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'Art and Civic Dialogue: the Seminar on the Future of Art and Education' launches at VPA

September 08, 2010

Erica Blust
(315) 443-5891

Seminar will be team taught by arts professional David A. Ross ’71 and artist Carrie Mae Weems

Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) has launched “Art and Civic Dialogue: the Seminar on the Future of Art and Education,” a yearlong, enhanced graduate seminar and lecture series that explores the dynamic social relationship between artists and the communities in which they live.

“Art and Civic Dialogue” is team taught by museum director and educator David A. Ross ’71 and artist Carrie Mae Weems. As an initiative of both VPA and SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor, the project reflects the University’s vision of Scholarship in Action and its role as a public good. It also builds on such related University initiatives as Imagining America, the Connective Corridor, the Urban Video Project, the South Side Initiative and the Cultural Diplomacy Symposium.

“Artists around the world are growing to understand the significance of the intersection of art and social engagement,” says Weems. “Syracuse University is uniquely situated in the region and in the nation to advance programming that focuses on this area and become a leader in the field.”

“Within the University, the arts serve as a critically valuable laboratory for the contest of values and ideas,” says Ross. “This seminar and its associated public activities are intended to highlight the existing resources and initiatives already in place and provoke research and discussion regarding the future of these and other similar initiatives.”

Open to graduate students from all disciplines at the University, “Art and Civic Dialogue” considers the role of the artist in society—past, present and future—coupled with the pivotal role of the University in preparing artists, critical thinkers, writers and public intellectuals for engaged citizenship. Students will:

  • explore the multiple meanings of social engagement and community practice nationally and internationally;
  • examine the histories of artistic practice and consider the many forms of contemporary art practice;
  • rethink the role of the artist and society while exploring new and relevant models for the future; and 
  • review the current art and social initiatives at SU and, in this context, produce feasibility studies that consider the possibility of designing and building an institute for the study of the arts and social practice.

The lecture series will feature an exceptional lineup of guests, beginning this fall with renowned theater, opera and festival director Peter Sellars, who will speak on Thursday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. in John D. Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage/VPA Department of Drama theater complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse. The lecture is free and open to the public; tickets are required and will be available beginning Thursday, Sept. 9, at the Schine Box Office in the Hildegarde and J. Myer Schine Student Center.

Upcoming guests will include composer and music producer Philip Miller; director Talvin Wilks; video artist Bill Viola ’73; and actor, playwright and educator Anna Deavere Smith. Details of each lecture, including those open to the public, will be announced beginning this fall.

Ultimately, Ross and Weems hope “Art and Civic Dialogue” will enable a robust conversation through which similar initiatives can connect and flourish. They are already partnering with other units on campus, including the office of Carole Brzozowski, University performing arts presenter; the Coalition of Museum and Art Centers (CMAC); the Humanities Center; and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Weems and Ross are both noted for their commitment to social change. Weems has taught her “Social Studies” course, which explores the relationship between art and community, at SU, Harvard University and Williams College. Ross, who is the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a founding member and current Curatorial Committee chairman of Artists’ Pension Trust, the first investment program dedicated to the needs of emerging and mid-career artists.

“The college is thrilled to have luminaries of the art world like Carrie and David working with our students,” says Kendall Phillips, associate dean of research and graduate studies at VPA. “We’re even more excited that they’ll be tackling the question that is right at the heart of our work, namely, the role of art in contemporary civic culture.”

Ross has been an art museum professional since 1971, when then-Everson Museum Director James Harithas appointed him the world’s first curator of video art. Throughout his career as a curator, museum director and teacher, Ross has remained a prominent activist within the generally conservative institutional art world. Though widely known for supporting such exhibitions as “Black Male” and the still-controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial exhibition during his Whitney tenure, his support of artists concerned with social change, his early and continued support of support of new media and his role fighting the implied suppression of artists’ creative freedom during the so-called “culture wars” has defined Ross’ professional career. He is also an advisory board member of the Goldring Arts Journalism program in the Newhouse School. Learn more about him at

As an artist, Weems has worked toward developing a complex body of art that has employed photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation and video. Her work, which has investigated family relationships, gender roles, the histories of racism, sexism, class and various political systems, includes the large-scale fabric installations “Ritual & Revolution,” commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art; “The Jefferson Suite,” commissioned by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; “The Hampton Project,” commissioned by the Williams College Museum of Art; as well as the multimedia installation “The Louisiana Project,” commissioned by Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Gallery. Learn more at

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