Printmaking is getting the ax at George Washington University. Its top-of-the-line Foggy Bottom studio, which opened in 1982, is slated for conversion into a digital lab that can support the addition of a "new media" concentration for art majors, according to two art department reorganization plans presented to faculty during the 2003-04 academic year.
The art faculty voted to approve the plans earlier this year. The faculty also recommended eliminating the concentration in graphic design and streamlining programs in ceramics, sculpture, drawing, painting and photography. Printmaking, a cornerstone of traditional fine arts, includes manual techniques such as etching, lithography and woodcut.
Department chairman Jeffrey Anderson declined to discuss the changes, calling it "premature" to address proposals that "have not gone through administrative channels." The GW Hatchet, a student newspaper, reported in April that Anderson intended to implement changes over the next four to five years.
But after the spring semester ended last month, the department's two printmaking instructors, Scip Barnhart and Jenny Freestone -- both part-timers who could not participate in the faculty vote -- learned printmaking's demise was immediate. Freestone has been laid off, and Barnhart has been reassigned to teach drawing at the university's Mount Vernon campus. William Frawley, dean of GW's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, confirms that no printmaking classes will be offered this fall.
Barnhart and Freestone, who said about 40 students have taken their classes each semester in recent years, are not happy with the news.
"I don't debate that digital is coming to the fore," says Barnhart, who also teaches at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and hopes to establish an independent printmaking studio in the wake of GW's actions. "But you cannot throw away the past. Printmaking is a huge part of art. To lose it [at GW] is a shame."
"I don't think it's a sound academic decision," Freestone says. "To be creative, you need tools. The more tools you have, the more creative you can be."
The university enrolled 67 fine arts majors last fall, its Office of Institutional Research reported, but it said it did not have data on the number of students with printmaking concentrations.
At least one art major, senior Marjorie McMahon, says she has a printmaking concentration. She now plans to finish her final credits through an internship at Pyramid Atlantic, a center in Silver Spring that specializes in print, paper and book arts.
"Photography added digital classes without eliminating traditional courses," she says. "Getting rid of printmaking just doesn't seem wise."
Other local art educators and printmakers are working to balance teaching new technology while preserving older media.
At American University, courses in digital techniques have been incorporated into the art curriculum, though traditional methods -- including printmaking -- remain intact.
"Art study is changing a lot," says Luis Silva, incoming chairman of AU's art department, "and traditional arts can become lesser as new media emerge. But digital usually joins and complements the traditional arts. It doesn't have to replace them."
Likewise, at Georgetown University, digital media has been added to the mix of art classes.
Associate professor B.G. Muhn says the printmaking program at Georgetown has shrunk in the past years, but that art majors can still choose a printmaking concentration. He expects the art form to survive regardless of new technologies that arise.
"The printmaking image is so delicate and beautiful," says Muhn, "even if it is a little bit obsolete. It's a gorgeous medium."
It's sad to see George Washington cut its program, he says.
"GW has been doing printmaking very seriously," Muhn says. "It's a huge shop."
Helen Frederick, director of printmaking at George Mason University, says there is "every reason for every printmaking department to continue."
"It's a mistake not to see how important printmaking is," says Frederick, who also serves as executive director of Pyramid Atlantic. "Students need both traditional and new methods."
Susan Goldman, a GMU printmaking instructor, says, "It's a tragic thing for a downtown studio like that to be closed."
She is also organizing the Southern Graphics Council International Conference next year in Washington, an event she expects to draw 1,200 printmakers. Goldman hoped the printmaking studio at George Washington would have been a key conference site.
GW's Frawley, however, is confident that the art department's new direction is a "good one" that leaves it in "better shape" in the context of the university's mission to provide a "high-end" liberal arts education.
"When you major in history, you don't learn everything about history," says Frawley, "or when you major in literature, you don't learn everything about literature."
He adds that it's most important for GW to "compare ourselves to ourself."
"We're not an art school," Frawley says. "We only need to be the best school that GW can be."