On Tuesday morning, a group of local college students staged a sit-in of sorts. At 10:30, about 15 twenty-somethings calmly occupied the room where David Hinton was scheduled to teach his "Art, Politics and Society" class. The goal wasn't to force racial integration or end the war but to get some answers from Hinton, dean of Watkins College of Art and Design, about why one of their favorite professors won't be coming back next year.
That man is Terry Glispin, a sculptor who has served as chair of the fledgling college's fine arts department for the past five years. The 36-year-old is popular with students, respected by colleagues and a crucial contributor in Nashville art circles, in large part because he's been a productive liaison between Watkins and the city's art spaces. But late last fall, Hinton quietly told Glispin that his contract wouldn't be renewed because the direction of the department needed to change. After the spring 2005 semester, Glispin would be gone.
Watkins students and professors learned of Glispin's involuntary departure as word spread around the 300-student college. The fired professor wasn't talking to many people about it, and when students inquired in January, Hinton said that reports of Glispin's termination were only rumors. In private, though, the dean had already signed an initial contract with Glispin's replacement.
Meanwhile, frustrated students and faculty have whispered conspiracy theories and organized clandestine meetings to discuss what to do about the situation. They complain that the college's administration has been less than forthcoming about its dealings with Glispinwhich are admittedly sensitive because they involve private personnel matters. Meanwhile, a steady stream of students and faculty has raised the issue with administrators, and on Tuesday, Hinton stopped class to answer some of their questions.
But Terry Glispin's termination is about much more than messy personnel issues at a local college, because it's set against the backdrop of a controversial work of video art that garnered Watkins unwanted national attention last October. The renascent school's attempts to define itself as a serious institute of art and design are at stake, as is Nashville's willingness to tolerate, engage and support provocative and challenging art. Whatever ultimately happens to Watkins' fine arts program will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the city's art community. News of Glispin's impending departure already has.
It all started last October, when Elvan Penny and Scott Phelps entered Fearful Symmetry in the Brownlee O. Currey Student Art Exhibition. The video art piece juxtaposed video clips from hostage situations in Iraq with audio snippets from television and radio ads. It ended with essentially unaltered footage of the beheading of American engineer Eugene "Jack" Armstrong. It was gruesome, repulsive and hard to watch. And along with Penny's photo of a man masturbating, it generated such public controversy that Watkins president Jim Brooks decided to remove the video art from the show and sequester the photograph in a nonpublic room.
Glispin, along with other Watkins professors, advised Penny and Phelps as they put Fearful Symmetry together and dealt with the public reaction to their work. As chair of the fine arts department, Glispin also selected the three-member community jury that awarded the piece first prize in the show. The negative, sensational attention that show garnered put a bull's-eye on his back, he says. "Apparently important members of our board were very upset about that whole situation," Glispin says. "David [Hinton] told me that board members said if there was another controversy like that, some people would lose their jobs. He also made it clear that it wouldn't be him or the president."
Hinton didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. Brooks, however, says the board put no pressure on him or anyone else at the institution regarding personnel issues. "We've had no one say that my job or anyone else's was in jeopardy as a result of that show," he says.
Glispin says he asked specifically whether his advisory work with Penny and Phelps was putting his job in jeopardy and he was told that it wasn't. Then, just before Thanksgiving, he says Hinton told him the direction of the fine arts department needed to change. He said it was "too conceptual, too cutting-edge, too avant-garde," Glispin remembers. A week later, Hinton told him his contract would not be renewed and that the school would replace him.
In the wake of the Fearful Symmetry controversy, administrators, acting at the board's behest, are instituting a new policy for art shows and gallery exhibits that some students and professors alike have taken to calling the "censorship policy." It creates a small committee to oversee the Watkins gallery and to select jurors for student showsa responsibility formerly given to the fine arts department chairalthough graphic design and interior design jurors are still selected by their respective department heads. Moreover, the policy authorizes the president to "determine the appropriateness of works for the College and the greater community" and ends with a vaguely Orwellian dictum: "In all cases, inclusion does not constitute an endorsement of the work by the College nor does exclusion constitute an act of censorship."
Brooks, in a lengthy interview with the Scene, says he recognizes that the policy treats the fine arts department differently than the others, and he says that might change when the board reviews the draft policy next month. Furthermore, he says he doesn't want to be put in the position of being an "art cop," which he maintains is the proposed rule's effect. "You know, college presidents are the last people who should be making those decisions," he says. (And a quick check of other art schools' policies suggests he may have a point.) But while Brooks clearly seems to disagree with the policy, he's not stepping in to change things.
Finally, in the aftermath of the Fearful Symmetry controversy, Hinton oversaw the rewriting of the school's one-sentence mission statement; it now includes malleable language about "the values of service and responsibility to society."
It is precisely the values of Watkins' fine arts departmentand a sizeable chunk of Nashville's art communitythat are at stake in the current struggle, which has caused anguish among students and professors at the school as well as among other Nashville artists. Under Glispin's stewardship, the fine arts department has developed what's loosely known as a conceptual pedagogy, one in which the development and expression of ideas are particularly valued in the teaching processas opposed to focusing exclusively on technical skills.
This comes as the department has consciously moved away from its former incarnation as a dilettante day school where upper-class ladies learned to paint in their spare time. "It's great that you can draw, but what the hell are you drawing, and why?" says Iwonka Waskowski, a five-year Watkins student, of the department's apparent guiding philosophy. "The program steers people into thinking about what they're working on, not just being great craftspeople."
But by several accounts, Hinton has said some members of the local art communityand one outside accreditor in particularfeel the technical quality of Watkins' fine arts students' work is sub-par. It's a hard assertion to support. "I really feel the program is on the right track," says Terri Smith, associate curator at the Cheekwood Museum of Art and a juror for last fall's controversial student art show. Smith is putting together a video art show consisting of work from emerging artists, including those from some of the premier schools in the nation. "The best work coming out of Watkins students is as good as much of what I'm seeing from leading national schools like Rhode Island School of Design or the School of Visual Arts," she says. Several other observers of Nashville's art scene seem to agree.
In any case, Glispin says he wasn't made aware of any criticism that the work of his students was technically lacking. "None of that was written in any kind of report, and none of that was communicated to me until two years after [the accreditor] was here," he says.
Furthermore, says a Watkins professor contacted by the Scene, "[The fine arts] program is only 4 years old; it seems to me premature to say it's going in one direction or another. I don't think there's been time to determine that yet."
Glispin's supporters point to his track record with students and with the community, noting that he's largely responsible for building Watkins' new fine arts program and cementing its connections with the local art scene. "Terry has been instrumental in getting involved with the community," says the professor, citing the "mutual trust and respect" Glispin shares with his students. "He's an excellent teacher, and you don't discard people who are able to reach out to students in the way that he has."
He's also incorporated hands-on community experience into the Watkins curriculum. "He's really pushed the students beyond just doing the work but toward being a part of the community," says Waskowski. Jason Driskill, a Watkins senior, adds that Glispin encourages students to find venues in which to show their work. "It was when I started showing my work outside of school that everything shifted into place," he says. "Terry's zeal made a lot of sense. I like to think that it's contagious, and I caught a little of it."
Meanwhile, Nashville art watchers have noticed the impact of Watkins College students and faculty outside the college's doors. Quarterly "Secret Shows," exhibitions at Ruby Green gallery, the Untitled show at East Nashville's Plowhaus, work with the Fugitive Art Center, a show at Cannery Row and the former Rule of Thirds galleryall have strong connections to Watkins College students and faculty, and some are organized entirely by them. Watkins students are an increasing presence on the art scene, adding noticeably to the "attendance and diversity at openings" at places like Cheekwood, according to Smith, the museum's curator.
Glispin, with a philosophy of artistic engagement and hands-on experience, has had a direct or indirect role in bringing all these shows to life. "The practice of publicly showing my work and opening myself up for a certain degree of accountability for my work has been deeply valuable for me," says Driskill, who worries that his senior show could fall victim to the school's new "censorship policy." "As an artist, I have to take responsibility for the things that I say and the people I say them to. That's the kind of thing that the shows have taught me. It's the kind of thing that you can't teach in a classroom; you just have to learn it by doing it."
Students, teachers and local art observers alike say that Watkins' increasing presence in the local art world serves its students well but also enriches the city's visual arts scene. "Terry's link to Nashville's art community is vital to the school. It's also vital to Nashville's art community," Driskill says. "And I feel that the school should acknowledge what Terry has brought to it through his local involvement."
People in the local art community concur. "Obviously, Terry's got his hands in several different things, so whether it's Untitled or Fugitive, it seems like he's on top of what's going on in this town and influences many folks," says Jerry Dale McFadden, proprietor of downtown's TAG art gallery. "I think most young artists are going to explore all avenues of what it is that makes them want to create. So that will go onit's just too bad that they won't have somebody like Terry championing them on to whatever things they aspire to do. He's a person who helps people believe in themselves."
Interestingly, Watkins president Jim Brooks doesn't dispute any of that. "I can tell you that Terry Glispin is a very fine person, a great teacher and a wonderful artist," he says. "He's a central figure in the local arts community, and I have the highest regard for him." Brooks goes on to celebrate Glispin's leadership role in energizing the local arts community and connecting Watkins with it in meaningful ways. "I greatly appreciate and value that and would hate to see Watkins alienated from the local art community, or to lose whatever influence we might have in developing the community," he says.
So why fire him? Although Brooks wouldn't comment specifically on "any kind of changes that might be going on here," he refers obliquely to "pedagogical differences" between Hinton and Glispin and "discussions about the quality of student work," although Brooks is quick to point out that he's not an expert in visual arts criticism. He does, however, stand by Hinton's decisions, saying that the dean "has to make the toughest decisions at the institution," but "his heart is right."
Some suggest Hinton's decision is the result of an irreconcilable personality conflict, and no one claims Glispin was the world's best administrator. Set against the backdrop of a board of trustees uneasy about the school's reputationafter all, it's doubtful Brownlee O. Currey thought his name would be associated with a beheading video when he lent it to the student art exhibitionGlispin's sacrificial departure makes more sense.
The school isn't in financial crisis, but recent tax records suggest it has a long way to go before it could consider itself insulated from shocks caused by donor unease. The programs primarily run on student fees (about $10,000 per full-time student per year) and gifts from benefactors. What's more, Watkins is embarking upon an ambitious new plan to build student living spaces at its new Fountain Square home. Forget the local art community; now would be a bad time to alienate the deep-pocketed.
Of course, charity dependence also means accepting the tastes of those who hold the purse strings. That's not to say that the school's board consists only of people with conservative tastes, but it is to suggest that in Nashville, a small, genteel Southern city, it would be quite a challenge to scare up enough money among the young and progressive to support an entire art school.
Brooks says only one donor complained about the Fearful Symmetry controversy, and that it died within a week. He does, however, recognize that Watkins hasn't yet cultivated enough of an alumni base to meet its needs.
Students worry aloud about Watkins' leadership under Brooks if he continues to give Hinton free reign over the school's academic program. They say that Brooks' familiarity with curriculum and instruction is limited to what Hinton tells him. While the president may be good-natured and respectful of his surrogate's authority, several students say he seems passive and unwilling or unable to supervise Hinton appropriately. "I told Dean Hinton there would be hell to pay for this decision [to fire Glispin]," students recall Brooks saying during a Friday morning meeting. Though he seems to care about students' concerns, Brooks has done nothing so far to ameliorate them.
Watkins professors also cite chronic understaffing and a lack of job security as key factors in Glispin's termination. The fine arts department, in particular, runs on a skeletal crew of four full-time professors and about 15 adjuncts; if Glispinwho is by all accounts a great teacherisn't an effective administrator (after all these years), there's suddenly no room for him anywhere else on the faculty once a new department chair is hired. By outsourcing so much of the teaching work and educating on the cheap, Watkins has painted itself into an inflexible corner.
Brooks says staffing levels are a key factor in "recent developments" at the school. "Let me say this," he says knowingly. "If we were able to hire a few more full-time faculty, you and I would not be having this discussion right now," plainly implying that Glispin would still have a job. He says Watkins will soon seek accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and that, unfortunately, SACS' requirements mean any new positions "are not likely to be in fine arts."
Accreditation, then, is more important to school administrators than retaining highly regarded faculty members. But will prospective students feel the same way?
The professors who spoke to the Scene say Glispin's firing sends a chilling signal to other teachers. Since there's no tenure system at the school, there's no protection from arbitrary termination. "If Hinton decides that he doesn't like the direction of your work, you're gone," says one professor. At Watkins, academic freedom may exist in name onlya point Brooks recognizes and laments. "In the coming years, I expect us to either expand our length of contracts or for the board to entertain the idea of tenure," he says.
Students and professors alike see the current situation as a harbinger of things to come for the emerging fine arts program. For many, it's a question of institutional values and leadership. "The situation around Scott and Elvan's piece was going to make us or break us as a school," Waskowski says. "OK, if we're really an art school, what are we really about and what do we really support here? Watkins is really changing, and it seems to me that [administrators] really don't know how to handle that."
For his part, Brooks agrees that the school is changing and says it means making tough decisionsbut he insists the school isn't shying away from risk. "For several years and for several years to come, we are at a crossroads," he says. "We are indeed in a period of great significance for the future of the institution. And we are not taking the safest course."
But are they taking the smartest course? "They really had a chance to step up and make national positive attention for themselves," says Erin Hewgley, who works in the school's fine arts department. "They could say, 'Look, this is a school that stands up for its students' freedom of expression.' Who wants to go to a school that refuses to stand up for its students and censors their work?"
And who will want to teach there either? Two professors separately described a spirit of common endeavor that existed at Watkins for the past few years, one that motivated them to work long hours for little pay. "We all felt like we were part of building something that was important, something that would have an impact," one says. "We thought that we were building something good," says the other, in fearful symmetry. "We don't have that team feeling anymore."
To hear Terry Glispin tell it, Nashville's art scene is unique. "It's really an amazing art community," he says. "It may not be as exciting or sophisticated as other cities', but it really is a community." That solidarity explains the outrage his fellow artists feel toward Watkins administrators at the moment. What remains to be seen is how the school's fine arts programnot to mention Nashville's vibrant young art communitywill handle an important member's loss.
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