Professor Emeritus Suzanne Bravender, former Divison Dean Linda Malm, and State Senator Jack Scott, a former president of Pasadena City Collete, at the gallery reception commemorating 20 years of the Artist-in-Residence program, January 12, 2006.
BRIAN TUCKER, Director, Pasadena City College Art Gallery
Internationally prominent artists put in appearances at the most exclusive art institutes and graduate universities on a fairly regular basis. It requires a special effort to bring such artists to the large and diverse public that comprises a community college. That effort seems to strike a blow against inequity in art education. As a new faculty member at Pasadena City College this year, that was my immediate thought when I learned about the school's Artist-in-Residence program. As I've gathered bits of campus lore over the course of my first months here, I've begun to realize that there are other benefits to this program as well, less obvious but arguably even more profound.
The concept of "famous artist" looms large in American culture despite the fact that fine art isn't much of a presence in the day-to-day experience of most Americans. In the absence of familiarity with specific, living, art practitioners, a romantic notion about artists often prevails. This fantasy artist is usually portrayed as an exotic figure: brilliant and ahead-of-their-time, but also strange, remote and emotionally tortured, on the model of Vincent van Gogh.
While an abstract notion of artistic genius retains a certain glamour in the public imagination, another popular belief holds that the whole enterprise of fine art today is best viewed with deep suspicion. The "art world," in this account, is a realm of con artists who bilk snooty rich fools out of enormous sums in return for gewgaws that offend common sense: all-white canvases, nonfunctional toilet fixtures, dead sharks floating in formaldehyde.
Both of these popular myths about art are far removed from the reality of most of the people who actually produce or work with contemporary art. Indeed, the myths promote detachment from art and artists: their common subtext is "keep your distance."
This brings us to one of the central dilemmas that faces teachers of art. Ask anybody who teaches a college-level art course in the United States about the gulf that separates the discourse of visual art from the cultural experience of most incoming undergraduates. You will likely be regaled with anecdotes and descriptions of the professor's strategies for bridging the divide between his or her students and the cultural and intellectual life that the students may not be able to recognize as an authentic part of the world they inhabit. It's not that students lack interest in culture - any group of students is likely to include a few with an active investment in pop music, video games, TV shows or comics. But, unless we're talking about a specialized art school, the percentage of students who arrive at college with a significant degree of sympathy for "fine" visual art is small. For many Americans, it seems, the principal channels within which the visual arts operate - art museums, big-city galleries, international art fairs, exhibition catalogues, trade magazines and critical journals - add up to a distant and faintly threatening alien entity with little relevance to their lives.
While preparing a gallery exhibition that included most of the original works depicted in this catalogue, I heard many of my faculty colleagues reflect upon the artists' residencies of years past. Most of what I heard conveyed a palpable sense of pride attached to this program, and great admiration for the visiting artists and the administrators, staff, faculty members and benefactors who made the program possible. But their comments were not all admiring. They ran the gamut: while one colleague touchingly described Wayne Thiebaud as "my hero," another diagnosed one of the artists-in-residence as "mentally ill." I heard approving descriptions of the way photographer William Wegman costumed and posed PCC students just as he did his famous Weimaraners, to the delight of all concerned. I heard about another resident artist who seemed more interested in pitching a movie project to Hollywood producers than spending time on campus. The stories came from all angles: one artist joined a student's family at home to watch the AcademyAwards on TV; a school administrator was "freaked out" by a donated art work; one particular artist-in-residence earned a reputation as a cranky non-stop complainer.
The fact that quotidian anecdotes and occasional sour notes are mixed with the expected huzzahs got me thinking that something extraordinary is going on with the Artist-in-Residence program; these artists have an impact far beyond that of a typical visiting speaker at a college. The extended on-campus stay allows students, staff and virtually everyone at PCC to actually get to know the artists. Of course the permanent faculty at PCC includes several artists with formidable professional reputations, and the college community gets to know them. But it isn't the same. I think the faculty members' regular presence in the classroom makes it easy for students to assimilate those artists into the familiar category of "teacher," which allows the concept of "artist" to remain exotic. With the Artist-in-Residence program, prominent artists arrive for a brief, intense week on campus, and the possibility exists that those in the vicinity will experience a shift in their perception of the status of a famous artist, from an otherworldly star to an earthbound human, with the usual range of human desires, virtues and foibles. Along with that shift comes the realization that art is a certain kind of work performed in our shared culture. It follows that one's ability to directly participate in the discussions that surround art, even to pursue art professionally, begins to appear as an available option in a way that it never will so long as one perceives art and artists as alien and esoteric.
My discussions with PCC students have tended to reinforce this train of thought. For the currently enrolled students, who haven't been here long, the history of the program is mostly confined to the artists in residence from the past two years - Syd Mead and Alison Saar. Both artists were universally judged to be "cool," as far as I can tell, and students often bring up their names in conversation. But, tellingly, when the names come up, it's not usually because of an urge to quote some witty observation these artists made or to relate a trick-of-the-trade they revealed. It seems enough just to be able to speak of "Alison" and "Syd" on a first-name basis.
As you peruse the collection of art works and the impressive résumés documented in this book, I hope you'll also give a thought to an invisible aspect of the legacy of the PCC Artist-in-Residence program. That will require some effort of imagination, as the legacy I'm thinking of largely consists of ephemeral interactions and undocumentable thoughts and feelings - little moments of "I didn't know you could do that" or "I never thought of it that way," and the myriad ways in which those moments continue to play out in the life of the college and the lives of our students.