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Apr. 3, 2009 

Is political artist Coco Fusco, new chair of fine arts at Parsons the New School for Design, presiding over a purge of its arts faculty? It certainly feels like it to some Parsons art professors. On Mar. 10, between one-third and one-half -- the exact number is in dispute -- of the fine arts faculty at Parsons received letters from Fuscoís office either terminating their teaching assignments for the 2009-2010 term, reassigning them out of the department or sharply cutting their hours.

No immediate explanation was given for the move, with the letters stating opaquely that "appointment decisions are based on multiple factors." The mass cuts led to widespread speculation about a drastic plunge in New School enrollment -- something the administration strenuously denies -- as well as claims of union busting. Adjuncts are covered by a union contract (they are represented by the United Auto Workers), but protection doesnít kick in until after the 11th semester of teaching. Nine of the 14 affected fine arts teachers were unprotected.

Now, the adjuncts are up in arms, with an unprecedented number of union grievances (between six and nine, depending on whom you talk to) already in the pipeline. Most of the fine arts faculty signed a public letter condemning the move, and students have organized a meeting with Fusco next Wednesday to voice their concerns. This new unrest is unwelcome news for a university still recovering from a faculty vote of "no confidence" in president Bob Kerrey last winter, and a recent student occupation that stemmed from concerns over lack of transparency on the part of the administration.

The situation has not been helped by the fragmentary information available about the reassignments and terminations. New School representatives have claimed that the faculty was blowing the issue out of proportion, emphasizing that the institution employs 1,700 adjuncts throughout its various schools, that changes are routine, and that the letters donít preclude affected faculty from teaching in the future "as needed." When asked, however, the New School PR office produced a statement indicating that, far from being minor and routine, the moves are part of "an ambitious academic plan to reshape its [Parsons] fine arts program to better respond to art-making in the 21st century."

This bit of academic boilerplate, in turn, only fans the flames for long-time teachers like Peter Drake, a painter whose hours were cut. "If thatís true and itís so ambitious, why is no one willing to take responsibility for it?" he says. "We havenít been told who is doing this, why they are doing this, or what is going on."

Parsons dean Sven Travis spent much of last week trying to soothe nerves, forming a task force to promote dialogue about the proposed changes (decisions about appointments are not final until June 1). Reached by phone, he said that the current restructuring was part of a process of implementing proposals made by curricula review panels "three or four years ago," which was put into high gear by the Parsons curricula committee in the fall, and which was communicated in advance to the department. "As to whether individual part-time faculty are aware of what is going on in the broader program, I canít speak to that," Travis said.

Fusco exhibits at The Project in New York, co-organized "Only Skin Deep" at the International Center of Photography in 2003 and is known for performances that focus on issues of identity. She arrived at Parsons last summer from Columbia University. It now looks as if she was brought in to reorient the department towards what is called "visual studies," which ostensibly emphasizes "new genres" and "technology" over painting and sculpture ("Any time you are choosing a chair you are making a statement about where you want the department to be," Travis averred). In a statement at the time, Fusco said that she was "especially looking forward to working with the faculty to capitalize on and extend our Fine Arts programsí strengths and to situate Fine Arts strongly in the context of the new academic planning at Parsons." When contacted via her personal website (, Fusco declined to comment for this story.

Even scratching the surface reveals deep wells of bitterness towards the new chair among some of her fellow faculty, with concerns ranging from how Fusco was selected (a large number of the fine arts teachers apparently preferred an alternative candidate for chair, Patti Phillips, and feel they were overridden by those outside the department), to questions of basic courtesy. "To say she has not reached out is an understatement," said one faculty member, who claimed that "the first thing she asked when she came in July was, Ďwho can I fire?í"

Union reps at the New School were predictably scathing. Jan Clausen characterized the moves as the "starkest example" she had seen of what she called a general pattern where "a new chair, a new director, come in, and really without a lot of faculty input, tear everything apart and reconstruct it overnight." And despite the fact that Fusco has staked her artistic reputation on her left-wing politics, Clausen characterized the dismissals at Parsons as part of an overall trend within the New School away from its historically progressive mission, towards chasing whatever was most "lucrative."

Travis, for his part, says that the changes are all about being forward-looking, and that despite the good student reviews, good reputations and long service of many of the affected teachers, departments must always change. "America as we live in is not the same," he said, referring to the current economic crisis. "We have to move forward, we have to be relevant to the world around us."

The situation is rancorous enough that even basic numbers are disputed. The school says that three of the nine "non-rehired" adjuncts had already discussed or already knew that they were not returning, and that the affected teachers are a small percentage of the 42 in the department. Affected faculty call this a "smokescreen," claiming the administration is padding the total by including the printmaking department in its count, and that the number of professors regularly teaching fine arts students is closer to 28. "In somebodyís flow chart in some office somewhere it belongs to fine arts, but it is a red herring," says artist Laurence Hegarty, who has taught courses on film theory at Parsons. The printmaking and fine arts departments occupy separate buildings. None of the affected faculty members are in printmaking.

Parsons has long relied heavily on adjuncts, who have fewer benefits and less job security, to run the art department. Currently, the only full-time faculty members who are artists are digital artist Anthony Aziz, painter and designer Mary Judge and sculptor Don Porcaro, who Fusco replaced as chair. Three faculty who were put on "look around" due to the changes (a process meaning that the New School is denying them positions in their normal department, but is obligated under the union contract to find them work elsewhere at the institution) have taught as adjuncts at Parsons for between 22 and 34 years. The school says it plans to add more full-time faculty as part of its makeover of Parsons, and hire a fresh batch of adjuncts.

In the end, faculty members emphasize the inhumanity of putting so many long-time and well-respected art teachers out of work, with so little advance discussion, at a time when job prospects are bleak. Replying to such concerns, Travis was conciliatory. "There can always be better communication," he said. "But as for now, the faculty knows weíre here, weíre engaging, they know about the task force. Anyone who doesnít know isnít reading their email."

"They may be contractually right," Peter Drake counters. "They are morally corrupt, thatís all."

Whatever the outcome, tempers are on edge. And such bitter controversy seems liable to leave a lasting bruise on the reputation of the both Fusco and the New School.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has acquired nine photographs by the contemporary Chinese artists Wang Qingsong (b. 1966) and Hai Bo (1962), according to Larry Warsh, a principal in AW Asia, the New York organization that brokered the deal. Wang, who lives and works in Beijing, is known for large allegorical color photographs, often involving groups of precisely posed models, while Hai came to international attention in 2000 when he juxtaposed images of young comrades from the Mao years with contemporary portraits of the same subjects. Last year, Warsh sold a group of 28 photos by 11 contemporary Chinese artists to the Museum of Modern Art for around $300,000, according to a report in the Art Newspaper; this transaction was priced between $100,000 and $200,000. For more info on AW Asia, see

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has purchased its first painting by African American artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979), a black-and-white Abstract Expressionist work entitled United (Alabama) (1967). The painting, which references the Civil Rights movement (and which previously was in the collection of Bill Hodges Gallery in New York), goes on view in the museumís concourse galleries in mid-May. The NGA has also announced recent acquisitions of works by Mel Bochner, Marine Hugonnier and Kim Rugg.

More than 25 galleries from New York, Berlin, Paris, Cairo and other cities, as well as Cape Town and Johannesburg, are taking part in the second annual Joburg Art Fair, Apr. 3-5, 2009, at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. The fair includes a special installation by South African artist Jane Alexander, as well as exhibitions of African photography ("Encounters of Bamako"), South African interior design ("Southern Guild Furniture") and a screening of films from "countries in the Global South" selected by Tumelo Mosaka, curator at the Krannert Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. The primary sponsor of the fair is FNB (First National Bank, South Africa). For further details, see

Veteran art dealer and author Molly Barnes is flooding the airwaves out west with her art news radio show, which recently moved to a new time, Sundays at 7:30 pm, on KCSN, 88.5 FM (or online at, a broadcast originating at Cal State Northridge. Recent guests have included artists Tony Berlant and Gwen Murrill, museum director Michael Govan and Gil Garcetti, the Los Angeles police chief-turned-photographer.

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