Black Mountain College closed in 1957, and when the finances ran out, the faculty were paid in beef allotments from the cows roaming across school property. It makes sense. Founded in 1933, Black Mountain was owned by its faculty, a faculty that taught the classes, tended the school’s farm and did basically everything to keep it up and running. It was a 24-year flash-in-the-pan whose educational effects are still being reckoned with today. Even if you can set aside the revolutionary model of interdisciplinary instruction (which you can’t), you’d still be left with the formidable concept that creativity and play are necessary to the development of intellectual freedom. Sure, that means no grades, but it also favors real-world experience over Scantron tests and recitation.
Depending on your definition of the term, Black Mountain was actually a community college, for the simple fact that it functioned as such. Faculty, staff and students worked together to keep it alive as a means to grow and share their ideas. By comparison, today’s community colleges seem more a reflection of the populations of the tax districts that feed into them, functioning in many respects the way public libraries do: as mirrors of the surrounding community. Or so I thought.
When I received the information about the upcoming Visual Individuals show at Harwood Art Center, which features work by the faculty and students from the art department of Central New Mexico Community College, I paused. Of course, I’ve seen faculty and student shows before, but for some reason I felt the urge to hold this one up to the light. The artists in the show—Jennifer Burkley Vasher, Cristina de los Santos, Larry Bob Phillips, Cheryl Dietz, Lynn Johnson, Danielle Miller and Kris Mills, among others—are all on the list of formidable artists in Albuquerque. The students’ works will be in Harwood’s upstairs galleries.
The art faculty, in particular, has amassed a collective résumé that speaks to their professionalism and seriousness as artists and educators. Lea Anderson, the CNM faculty member who organized the exhibition, lacked any equivocation when she told me that CNM “is a great place to get started in an art-related career, period!” Put blithely, the show has the makings of a group of young upstarts trying to stake out some territory—and rightly so—and it’s obvious that their justification is less about building up those résumés and more about wanting their program to be taken seriously.
When CNM (formerly TVI) began in 1963, its goal was to “provide adults with skills necessary for success in the world of work.” The world of work has changed, to say the least, and CNM has grown to be the largest postsecondary institution in the state of New Mexico, with more than 26,000 enrolled students. Many of those students begin at the college and move on to UNM to complete their bachelor’s degrees.
I’ve never taught at or attended CNM, but I have been through many other university and college art programs. In my experience, at its core, a good school needs to be a community of not only faculty and students, but one that includes staff and administrators. All of those components need to be firing together to keep the engine running. The recent collapse of the College of Santa Fe was a failure of administration, not a failure of pedagogy. So, maybe Visual Individuals also wants to show itself to the CNM administration, saying, “Hey, get us that photography program!”
My sense is that Visual Individuals is a visual argument against the perception of CNM as the weak cousin of the University of New Mexico. Many of the art faculty at CNM have strong connections to UNM, and the presumption could be made that the philosophy of the college might simply be an extension from Loboland, but there are chinks in this thinking. First, the simple inclusion of a professional development course at CNM called Art Career Concerns is grounds for merit. Last I checked, there is not a commensurate course listing at UNM. It seems only responsible for any art program to offer a means to examine future opportunities in this super-shaky field (kudos to Cheryl Dietz for that).
I’m not saying that CNM has got it right. Who knows if they do? But the premise that a faculty could work together on a meaningful model of education is startling in its simplicity. Truth be told, the success they are looking for and the effect they are hoping to have can only be measured over time. One thing’s for certain, though: Long gone are the days when you could imagine a bored mom hanging out in a community art class, smoking cigarettes while her ashtray fires in the kiln. This definitely isn’t that.