How can we develop the best possible springboard for beginning art students? In this paper, I would like to discuss the sources of many curricular and pedagogical problems and note obstacles to implementation. I will then propose four components of a successful Foundation curriculum.

In conversations with foundation teachers around the country and with their colleagues who teach upper level classes, I have noticed several recurrent themes.

Generally, the teachers themselves majored in some fine art area, such as painting, printmaking or sculpture. They have expanded their education to include a basic knowledge of design and increasingly, they have learned a bit about computer graphics. They are interested in all areas of art and design and take delight in inventing new ways to convey basic information. They believe in the value of the shared experience and are convinced that this transition between high school and art school is beneficial.

Generally, the upper division teachers respect this commitment, but question the education the freshmen receive. The material taught doesn’t closely match the specific skills needed by their students. As a result, a “second foundation” must be offered in the sophomore year to provide the students with the skills needed for the specific major. The upper division teachers conclude that the foundation program is a failure, and an endless cycle of curricular discussions follows.

How is it that so many goodhearted and intelligent people can work so hard, yet produce such unsatisfactory results?

I believe that several basic realities must be addressed before any useful curricular revision can occur.

1. We must understand what a foundation program can and cannot do. By its’ nature, a foundation program is designed to provide a broad learning experience, usually including work with basic elements and principles of design, development of basic drawing skills, expansion of creative and critical thinking, and introduction to a range of techniques.
No foundation program will ever provide the knowledge in a specific field that upper level courses require. Thus, a “general” foundation, followed by a “specialized foundation” makes good sense.

Each of these “foundations” must be clearly designed to serve an intended purpose. The “general” foundation must be truly broad-based rather than serving one area at the expense of others. Since few foundation teachers are professional designers, substantial retraining may be needed to broaden their base of knowledge. Many do this on their own, and a series of workshops in problem-seeking and problem-solving, computer graphics, basic typography, etc. could accelerate this process.

Including designers and media artists in the foundation faculty would also broaden the base of knowledge. This can be done through hiring, or, even more appropriately, through a rotation of all faculty members through the foundation program. Creating a barrier between foundation faculty and upper division faculty insures poor communication and tends to create a foundation program that is out of sync with the majors. The foundation teachers become isolated, while the upper level teachers (who may have never taught a foundation course) seriously underestimate the demands of foundation teaching.

2. We must redefine the basics. Most foundation programs are derived in some way from the Bauhaus program developed 75 years ago in Germany. It was a remarkable program from which we have learned much. It isn’t, however, the most appropriate model for current students or current teachers. New media and new aesthetics require a broader pedagogical approach. Giving our students a twentieth century foundation will not provide them with the best basis for their work in the twenty-first century. Across the country, foundation programs are beginning to develop time design (often called 4D design) courses, adding computer labs, and developing courses in visual literacy, critical theory, and creative problem-solving. As demonstrated by the extraordinary presentations at this conference, a solid understanding of the liberal arts is equally important to contemporary artists and designers.

3. We must determine what to delete. In my foundation curriculum consulting work, I am impressed by the inclination of most departments to continually add to the foundation program without ever taking anything away.

The smorgasbord approach is common. Teachers throughout the school ask that various topics be covered. Soon, the menu is overloaded, with fifty or more dishes, which the freshmen are expected to consume.

This, of course, is a recipe for indigestion.

It is important to determine what should be left out of a foundation program. It is only by distilling the curriculum down to the real basics that any substantial learning can occur. Doing ten things really well is preferable to doing fifty things badly.

4. We must make a serious commitment to first year students and first year programs. In most schools, foundation courses are often taught by the least experienced faculty members and by adjuncts and graduate students. Pay for foundation teaching is generally low and facilities are often bad. Graduate students bring a wonderful energy to their classes–but may find it difficult to communicate essential information effectively
No one majors in Foundation. It takes years of reading, experimentation, and teaching to develop a really good 2D Design course. Anyone can waste the student’s time with mindless exercises and disjointed assignments. Experienced teachers are generally able to invent and teach much broader based assignments. The best foundation programs often combine the enthusiasm of beginning teachers with the insight of experienced teachers.

To reach the right answers, we must pose the right questions, including:

1. What is the mission of the foundation program? Each school has unique strengths and specific needs. A clear, well-written Mission Statement provides the basis on which the curriculum can be built.

2. How do we define “foundation?” In the computer age, what ARE the basics? 

3. What curricular structure works best? If clear dimensional separation is needed and an emphasis on skills, we might call the courses Drawing, 2D, 3D, and 4D design. If an integrated approach is needed, we might call the courses Time, Space, and Light. If idea development is highly valued, courses in Creativity and Concept Development are appropriate. Naming the courses accurately clarifies course content and increases student and faculty focus.

4. What balance and what relationship between studio and academic courses is best? Trying to make good designs without an understanding of history or a basic knowledge of literature is rather like trying to launch a rocket without any fuel.

5. What are the resources available? What can YOU offer to your Foundation Program colleagues?

6. What is the experience level of the teachers? A foundation curriculum that requires a highly experienced faculty will flounder if all of the teachers are grad students. For example, the teachers in the highly acclaimed Kansas City Art Institute program are extremely experienced full-time faculty members. They have to be. During the first semester, one teacher works with one group of twenty students for sixteen hours a week. That one teacher has to be a master of drawing, plus 2D design, 3D design, and Time design. Two essentials for any Foundation program are these:
-it must be authentic: particular to each institution;
-it must be achievable: teachable by the available faculty.

7. How can we create a terrific foundation program that will LAST? Developing a new foundation curriculum is arduous and can be divisive. To avoid repeating this process every few years, it is wise to create a program that has a high level of flexibility and durability. A special topics course or workshop structure builds in continual change and renewal.

Now in my second year as Foundations Coordinator at Northern Illinois University, I have concluded that putting the theory into practice is the hard part. The following mistakes, are especially common:

  • lack of urgency.
  • failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.
  • underestimating the power of vision.
  • under communicating the vision by a factor of 100.
  • permitting fear to block vision.
  • failing to create short term wins
  • declaring victory too soon
  • neglecting to anchor changes firmly within the curricular structure.

The Foundation Program sets the stage for the entire BFA degree. Any action at the Foundation level tends to have a ripple effect all the way up the line.

I have found that any number of curricular structures can work well, as long as the program addresses the following four concerns:

Visual Communication is Fundamental
The primary purpose of art, media and design is to explore and communicate ideas and emotions. Everything is NOT beautiful in its own way. Students must be encouraged to develop the ideas that have the most resonance and the images that have the most impact.

Concepts Feed Communication
A concept may be defined as a well-developed thought. By developing rich concepts, students have an opportunity to develop inventive objects and images. Dull concepts, on the other hand, generally result in dull images. In any foundation course, we often see very predictable solutions to visual problems. These include the use of a jagged red line to convey anger, or a skull and a pool of blood to suggest death. These choices are usually effective–but rarely inspiring. We’ve seen it all before. By developing new approaches and new ideas, students can personalize their images and make their messages memorable.

Concept + Composition = Communication
Developing a great idea is only half the battle. To reach an audience, the idea must be communicated visually, through composition. Using simple shapes and volumes, students can learn a great deal about balance, repetition, contrast, and so forth. These basics are essential. A great idea never saved a bad painting. Most freshmen find it much easier to talk a good line than to draw one. With a solid understanding of composition, students can convey their ideas fully and forcefully.

Critical Judgment Supports Creative Thinking
A variety of critique structures can be used, including formal analysis, compare and contrast, developing alternatives, and exercises in identifying the greatest strengths and weaknesses in a design. Many designs can be improved using some basic arithmetic: what should be added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided? Written as well as spoken critiques tend to increase the level of student involvement.

Each art department has its own unique strengths and system of values. The foundation program must support these strengths and values. Done badly, the foundation program can squander that crucial first year of college. Done well, it can provide students with a solid base of knowledge, an understanding of time management, and a hunger for further learning.

In twenty-five years of teaching, I have consistently found that freshmen are remarkably courageous, tenacious, and resilient. Their receptivity and willingness to try new things make them a joy to teach. A Foundation program is not a form of Purgatory, a trial to be endured before entering Heaven, nor is it a rehearsal for work in the major.

Well designed, Foundation courses provide the matrix on which all subsequent learning can be built. Let us use the Foundation program as a wonderful opportunity for teaching and give our students the very best we have to offer!