down NAJ, because, as Thomsen points out, “it was not successful in attracting students.”

“Many of the classes will continue to be offered, so there will be limited impact to other students interested in NAJ courses,” Martin-Thomsen said.  The courses offered by the program will find homes in other departments including VCS, Art History, and Writing. However, based on F Newsmagazine’s review of the SAIC Fall 2023 catalog, it is unclear which courses are being continued in other departments in the near term. For instance, “Podcasting: Introduction to Audio Storytelling”,  a class taught by lecturer Brontë Mansfield, which benefited students like Canny, isn’t presented in the course catalog for the upcoming semester.

Was the closure of NAJ inevitable? 

There has been a massive shift in how readers consume news, as most people get their information from digital sources rather than newspapers, according to a Pew Research Center study.  In addition, the financial viability of journalism is in question. In the United States alone, two newspapers shut down every week. According to a Feb. 4, 2023, New York Times article, many newspapers are giving less space for art and cultural critics in their publications. 

As Waxman puts it: “The newspaper landscape is a total mess.”

Because of this ongoing crisis in journalism, those who spoke with F Newsmagazine confided that they had suspected NAJ would someday be discontinued. 

“Although it’s a shame, unfortunately, I am not terribly surprised that SAIC is closing this program,” Canny said. “I was informed that not enough students were enrolled in the program. And I can see why students may be deterred at the prospect of doing a cultural reporting program,” added Canny.

Waxman, who’s also an art critic for the Chicago Tribune and wrote an editorial on the demise of arts journalism, believes that NAJ became a victim of these challenges and the closure “is a red flag of a larger problem,” Waxman pointed out. “Art criticism barely exists in terms of full-time professional work. It’s super necessary. It’s super important. But how many full-time art critics are there in this country?” she questions.

Waxman believes things could have been different if the program had more than one full-time tenure-track faculty member. “There was one person having to do the job of a minimum of two people. And that’s too much to ask of anybody,” she added. “It was not something that was plotted against us, but maybe if we would have two full-time faculty there would be more energy, time, and contacts to spread around. The program would be better known and it would have drawn more solid admissions. And maybe there would be no shutting down of the program.”

While there were efforts to hire another full-time faculty member, the pandemic stalled the hiring process and left Petrovich alone, “which sort of unfortunately set the department up to fail,” Waxman said. 

Does an art school need a journalism program?

Rao, who studied NAJ because she “wanted to speak in her own voice” and not that of an institution, strongly advocates for art schools to include journalism. 

“Journalism teaches how to communicate very complex information to people who have a variety of reading abilities, reading levels,” Rao said.  Journalism goes further in an art school, according to Rao, by getting students “to talk and write about what they do, and how their work fits into value systems that we have to live with right now, or how they hope value systems will change. Nonfiction storytelling gets to these really, really fundamental questions about life,” she added.

Jain shares similar views. For her, art history and journalism do the same work, making both of them significant learning for artists. “It’s a big loss because if SAIC wants to be the ecosystem of the artwork, you’re kinda missing a vital piece,” said Jain. “If we are only making art for each other in the SAIC system and not producing enough people who critique it, it’s like mutual masturbation.”

Jains believes journalism in an art school trains people to critically question art and culture and make it more transparent. “The role of artist journalism is not like floating in the air for a vanity publication. It’s getting actual change done. I am almost angry that this is happening at this point because it feels almost targeted to shut down the one program that was critically asking questions about the institutions,” Jain said. 

For Yamasaki, although closing NAJ may mirror a trend where cultural reporting is shrinking compared to investigative or political journalism, this comes at a price. Closing is made “without the consideration that those topics are regularly explored and can be really analyzed through cultural journalism,” says Yamasaki. “All of these things are intertwined.” 

Several people interviewed for this article, particularly current NAJ students and alumni, are among the many writers and editors who previously worked for F Newsmagazine.

Ankit Khadgi (MAVCS 2024) is a Nepali journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Guardian, the Kathmandu Post, and the Gaysi Family.
This user account status is Approved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 × 3 =