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Elisabeth McLaughlin / Staff Photographer

In a protest letter, visual arts students objected to the continuation of courses online and demanded a tuition refund in lieu of access to resources and facilities.

Carola Dixon, CC ’20, had relied on Columbia’s desktop computers for months to work on her visual arts senior thesis, a film requiring heavy editing that she said her laptop could not handle. However, when the facilities that housed those desktop computers closed, Dixon was unsure how she could complete her film.

Ultimately, she reached out to the visual arts department asking for a computer loan, funding, or departmental guidance. When she received no response, she resorted to purchasing a desktop computer with her own money to complete the thesis, a financial burden she was not prepared for.

Dixon’s story is familiar to many of her fellow visual arts majors. In light of Columbia’s move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, visual arts students can no longer access the campus facilities, equipment, and studios that are essential to their studies.

On March 26, Dixon joined over 80 students in both the undergraduate and master’s visual arts programs to co-sign a letter of protest to heads of the visual arts department as well as to University President Lee Bollinger demanding that studio art classes not continue online.

“We, the undersigned, write this letter in protest of the mandated application of the online learning format to studio art classes during this health crisis,” the petition reads. “Most visual art courses simply cannot transition to remote learning via Zoom, because they require specific facilities and equipment. … If we attend studio art classes remotely via Zoom, we do so in protest.”

Many students anticipate a decline in their creative capacity without the University resources they listed in their letter. The list of lost resources, which spans six pages, includes those located in spaces like the print center and woodshop, and equipment like desktop computers and cameras. In lieu of access to these resources and facilities, the protest letter also demanded a tuition reimbursement.

In a statement to Spectator responding to the letter of protest, School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker emphasized the department’s commitment to students’ needs.

“It scarcely needs to be said that we are consumed by concern for our students’ welfare, including the continued progress of their education,” she wrote. “It is very difficult to see the future right now, or even to predict the fall, but we are fully engaged in the project of developing contingency plans and alternatives to our standard practices that we hope to adopt for the remainder of this semester and into the fall."

For visual arts and anthropology major Renata Del Riego, CC ’20, the loss of these resources entirely restructured her work, which, prior to the switch to remote learning, consisted mostly of sculpture. She cited the woodshop and metal shop as spaces essential to her work, in addition to her studio, an isolated workspace offered by Columbia to visual arts majors. Once Columbia switched exclusively to online learning, students were given just three days to move entirely out of their studios. Del Riego couldn’t bring her bulky sculpture materials with her as she traveled home to San Diego.

“I really couldn’t bring a super heavy concrete block in my carry-on,” she said. “I’m sure all mediums face that challenge of having to restructure and reimagine what the [work] will be, but for people who work with volume, I feel it's particularly challenging because there’s no way I’ll be able to finish that.”

Seniors in the visual arts thesis course are able to apply for $250 in funding to purchase materials for their work as they work from home. But according to Del Riego, students are unsure if they will receive that funding under the new circumstances.

“A lot of the uncertainty for people is, do we still get that money? And if so, that would be great because that means we could work at home,” Del Riego said.

Del Riego said that the current financial uncertainty is a symptom of a larger departmental problem.

“I think visual arts has always been incredibly inaccessible,” she said. “I am pretty much on a full ride at Columbia, so that has been pretty great because studio fees and everything is part of my financial aid package, but even then, buying materials is always so much money that’s just out of pocket. It’s a very expensive major.”

Adjunct assistant visual arts professor Emily Henretta views the challenges of making art during quarantine as an opportunity, suggesting that students’ limitations may inspire them to be more creative.

“As artists, we’re trying to get creative and trying to find ways to teach methods without access to facilities,” Henretta said. “I think in some ways, artists always have that kind of mindset of ‘What do I have in front of me? What can I accomplish with the tools and the materials that I have access to, or that I can afford, or that I know how to use?’”

For non-majors or underclassmen, making do with resources that they have at their disposal might be a reasonable response to an unprecedented crisis. But for senior thesis students like Dixon and Del Riego, the move to distance learning not only affects their coursework; it also threatens to impede their professional prospects.

“As a fine artist, having an exhibition on your résumé is super important,” Dixon said. “A lot of us were planning to invite people in the art world and potential employers and gallerists to come visit, so that's an opportunity we’ve lost.”

In lieu of an in-person thesis show, the visual arts department has opted to curate an online show, as well as a hardbound catalog of students’ work.

While students and faculty haven’t devised an alternative in-person plan, Henretta shares the students’ concern that the online exhibition is not an ideal representation of their work.

“We’re doing the best that we can to try to build another space for the works to live,” Henretta said. “Frankly, I will say this isn’t a choice that we were really making. … I would hold [the exhibition] in my home if I could.”

Instead of attempting to maintain standard methods of teaching and creating art within the limitations of the online format, Del Riego emphasized that the department must work with students to rethink how class time is used.

“Why don’t we just restructure and reimagine the way we use our class time through Zoom, instead of pretending that we’re going to finish the same projects that we would’ve if the world was functioning?” Del Riego said. “Why don’t we use that class time and that energy and those conversations in a way that deals with ‘What does it mean to make right now in light of a crisis and a pandemic?’”

Staff writer Margaret Tilley can be reached at margaret.tilley@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

Visual Arts COVID-19 Protest Tuition Refund Online learning Margaret Tilley School of the Arts
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