Kaifeng Wu

In 1869 — 100 years before Yale College would open its doors to women — the Yale School of Fine Arts opened its doors on 1071 Chapel St., right across the street from where the Yale School of Art currently resides. Alice and Susan Silliman, the daughters of residential college namesake Benjamin Silliman, were two of the first students in an inaugural class of three.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Yale School of Art has just appointed its first female dean, Marta Kuzma. Kuzma is currently the vice chancellor and rector of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, Sweden, and she will succeed Dean Robert Storr after this academic year.

The School of Art is responding in other ways to calls for diversity and inclusion that have sounded across campus. In the past month, students and faculty have formed a diversity committee, coordinated by Director of Graduate Studies in Painting/Printmaking Anoka Faruqee ’94 MFA ’97. On Feb. 15, the School of Art held a town hall for its entire community to address questions of diversity in both large- and small-group formats.

Diversity committee member Laura Coombs MFA ’17 said the committee plans to address a number of issues, including that of diversifying the faculty. She hopes and believes that in the future students will play a bigger role in bringing diversity into the school.

But today’s efforts, combined with a long history of female art students and the appointment of the School of Art’s first woman dean, pose the question: Has the Yale School of Art been a place of gender parity, and is it now?

A Different Atmosphere

When Director of Graduate Studies in Graphic Design Sheila Levrant de Bretteville MFA ’64 returned to Yale in 1990 as the first female tenured professor at the School of Art, she encountered a vastly different institution from the one she had known in the 1960s. Before de Bretteville accepted the position, she hesitated. She recalled contacting a Yale-affiliated friend to ask about the “condition of Yale at that time.”

“When I was here [for an MFA in the 1960s], it was totally a male undergraduate school. That was a whole different time,” de Bretteville said. “It was a time [when] male privilege was so well installed that one of the faculty grabbed me in the darkroom, and I was told not to say anything to the director because it happened all the time.”

Because of that incident, she started asking her classmates and professors to call her “Ms. Levrant” (her maiden name), as people had done in her undergraduate years at the all-female Barnard College, rather than Sheila. A lot had changed by the time she returned as a professor, but that incident and others continued to color her perception of Yale. De Bretteville said when she returned, it was “wonderful to see women lying out in the grass without any fear that someone was going to jump on them.”

Still, she often felt out of sync with the University’s administration. She recounted an incident during which administrators requested that she reprimand a student for hosting an AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power event, which she herself saw as an appropriate way to honor diverse sexualities. She argued in the student’s defense that “the economy of expression was very out of balance.”

The School of Art, despite reflecting the male power and privilege existing throughout the rest of the University, did consider diversity — beyond gender diversity — as early as 1971, just as women were entering Yale College. This 1971 perspective on diversity is hardly fleshed out or progressive, but the conversation existed even when Yale was still quite homogenous. November 1971 meeting minutes show attempts at an effort to “increase and coordinate resources from which the graduate School of Art may review young talent from minority groups.”

Still, meeting minutes from the same year reveal that some of the faculty hesitated to embrace diversity without any qualifications. Minutes from a March 1971 meeting of School of Art faculty quote then-Dean Howard Weaver as saying, “A diverse faculty requires a diverse student body. But the crucial point is whether the student is willing to work and study, and to exchange ideas with the faculty.”

Implications of a Female Dean

Farah Al-Qasimi ’12 MFA ’17 said that having a woman dean at the School of Art is “wonderful and well overdue,” and that she is excited about Kuzma’s international experience and looks forward to how the program will continue to morph under her leadership. Al-Qasimi also noted that the School of Art is lucky to already have several remarkable female leaders, like de Bretteville, Faruqee and Director of Undergraduate Studies Lisa Kereszi MFA ’00.

Kereszi said she is often unaware of any gender disparity. In the 2014-15 academic year, the tenured faculty consisted half of men and half of women, which reflects a stark shift in gender culture since de Bretteville’s time as a student in the 1960s. Kereszi said she is the first female DUS in some time, and that she actually hadn’t known there had been female directors until she herself took the position.

“Of course, I always knew there was no female dean, but I felt it was just a matter of time — like a female president. It’s obviously too late, but you have to move forward,” Kereszi said. “I have a young daughter, and hopefully when she’s my age, it will be even less of an issue. Maybe by then there will have been a couple of female presidents, and maybe the next thing Yale needs is a female president.”

Faruqee noted that the School of Art has long been committed to educating women, but women remained a minority at the broader University for a long time.

“If you’re a woman, and you don’t see women in power, you may begin to unconsciously pick up on what those cues are telling you,” Faruqee said.

For Kereszi, such a disparity does not seem to be an active consideration in her experiences with the art world. She said she rarely notices the gender imbalance unless someone points it out.

“If you show me the numbers, I will be surprised,” Kereszi said, referring to the lack of gender diversity. “I just kind of choose to put my head down and make my work and go.” Still, she fears the implications of dealers, curators and collectors being predominantly straight white men. Kereszi lauded the Guerrilla Girls campaign of the 1980s, which responded to the lack of representation of women artists in major art museums.

In a digital age, that sort of representation goes far beyond art museums. Next month, the School of Art, along with other art and library organizations on campus, will host an Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. The event’s online description explains that Wikipedia “is free and crowdsources, but depends on the interests of those who contribute.” The edit-a-thon aims to better represent women and women artists by increasing feminist participation in the world’s free encyclopedia.

But even while the art world and online encyclopedia world remain male-dominated, Kereszi noted that the undergraduate program in art is predominantly female. Of the 13 junior art majors, two are male. This year, there are five male senior art majors, which Kereszi said is an unusually high number.

Christopher Paolini ’17, one of the two male junior art majors, said this gender disparity does not stand out to him because many classes have equal gender ratios, even if the students taking them aren’t art majors.

He also noted that many classes “try to be as equal as possible in terms of representation.” Paolini, a graphic design concentrator, has had mostly female professors in the Art Department. He characterized the department as a whole as “incredibly accepting of all genders and ethnicities.”

Gender in a New Light

But even though students and faculty alike are excited about having a woman dean and overall say there is gender parity in the department, their excitement is tempered by the work that remains to be done. These efforts, led by the Diversity Committee, are aiming towards more nuanced understandings of diversity and discrimination.

“If I had to make a generalization about where our culture was in the 1950s versus now, [it] is that any kind of discrimination now takes a more subtle form than it did then,” Faruqee said. “We still have to fight against implicit and unconscious bias, and they’re harder to name and identify and discuss because a lot of that is unintentional.”

As the diversity coordinator, Faruqee wants to ensure that all students feel comfortable speaking up in critiques and classroom discussions. She emphasized the importance of people at the School of Art working on a day-to-day basis toward inclusion.

Isaac Howell MFA ’17 suggested that thinking outside the gender binary by campaigning for all-gender bathrooms, for example, is one day-to-day way to be inclusive. This idea is in line, he said, with the School of Art’s trajectory in thinking about gender.

“Even just thinking outside the traditional binary is something the School of Art is working on, like having pronoun rounds in class,” Howell said, referring to the practice of allowing every student in a class to specify a preferred pronoun. “That way, we can recognize that it’s not just people who identify as men and women who enroll in the School of Art.”

Al-Qasimi explained that the diversity committee is helping to facilitate this work in various ways, such as through education, asking questions and understanding and appreciating the ways in which people are “infinitely complex.”

De Bretteville said she believes Kuzma is coming at an ideal time, when the School of Art is beginning to embrace a larger bandwidth in thinking about sexual and gender identity.

“This is the best moment ever here because there are more people who are sensitive to the diverse places of origin, experiences of people of different backgrounds, including different sexualities, and I think it’s a wonderful time,” de Bretteville said.