Yale News

Four years ago, Dean of the School of Art Marta Kuzma broke through the glass ceiling to serve as the school’s first-ever female dean. June 2021 marks the end of her term as dean, after which she will return to teaching full-time as a tenured professor of art.

Kuzma was appointed dean in 2016 and on July 14 announced in a message to the School of Art community that she would not seek reappointment as dean. During her time as dean, Kuzma oversaw the appointment of distinguished professors, the start of collaborations with the School of Management and the formation of the Art and Justice Initiative. Justice and equity have been a theme of her time as dean. Kuzma served as the first female dean in the school’s 150-year history — and the School’s three assistant deans who work with her are all women. Chair of the Dean Search Advisory Committee and Professor of Art Martin Kersels said that the search is ongoing, but the goal is to appoint a new dean during the spring 2021 semester.

“It is always a great step when those historically peripheral to leadership have the opportunity to hold those positions,” Kuzma wrote in an email to the News. “That precedent alone can carry with it future change — or it could incite the reactionary opposite.”

A dean of color: contextualizing the change

In her opinion, Kuzma told the News, the next dean should be a person of color.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement gained international attention this summer, the School of Art has increased efforts to be more inclusive of people of color — both in terms of its faculty and student body. Further, the school faces immense challenges now and in the coming years due to the coronavirus pandemic, unsustainable tuition costs and government policies that hinder international students hoping to study in the U.S., Kuzma said. 

Over the summer, Yale’s administration created a new faculty position to facilitate communication between colleagues and students across all School of Art programs: the Assistant Dean for Planning and Relations, held by School of Art faculty member A.L. Steiner. Part of Steiner’s role, according to the School of Art website, is to help students gain access to materials and research opportunities and to foster conversations in relation to art and social justice.

Steiner has been using her position to attend to difficulties faced by art students of color, according to Nabil Harb ART ’21. Steiner did not respond to the News’ request for comment.

To address inclusion within the school, the School of Art has also established a series of committees comprising both students and faculty members. These committees allow students and faculty to reflect upon how the curriculum should change, including “decolonizing” the curriculum and bringing in artists from diverse backgrounds and experiences, according to Harb.

“I have to say, obviously, it’s not perfect,” Harb said. “But it feels at least as if the channels through which we can talk about things are opening up.”

Kuzma said that the next Dean must be able to respond to the diverse student body that studies at the Yale School of Art.

“Change now requires a wider realm of perspectives so that the School can evolve and grow,” Kuzma wrote. “For this reason, I felt that I should make room for a new leader for the next five years.”

The search for a new dean

The process of choosing a new dean is painstaking. First, University President Peter Salovey appoints a dean search advisory committee and retains a search firm — in this case the national recruiting agency Isaacson, Miller — to work with the committee.

The committee engages in listening sessions with faculty, staff and students at the School of Art. These sessions address goals and challenges for the next dean and gather nominations. The listening sessions, held over Zoom, began roughly a month ago. Committee members also meet with Kuzma, University Provost Scott Strobel, Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Gary Desir and various deans and vice presidents.

After soliciting input, the committee will write up a position description for the role of dean, collect final input from the community and distribute the description. The search will be national and international, Kersels told the News.

The committee will then review the applications, interview the candidates and decide on between three and five prospective deans. The candidates will meet with senior officials and undergo reference checks before Salovey makes the final selection.

Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program Mark Bomford — Kuzma initiated a collaboration between the program and the School of Art — said he hopes the committee finds a person who is committed to bringing critical and creative energies to the School of Art and who can help address many “pressing problems” of today’s society, such as climate change.

“I’m confident that the new relationships and ideas that Dean Kuzma has planted the seeds for, and tended with such vision and diligence as Dean, will continue to flourish after June,” Bomford wrote in an email to the News.

Kuzma as dean: educator and driver of change

After June 2021, Kuzma will continue on as a tenured professor, though she has continued teaching even while serving as dean. Kuzma has been teaching a mandatory course on critical practice for first-year MFA students.

As professor, Kuzma revised the course and gave it the new title of Diving into the Wreck: Re-visiting Critical Practice. The course considers issues that extend beyond studio practice but spill into art, and this year, Kuzma said, the syllabus emphasized themes of racial injustice and inequity. Each year, visiting speakers — who have included Angela Davis — influence the course’s direction.

“It was essential for me to teach during my tenure as Dean so that I may have a direct understanding of the concerns and interests held by our students, rather than to have those merely conveyed through representation,” Kuzma wrote in an email to the News. “My passion lies as an educator who relies on that direct connection with students.”

Additionally, she interacts closely with alumni and faculty, as Kuzma has interviewed several for a book she is writing on the School of Art’s recent history. Many of the alumni she interviewed identify as women or non-binary, and some had been excluded from the school’s primary narratives. Conducting these interviews helped her to better understand the danger of adhering to traditional structures of leadership and governance, she said.

According to Kuzma, the School of Art endowment and the John A. Carrafiell School of Art Dean’s Resource Fund, which supports the Art and Social Justice Initiative, have both grown during her time as dean.

Kuzma told the News that during her time as dean, she has helped develop the areas of communications and technology, strategic planning and academic affairs –– overseen by assistant deans Sarah Stevens-Morling, Taryn Wolf and Steiner –– which allows for a “smoother infrastructural core” for the school. She also said she grew the School of Art as a place for open lectures which are available to the broader community.

She also appointed Presidential Visiting Fellows such as Mickalene Thomas and Steiner, hired former Guggenheim Fellow Aki Sasamoto as an assistant sculpture professor and provided tenure to painting professor Anoka Faruqee and photography professor Gregory Crewdson.

Kuzma also pointed to collaborations between the School of Art and the Yale Prison Initiative at Dwight Hall, as well as a summer school residency in cooperation with the Paul Mellon Centre, Yale’s History of Art department, the Yale Center for British Art and ICA London.

“Dean Kuzma transformed the School of Art into a part-time school of social thought, exposing students to the most powerful critical minds of the time, figures like Angela Davis, Hito Steyerl and Fred Moten,” German professor Paul North, who has collaborated with Kuzma in the past, wrote in an email to the News. “This is an invaluable addition to the spirit of the school and as she moves from shaping the institution to being a vibrant presence within it, I’m sure we can expect more of this vital work.”

The School of Art was founded in 1869.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu 

Annie Radillo | annie.radillo@yale.edu