At UCLA, Catherine Opie targets art school student loans


Artist Catherine Opie, professor of photography at UCLA for 20 years, has big ideas for the art department of the university. Among them: Reduce student debt and reduce economic barriers to education.

This is a vision Opie is able to begin to realize: UCLA has appointed its artistic department chair, she announced Tuesday. She enters the role on September 1 succeeding artist Andrea Fraser, who has headed the department since January 2018.

In 2019, UCLA announced Opie as the university’s first endowed chair in the art department, a position secured by a $ 2 million donation from philanthropists Lynda and Stewart Resnick. This role is an undergraduate and graduate teaching position. The Department Head is the primary administrative position, working with faculty and staff to develop the art department’s academic program, goals, and priorities.

Opie’s Commitment to Access to Education for All Students is needed “now more than ever,” said Brett Steele, dean of UCLA’s School of Arts and Architecture.

“As the arts themselves evolve, particularly in this new world we find ourselves in and the focus of last year’s crisis on our need to find ways to support all students, the voice of Cathy is vital, ”he said, referring to the inequalities among students who have been illuminated, in part, by the pandemic.

Opie, 60, is a renowned artist who, for more than four decades, has produced portraits, landscapes and studio photographs, in conceptual and documentary styles, exploring cultural and geographic identities. A new Phaidon monograph was released this month.

She plans to bring her artistic gaze to the evolving art of photography as well as the post-COVID-19 educational landscape – but always with a focus on accessibility to arts education, she said. stated in this edited conversation.

Why is accessibility such an important issue for you now?

We know that one of the biggest problems in our country for young people is education debt. We also know from statistics and extensive research that one of the most difficult areas to tackle in pay equity is the arts. So what is it for us to realize that students shouldn’t leave with an undergraduate degree and [significant debt]. Obviously, people take loans. LA is an increasingly expensive city to live in. There are other needs, basic human needs like food and shelter. We’re having trouble at UCLA with hungry students. Some students sleep in their cars.

These are not just art department issues, but larger academic issues. But the more we can create UCLA as a public institution, especially the arts as a vital part of the city of Los Angeles, that is the goal. Can we come to a place where students are not stretched in order to achieve their dreams and goals through education?

How do you plan to get there?

I would like to contribute at least $ 10 million over the next three years to UCLA to have continued security in the scholarships. And then the more endowed chairs that we can give create a kind of security, physically, in terms of hiring assistants. [faculty]. That’s another great thing – these adjunct professors, often they come and they’re amazing and they teach a course here and there, but they don’t have medical insurance, they don’t have the same kind of access. . So what does this kind of fairness mean right now and how can I, through philanthropy, create a better situation not only for the students but also for the adjunct faculty at UCLA?

What are your other goals for the art department?

I was able to get a gift, through the Resnicks, to staff my position and also to rebuild the darkrooms for the type of professors we have and the importance of our program. So I want to continue working on staffing positions. I want to continue working for scholarships. And I want to keep improving the facilities.

But there is also something, over the last 20 years, that I wanted to tackle: it is the South [hard sciences] and north [social sciences] divide the campus. I really think there’s no reason the UCLA hospital system shouldn’t embrace the arts. Would love to see an undergraduate gallery that has rotating exhibitions in the hospital. I would love to see wellness and art combined as part of a larger program like the one at the Cleveland Clinic and the one Kaiser Permanente is currently undertaking. Obviously, we are here to teach, so continue the reputation of the department [is a goal]. But also, what can we do to create broader conversations about the arts at UCLA?

Are there specific diversity, equity and inclusion issues that you hope to address?

We started a lot of this work last year in terms of committee meetings, and we have a [new] DEI officer. Be off campus last year [while on sabbatical], I have not yet attended these meetings. But I can tell you, just in terms of my teaching over the last 20 years, it’s a very, very diverse program because we’re UCLA and it’s a public institution.

It was not within the faculty, but we have done a tremendous amount to address this issue within the faculty over the past five years. Also, I want to talk to the other professors – I haven’t been president yet – and I want to know what their concerns are. Coming out of a pandemic, there might be other concerns that I am not aware of because I had a year off. I think it’s that kind of community with the rest of the faculty in terms of setting a program for the next five years.

The last year has been particularly difficult in the field of education. What are your post-pandemic concerns for the art department?

What concerns me most is the class of 2020 and not being able to present their thesis as graduate students. It is the culmination of his work in a graduate program, to have a thesis presented. So what can we do about these graduates who don’t necessarily have the same kind of experience to be able to show their work to a public audience.

Has last year’s disruption created any lasting changes in the way art will be taught at UCLA?

I could see keeping some aspects of what we learned from the pandemic. In-person conferences are always best with artists. But if you can get an artist from Europe to jump into Zoom, showcase their work, and chat with the graduate students, I might see that kind of accessibility idea in the program. But we are a real studio art program, we rely on our facilities and studios – students are creators. And again, depending on their origin, accessibility of facilities is everything in the art.

You choose not to pursue another term on the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art due to your new position at UCLA. Why?

I served on the MOCA board for eight years. I really appreciate my relationship with the other directors. Corn [considering] my transparency and governance goals and what I believe, individually, I really think I can’t go to some of these people on the board, if I stay as a director, to ask them to think about UCLA. I don’t think it’s fair for me to be a trustee of an institution that also needs money, while still being a trustee, and asking some members who have UCLA affiliations to give gifts. . I do not think this is a good practice in terms of governance.

What’s the first order of the day, the thing that excites you the most?

The first thing to do is ask what happened in the past year during the pandemic and talk to each faculty member about their dreams and goals for the program. And then recalibrate those in terms of progress.

And philanthropy. In fact, I really enjoy fundraising. I was pretty good at doing this at UCLA. I want to see if somehow we can get corporate sponsorship in terms of equipment needs. This is how we open up culture, we actually support culture. Philanthropy doesn’t always have to come from the super-rich. Philanthropy should be part of all of us, part of citizenship to some extent. One of the things Obama did was show that philanthropy can be $ 2 from someone. And I really believe in it. It is so important that you don’t leave college with a huge debt that doesn’t allow you to move forward.


Kayleen C. Rice

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