Now that RISD’s first cohort of Global Arts and Cultures (GAC) graduate students have earned their MAs, Dean of Liberal Arts Damian White and the team of faculty members who developed the program are celebrating its success. Launched in 2019 during what White describes as “a period of deep crisis and chaos” at RISD and across the US, the one-and-a-half-year GAC program focuses on the urgent challenges posed by the accelerated global movement of bodies, information and commodities; the transformation of labor and social relations into data; and the seemingly perpetual eruption of political and ecological crises. Here White and faculty members Lindsay French, Avishek Ganguly, Leora Maltz-Leca and Ijlal Muzaffar reflect on the program’s conception, why RISD is such a potent landscape for liberal arts master’s students and how the GAC is evolving.
How is the notion of globalism baked into the Global Arts and Cultures program at RISD?
Muzaffar: From the beginning, the program was conceived to have a global outlook founded on questions of decolonization, equity, race, gender and economic division. It’s a complicated terrain that arts have to move in, with real divisions and hierarchies. How can an arts education address that terrain and teach students that their practices and writings can both reflect on reality and make change?
Ganguly: We’re training students to be researchers with a solid, interdisciplinary sense of art and design. And it’s significant that we operate within historical, political and critical frameworks which acknowledge that Providence and Rhode Island have historically been at the center of violent global processes, like the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the transatlantic slave trade.
Why would people choose to earn their MA degrees at RISD, rather than at a research-focused university or liberal arts college?
Maltz-Leca: Most research universities prioritize conceptual theoretical knowledge. What makes this program so special is that on the one hand it’s rigorously theoretical, but it’s also tied to praxis and materiality, which are deeply valued at RISD. That gives students a really practical starting point.
White: Art making and art speaking and art imagining form the core mission of our institution. Virtually everyone who teaches or studies here is obsessed with these questions. And that’s exactly the right vantage point from which to critically view the art world.
Do applicants already have a research question in mind when they apply?
Maltz-Leca: Yes, for the most part. And we work with the students to help them understand how their specific ideas are embedded in the global systems and structures we’re all part of. Once they push beyond the specific, they find themselves bumping up against the same intractable problems, which leads to fruitful dialogue.
French: The students come into this program from very different cultures and think about the globalization of art from their own experience. Elena Kalkova MA 21, for example, looked at the role of queer artists in pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. And Tiange Li MA 21 brought a deep knowledge of Chinese museum practice to the conversation.
Ganguly: And we encourage students to include RISD in their critique as well. For instance, Holly Gaboriault MA 21 focused on acknowledging and activating historical absences in institutional archives and museum collections.
And do these conversations bleed into the rest of RISD, the undergraduate programs in fine arts and design?
White: They really pose interesting questions about art and the global in our institution. Are we furthering this project of the West being the center of modernization and looking at the rest of the world as the past? Or are we struggling to bring into view an acknowledgment of multiple interacting modernities around the world?
Muzaffar: We’re leading the discussion about how to reexamine what have been considered neutral practices of making. These systems have histories and structures of power. We need to examine and rethink them.
So, the GAC program helps to further RISD’s social equity and inclusion goals?
Maltz-Leca: If we want to decolonize RISD, we are going to have to make studio art practice more theoretical and conceptual. This program is very important for modeling that way of thinking.
French: Our job is to encourage theoretically informed self-reflection within the studio practices.
White: And when we use the word theoretical, we don’t mean abstract philosophy. We’re really trying to historicize and render the processes of making political [in order] to open up rich conversations.
What have you learned from the first cohort of students that is helping to shape the program as it moves forward?
Ganguly: New programs are often reactive, and I’m happy to say that we’ve been very responsive to student interests.
White: We were really nervous when we launched this thing. The relationship between Avishek and Ijlal helped to bring the focus of the program together, to define its core. It wasn’t a jolly walk through the woods, but a traumatic experience taking place concurrently with the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans and the massive political protests that followed. Out of that trauma, my colleagues built something really impressive.
Where do GAC graduates go next professionally?
Muzaffar: The first cohort of graduates are pursuing a diverse set of directions. One is going to work for city government in Montreal, another plans to work for an art auction house in China, one is working here in RISD’s Office of Research and another is applying to PhD programs.
Ganguly: We’ve also seen interests in curatorial positions, arts administration, working in archival collections and teaching.
Maltz-Leca: It’s wonderful to mentor students at this stage of their careers. They’re hungry for conversations about their academic work but also about which areas they should move into. Seeing the results of that is amazing!
—interview by Simone Solondz / photos by Holly Gaboriault MA 21