Teachers and Students Speak Up About XARTS

XARTS — the collection of studio rooms, design labs, and faculty offices located underneath Fromm Hall — has been home to the Department of Art + Architecture since it was founded by Fr. Tom Lucas, S.J., former director of the Thatcher Art Gallery, in 2001. After 12 long years, there are students and faculty calling for improvement, citing lack of space as the most disruptive problem.

USF’s most recent master plan holds a possible solution. This development, which must first be accepted by the City of San Francisco, involves a new academic building for the University’s arts programs, according to planning manager Elizabeth Miles. The proposed building is one of 43 considered projects – nine of which involve new construction, stated Miles. “Specific decisions about which projects will be implemented and their respective timelines have not been made,” she explained. As the plan waits for approval, the department makes its case.

Professor Eric Hongisto, who has been at USF for seven years, revealed a few of the practical dilemmas that come with working in a former parking garage. “The electrical system is skewed. It can be hard to find natural light, and the fire extinguisher isn’t where it needs to be,” he commented, acknowleding the empty cabinet in XARTS 008 where he holds Color Theory and Painting for Non-Majors. Hongisto, who has also taught at universities in Delaware and Montana, rates USF’s studios as some of the worst. “On a 1 to 10 level [scale], theirs are 9s and ours is a 3,” he calculated, attributing the high ranking of other institutions to having more space. “We’re failing our students with our facilities and our inability to compete.”

Professor Jessica Snow joined the fine arts sector in 2009, and agrees with the call for change — if not for herself as a teacher, then at least on behalf of her students. “I personally can’t complain, but it would be nice to have more space simply because art classes are in such high demand, and I’ve often had to turn students away because they couldn’t fit,” she confessed. Snow is currently teaching a drawing class that is over-enrolled, with 16 students. “Does everybody fit? We’ll see,” she contemplated.

With over 200 student majors (including architecture and community design, art history/art management, design, and fine arts), Art + Architecture is the third largest program in the College of Arts and Sciences, as estimated by Marvella Luey, Assistant Dean for Academic and Faculty Services. According to Luey, psychology is the largest department with 382 students, and biology is the second largest with 254.  However, Art + Architecture is the only one without facility renovation in the past decade. Due to its large size and the limited space in XARTS, the art curriculum is often compromised. “We have to change class sizes and teach a lot of our classes at night just to get the curriculum for a 12-credit major,” Hongisto mentioned. “We only have two classrooms for fine arts, two for design, and a few more for architecture — but these are all programs that could be departments in and of themselves.”

Though both professors admitted that facilities have helped make the small space more comfortable, there are classes that have been affected by these limitations, especially painting and sculpture. “We were given a new ventilation system because the air was unsafe, and now it’s better — but still, not as safe as other schools because we can’t use oil paint and we can’t weld metal, and we have to keep our ceramic kilns outside,” Hongisto contended. Moe Alazzeh, a sophomore biology major, is enrolled in Painting for Non-Majors. “Our professor told us on the first day of class that we wouldn’t be able to oil paint because of the ventilation and something to do with the city. I just know we open the door a lot because it can get really hot in here,” he noted. Still, Alazzeh thinks himself lucky for getting into the class: “This class only has 14 spots, and it was very difficult to get into. With all the science classes I’m taking, it’s really relaxing to take painting in comparison to all the memorization.”

Senior politics major Isabella Minoli has been trying to enroll in the popular painting class since her freshman year. She said: “This room definitely works out for someone in a beginning painting class like myself, but at the same time, it’s kinda known between friends that they don’t find the facilities on par with where they should be. They talk about how there is not enough space and how they don’t have any room for storage – which, for me, is not that bad because I’m making a total of five paintings. But if I were doing this for four years, I see how that would be frustrating.”

Throughout his time as program director, Hongisto has seen several pushes for renovation. Alhough there have been small improvements — mainly, the addition of new doors and walls, a ventilation system, and a new sink — the big pushes, he observes, never took off. “We had outside reviewers come in and look at our program’s strengths and weaknesses, and at that point, the outside reviewers talked about how inadequate our spaces are for all of our programs,” recollected Hongisto. “From those documents, we thought we were on the fast track for being considered for new spaces – and this was five years ago.” The Art + Architecture Department made its claim after the initial campaign for construction on Lo Schiavo and renovations on Kalmanovitz were approved, Hongisto attested. “We were hoping that after the humanities, there would be a collaboration for visual and performing arts – and possibly media studies – for a new space on campus. We all made a push to try and create space for the students, but it kind of ends there in terms of what influence we can have.”

There are students who disagree with the need for improvement. Fifth year graphic design major Brian Riley states that he’s had no problems working in XARTS throughout his college career. “I love XARTS,” he said. “The computers are easily accessible and they allow students to use Adobe and other programs, which can be really expensive if you buy them yourself. The studios are always open, and it’s a good environment with tools and tables and plenty of space.” In elaborating, however, Riley exposed a greater issue at hand: “It’s kind of nice being on our own, and this may sound weird, but I like how no one pays attention to our program.”

Hongisto responded: “It’s hard to ignore a department with 300 majors, but you can forget about them because they have classes in this building and in Koret, and you never really see them.” Should the proposed building take flight in the new master plan, the Department of Art + Architecture could be moved to upper campus, providing up to 60,000 to 75,000 gross square feet of space – or lower campus, which would provide around 39,000. In  defense of the one thing the department needs the most, Hongisto offered his recommendation: “Double the amount of space so students aren’t cramped.”

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