Cornered: Smfa At Tufts Dean Nancy Bauer

Dean Nancy Bauer of the SMFA at Tufts (photograph by Laura Shabott).

by Laura Shabott

I walk into the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts on the day of its alumni reception for the annual SMFA Art Sale fundraiser. The energy in the school is palpable; this is one of the busiest days of the year for the 147-year-old institution. I am greeted warmly by Clare Saunders, assistant to the dean. There are racks and walls filled with art as we climb the stairs to the administrative offices. As an alumna of the SMFA (diploma 1995), I can sense the change in the very fiber of the school; it is welcoming and cared for, the result of a merger with Tufts University in 2016 with Dr. Nancy Bauer as dean.

That she took the time for me on this particular day was a testament to her dedication to artists. Bauer glows from accomplishing more than most: dean, academic dean, Ph.D. in philosophy, teacher, author, wife and mother. Her sense of style is artfully chic. She is wearing one of her hand-knitted scarves that I now covet; knitting is a medium of meditation and creativity for her.

LAURA SHABOTT: What drew you to become the Dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts?

DEAN NANCY BAUER: In 2012, I became dean of academic affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, where I had been a professor of philosophy since 1999. One of my duties was to oversee the SMFA’s Visual and Critical Studies department, which was run by Tufts faculty members. May of 2015, I had completed my three-year service as dean and had a month to go on my contract. Then, we got a call from the museum (MFA); they said they had decided to find a local university to incorporate the SMFA and asked us to give them a proposal in three weeks of what we would do with the school.

My point of view was that the SMFA’s educational model was ahead of its time. The school is all about thinking, researching and changing the world through the artist’s singular practice. We have no majors, no required studio classes, no grades. Each student finds a path to their own artistic practice through close mentoring. Since the late 1960s, the main vehicle for measuring student progress has been the review board at the end of each semester. I think this way of educating students is unbeatable when it’s done right. And I thought Tufts could support the school by investing in it financially and giving the faculty and students the rest of the university for their playground. There are already dozens of collaborations under way. It’s very exciting for everyone at the university.

Basically, we’re doing a reset. The hallmark of the SMFA — what’s in its DNA, I think — is a commitment to the idea that making art is a mode of thinking and public expression. Like scientists, artists learn through research, experimentation and the frustration of not getting it right. And like philosophers, artists endeavor to induce a Gestalt shift in the way we experience the world.

LS: What was it like to step into the role of dean?
NB: [The faculty and students] have been amazing. They are tireless and have been incredibly generous to let Tufts step in and give it a go.

LS: Are you still doing philosophy?
NB: I’m starting to work on a book on the question of what education ought to be; this is a subject as old as Plato, but I think it remains a vital subject in the 21st century. And this coming spring I will be teaching a class in feminist philosophy. I’m going to set it up so that students can write papers or make art in response to the course readings. If you really believe, as I do, that art can make genuine artists, why not?

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