I was very saddened to hear about PAFA's recent announcement that they're closing their college at the end of the 2024-25 academic year. I am a 2014 graduate of the PAFA/PENN BFA program and I also have a certificate in painting and drawing from PAFA. The PAFA/PENN program was established in 1929 and it's really a shame that it was ended; in fact, I think they ended it back in 2017. But PAFA also had its own BFA and MFA programs that they're now ending due to "rising costs", "dwindling student enrollment" and some other factors.
I can't even imagine what the current students are going through. And I wonder what is going to happen to the faculty? It must be a very difficult time for everyone there.
I chose to attend PAFA in 2009 because of its history as an art academy and because I've always been interested in representational methods of painting. While I was at PAFA, I noticed an active shift away from the more traditional training towards more unconventional methods. As a result, I felt somewhat isolated when I was a student there. Regardless, there were teachers who encouraged my classical pursuit. And I spent a large amount of time doing research in their library. They had books like Albert Boime's The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century, which I read religiously. That was where I also discovered the work of William Bouguereau (1825 - 1905). Bouguereau was one of my earliest academic influences. For me, the other main attraction was PAFA's cast hall. Oh man, did I love that place; I only regret that I didn't spend even more time in there.
What I liked about PAFA was the Academy and Academic history. To me, PAFA was a place where I could study nature and practice the craft of painting. I didn't go there to create anything avant-garde or conceptual. I was there to learn the nuts and bolts of painting: how to stretch canvas, prime canvas, mix paint, learn anatomy, learn color theory, to draw the figure, and to practice. I also studied the principles of shape, value, color and line. In addition, I also had the opportunity to study sculpture, printmaking, woodworking and other disciplines.
The techniques, materials and methods that I learned at PAFA need to be taught and passed on from generation to generation--otherwise, they will disappear. It helps to read books about it, but it's vital to have someone there who can show you directly. I was fortunate that I had this experience at PAFA, but many of those teachers have subsequently passed away or retired. I became a teacher in 2015 and I am passing forward what was given to me. It's important to note that there is a growing resurgence in this sort of traditional education. Schools like the Florence Academy of Art are still teaching these methods and offering an MA degree.
Now that I'm a little older and I've been teaching for a while, I've realized some things about art education. Most schools put the cart before the horse and have students focus on philosophical ideas and concepts first and foremost. I think this is a terrible approach and deprives students of the necessary tools needed to express individual truths. It's like a writer never learning the grammar and spelling needed for language. Or a musician never learning the scales. Art students should study nature as much as possible and then be taught the methods to visually understand nature. Essentially, how to paint instead of the what or why's of painting.
The common criticism of traditional training is that it prevents or stifles individual expression, but there's plenty of room for creativity and expression within this training. Think of someone like Da Vinci who generated revolutionary inventions from natural phenomena. And most importantly, he had the rigorous training which is necessary to express this creativity.
All-in-all, it's sad that America's oldest art school is closing. There's information available that says they have a "new vision" for the school and that they have a plan, but there are articles out that say the whole thing is a big mess. It's a real shame.
"If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color." - Mary Cassatt