A Painting Prof’s full head of STEAM



It would have been easy for the administration at Hofstra University to turn its budget-driven eye toward the single remaining full-time painting line in the department of fine arts, design, and art history and see it as perfect for the chopping block. All that salary, so few majors—why not redirect that money to one of the STEM departments?

But last week, after wavering for four years, the administration gave the go-ahead for my department to advertise for a full-time faculty position in painting for next year. This new hire will replace the only full-time painter we have at the moment—me.

From the moment four years ago when I signed my early-retirement contract—to bow out at the end of the current academic year—I knew the painting line was in peril. Since then, I’ve trotted over to the provost and president almost every semester during their open office hours to argue the case for hiring a new full-time painter. For more than 20 years, I had worked together with my former painting-and-drawing colleague (who retired two years ago, and was not replaced) to build a rigorous program grounded in the tradition of great painting, and infused with the fresh energy of contemporary art. That the university would hand over to harried and stressed painting adjuncts the task of running what would be a captainless painting ship infuriated me. It also started to break my heart.

My argument to the provost and president, however, always went beyond my personal disappointment. Instead, I repeatedly said that eliminating the sole full-time painter would mean that the university no longer had the right to use the words “fine arts” in the department’s title.

Nor did I shy away from arguing the utility of painting and drawing—i.e., that studying painting and drawing teaches acute observation, approaches to resolving the conflict between what we know and what we perceive, and the multifarious ways we ascribe meaning to images. I repeatedly talked about how our members of our relatively small but vibrant group of painting graduates now have jobs in cultural institutions, art-related businesses, digital start-ups, and public education, and how a happy few have careers as painters in the contemporary art world.

The provost and president listened respectfully to my semesterly pitches, asking a few questions, and then offering vague and noncommittal words of hope: “We’d really like to keep a full-time painter, but we don’t know yet,” or “We have to wait another year before we’ll know,” or—directly from the president last spring, “Contact me over the summer. I’ll have a better idea then.” When I contacted him over the summer, his reply came from the provost: The university still hadn’t decided.

I returned to school this fall thinking the battle had been lost. Then a meeting was scheduled for the start of the semester, when the provost, university vice president, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences met with our faculty in an “informational” session about the department’s future. It was something they’d been doing this fall with all the departments. Because I had a painting class to teach at the meeting’s scheduled time, I initially thought I’d skip it. What did it matter what I, a lame duck waddling down the off-ramp, had to say?

But at the start of my class, I decided I needed to attend this meeting and give the matter one last shot. After making sure my students were off to a good start (painting without their professor hovering is sometimes a good thing), I told them to carry on and left. I walked into the meeting 45 minutes late, still wearing my paint-spattered smock, and took a seat near the provost. He looked at me and said, “Laurie, we’ve already discussed painting and everyone agrees it would be good to hire a full-time painter sometime down the road.”

“That may be,” I responded, “but I’ve abandoned my painting class to come here, and I ask only that you let me give my pitch.”

This is the gist of what I said:

See what I’m wearing? My painting smock. It’s to remind you that the fact that we painters push pigments around on a flat surface makes a lot of people think we’re stupid. But the actual fact is that we make culture. Without painting’s philosophical, historical, and visual greatness, all the other arts end up losing any cultural gravitas.

Although I understand the financial pressures we face, we should not give in to the pressure to measure higher education by its utility. Consider the new movement known by the acronym STEAM—where art is correctly understood as integral to the development of 21st-century minds. Check with the biology, engineering, physics, history, and communications majors who have taken drawing and painting courses. They’ll tell you that it’s there they learned the trickiness of observation, and the strangeness of indeterminacy and intuition. And look hard at the good jobs our painting graduates hold five, 10, and 15 years down the road.

Finally, don’t forget the gifted, slightly weird students who often gravitate to painting, and then move into what we call the “creative” class of our society.

So: Take away a full-time painter—even if only for a few years—and our fine-arts department, and the university, will never recover. You will send the message that painting doesn’t measure up to the corporate standards driving the universities these days.

I could see by the startled eyes of those in the room that my passion had gotten the better of me, but I didn’t care. I’d said my piece, “left it all on the field,” as the athletes say.

A few weeks later, right after I learned the university saved the painting position, I wrote an email to the provost thanking him for his role in preserving it.

He replied, “Thanks. I think you did a terrific job educating all of us as to the need for a full-time painter.”

Though it’s nice to think that my little soliloquy tipped the balance, I know that many voices—from the chairman and some of my faculty colleagues, and just maybe the word-of-mouth from a few students—saved the full-time painting position at Hofstra. And in the end, it was the university itself that had the strength of purpose to look at the big picture of its responsibility to the general culture—and saw that painting held a place in it. In short, my university bit the budgetary bullet, and did the right thing. How nice is that?

Author Bio:Laurie Fendrich is a professor of fine arts at Hofstra University.