Portrait of Dean of Fine Arts Allison Smith.

Photo by Nicholas Lea Bruno/CCA

Learning through question and critique: Interview with Allison Smith

Our dean of Fine Arts discusses the value of an arts education in today’s product-driven and politically tense world.

Art connects students to a supercharged dialogue

Headshot of Allison Smith

Dean of Fine Arts Allison Smith.

Allison Smith stepped into her role as dean of Fine Arts at CCA in August 2018 after her most recent appointment as an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. That role followed nine years at CCA, where she served as chair of the Sculpture program and deepened her CCA knowledge base as a member of the executive committee, the academic planning steering committee, and the faculty campus planning committee.

Smith has exhibited extensively, nationally and internationally, in both solo and group shows. Her work has appeared in group exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Palais de Tokyo, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, MASS MoCA, and The Tang Museum. She’s also produced solo exhibitions, installations, artist-led participatory projects, and performances for a wide array of venues including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Public Art Fund, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, S!GNAL Center for Contemporary Art, and The Arts Club of Chicago, among many others.

In her practice, Smith examines the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment and the performative role of craft in the construction of identity. She’s especially interested in under-told histories and under-represented identities and the way their absence or highlighting can shift a mainstream understanding of the historical narrative.

We sat down with her to talk about her own path to the arts and the value of an arts education in the 21st century.

Do you remember when you realized that you were going to be an artist and pursue it professionally?

I do. I’m one of those kids who knew they wanted to be an artist from a very early age. I think when I was about five or six years old, I had to complete a little worksheet at school about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wrote “a nurse or an artist.” Other options included a flower seller, a masseuse, or a detective with the FBI. To me, those other things actually have a lot in common with art. I think I’ve always been driven by a sense of service, a desire to connect with others, and a deep curiosity about what motivates people emotionally and psychologically. And the motto we’ve had at CCA, “make art that matters,” has always resonated with me.

“Art can provide a refuge. Art can offer an escape. Art can capture the times we’re living in for the benefit of future generations, or propose a different model of living altogether. There are so many different ways to respond to the world creatively, and all of them are valid and needed.”

— Allison Smith

CCA Dean of Fine Arts

Allison Smith, Cheater Cloth, 2010. Archival pigment print on linen. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Allison Smith, Cheater Cloth, 2010. Archival pigment print on linen. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Was going into the arts something your family embraced from the start?

There are artists and craftspeople in my family and throughout my ancestral lineages. When I expressed at age 12 that I wanted to go to New York to be an artist, one of my aunts said, “Well then you should go to Parsons. It’s the best!” And so I set my focus on that and didn’t really apply to a lot of other schools. I ended up getting in, early admission, with some scholarships. In my public high school, I had a wonderful art teacher named Sandi Hammonds who changed my life because she offered me this amazing path forward. She was really tough and helped me gain the confidence I needed to go for it as an artist.

Although they are both creative individuals, my parents were not supportive of me wanting to be an artist at first. They thought I had the capacity to become a brain surgeon and they were very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living from art. They felt that sending me to art school in New York was essentially like throwing me to the wolves. But that just motivated me to prove them wrong and made me want to do it even more. Now, I think they understand that I made the right decision.

Allison Smith, Untitled (Pitcher Collection series), 2010. Collage on handmade 100% cotton recycled paper, 18.75 x 12.5" each. Photo by Monique Deschaines.

Allison Smith, Untitled, from the series Pitcher Collection, 2010. Collage on handmade 100% cotton recycled paper, 18.75 x 12.5" each. Photo by Monique Deschaines.

From your perspective as a former art school student and now a dean, can you talk about the broader value of an arts education and, particularly, one embedded within a liberal arts education?

In going into art school, I think it really does start with the individual. So whether or not you have a very sophisticated or nuanced understanding of contemporary art and theory, the histories and depth and the diversity of ideas within all of that, you probably do understand the concept of art as self expression: Be yourself. Express yourself.

For any student going to college in any field of study, that’s a huge part of what you’re doing. You’re asking yourself questions like: Who am I? Where do I come from? What is unique about me? Do I have anything to say? Who am I to contribute? And especially if you love art—and you give it the respect of a true fan—you’ll have those concerns and then some. Studying art in a liberal arts setting is ideal, because it allows you to expand your thinking into a variety of fields that can challenge and nourish your mind and provide content and context for your artwork. For example, as an art student I studied psychology, which helped ground me in a sense of my own identity and background.

Allison Smith, Stockpile, 2011. Unfinished wood and mixed media, 12 x 18 x 18'. Photo by Phocasso/J.W. White.

Allison Smith, Stockpile, 2011. Unfinished wood and mixed media, 12 x 18 x 18'. Photo by Phocasso/J.W. White.

Art itself is such an amazing lens on the whole world. It’s through looking at art and artists that I’ve learned about religion, spirituality, and different cultures, different viewpoints, identities and politics, history, and so much more. There are many things that art can teach you in a way that’s really open-ended. In fact it’s often more about the questions than the answers.

In art school we can ask really hard questions. Part of artistic research is to ask the questions people aren’t asking and to make the connections between disciplines that haven’t been made, leading to even more difficult or complex questions. Art is a really great place for holding ambiguity and a great place for contradiction. It’s a great place for living in the discomfort of contradiction and for dreaming into new possibilities. It’s a great place for those thorny questions that cannot be resolved in other ways. It’s not something that always has a measurable outcome, and to me, that’s really valuable.

To me, art schools are vitally important places in our culture that can hold space for questions and critique, and we do that while grappling with materiality and process, through both traditional and leading-edge ways of physical making and doing. That kind of education is valuable for any person. Regardless of what you do with your degree, regardless of where you take it, I believe the questions you encounter and engage at CCA resonate throughout all sectors of life.

“It’s incredibly powerful when you have people coming together. … I think that’s a huge part of the value of art school and why it’s a good investment of time and resources. Because that kind of experience is really hard to find, and the connections you make last well after you graduate.”

— Dean of Fine Arts Allison Smith

Allison Smith, Armory, 2005. Photo by Allison Smith.

Allison Smith, Armory, 2005. Photo by Allison Smith.

The educational experience you’re describing is one that thrives through a deliberate on-site community, one bringing together a diverse group of people with different perspectives and experiences. It’s not a vacuum; the seeking and questioning is happening in real time, with other people.

I think that’s another great argument for art school because it is a huge connective community with a million tentacles. Most people drawn to art school want to be around more artists and more creative types who are living their lives centered around art. Through art, the whole world opens up to you, and there are a million different things that you can do. It’s infinite.

We’re living in an age where you can learn a lot online. You can learn a lot in community college and at technical schools. But what you really get at art school is that dynamic supercharged level of dialogue, with everybody present and connecting in real time and space. It’s incredibly powerful when you have people coming together, whether for physical making, group critiques, or debates about readings, exhibitions, and current events. And unlike remote learning, you have the chance to meet your favorite living artists, face to face.

I think that’s a huge part of the value of art school and why it’s a good investment of time and resources. Because that kind of intellectual and group bonding experience is really hard to find, and the connections you make last well after you graduate. People form crit groups, collectives, communities, and movements. Good people skills are survival skills for artists.

You’ve talked about the value of taking on hard questions in art school and about figuring out who you really are as an individual, unearthing your voice. Let’s take on critique and dialogue. They’re such key parts of an arts education.

Our main teaching tool through critique is dialogue. In art school you realize quite quickly that it’s really not enough to be your fabulous self. There have to be ways that your work resonates for other people. And that’s at the core of any opportunity you might have as an artist. How does my mission as an individual artist align with the mission and interests of, for example, a museum curator, an award or graduate admissions committee, a granting agency, or a residency opportunity? Their mission might be very specific, or it might be open-ended. But you won’t get anywhere unless your mission aligns with their mission.

You can be an artist and live in a stone cottage in the woods and make art, and that’s totally fine, too. But if you want to be a part of the larger conversation, what you’re doing has to resonate with a lot of other people, ideally with a broad spectrum of people. So it starts to happen by necessity that you begin articulating what it is about your position that is a contribution. How am I advancing the field—not just not fitting into it, but actually pushing it forward in different ways? What am I seeing about the field that’s missing—something I can expand on or add to, whether through my presence in it, or through ideas I have, or through connections I’m making that people haven’t made before? That’s where innovation comes in, essentially moving you from the “me” to the “we.”

And I think art school really teaches you that, because we’re constantly faced with this dilemma of making something and putting it out there and then realizing that some other person did it already or has done something similar. What do you have to say to that person? You’re in this constant conversation not only with people in your class and at your school, but with the larger art world and with history too. Artists from the past. Living artists. It’s a call and response.

“In art school we can ask really hard questions. Art is a really great place for holding ambiguity and a great place for contradiction.”

— Dean of Fine Arts Allison Smith

A teacher laughing with two students while they look at a glass object.

Speaking of conversations, this is a highly charged time politically. How are CCA students responding to the current climate? Is it a good time to make art?

Absolutely. I mean, in a way, even though it’s such a hard time to be alive, I feel like the students are really lucky to be in art school right now because this is what we do really well. We take it on. We talk about it. We figure out our humble ways of addressing the problem or expressing our feelings or capturing the moment. I think it’s a super exciting time to be in art school because that’s pretty much your job: to just take it on. To explore yourself, develop your skills, find your voice, and to figure out ways that you can become a creative citizen in the most ambitious sense. We help you gain the vocabulary, the technical skills, and the clarity and confidence to make an impact through your art.

When someone looks at a work of art, you don’t know what they’re thinking. You don’t know how it might motivate them to set priorities or make changes in their lives. But the impact it has is immeasurable. Art can provide a refuge. Art can offer an escape. Art can capture the times we’re living in for the benefit of future generations, or propose a different model of living altogether. There are so many different ways to respond to the world creatively, and all of them are valid and needed.

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