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Bennington College History: Visual Arts: Early Years

A guide to the history of visual arts at Bennington College

1929 Educational Plan for Bennington College


1. SELECTIVE PLAN OF ADMISSION on the basis of quality of the candidate's entire school record and history, with no required examinations or certificates in specified list of school subjects (pp. 6-7).

2. TUITION TO PAY FOR FULL COST OF INSTRUCTION with generous scholarships for those who need and deserve them (p. 8).

3. SELECTIVE REGIONAL AND SPECIAL SCHOLARSHIPS awarded to prospective students of un, usual promise, on a four year basis (pp. 8-9).

4. INDIVIDUALLY PRESCRIBED WORK FOR THE FIRST Two YEARS taking full account of previous school courses and of differences in personal development and interest, rather than general requirements or free election of courses ( pp. 9-10).

5. Two YEAR SEQUENCE OF INTRODUCTORY COURSES designed to show the significant content and the particular method in each major field (pp. 9-10).

6. RECOGNITION OF THE FINE ARTS as one of the four major fields in the college curriculum (pp. 9-10).

7. PREPARATION DURING FIRST Two YEARS FOR INFORMAL, INDIVIDUAL METHODS of last years by membership in a trial major conference group (p. 10).

8. TOOL COURSES, such as mathematics and foreign languages, prescribed only for those who look forward to major work requiring their use, not for all (p. 10).

9. ADVANCEMENT FROM JUNIOR DIVISION (first two years) to Senior Division (last two years) by demonstration of distinct ability and interest in one of the major fields; no advancement to Senior Division or award of degree by accumulation of grades or by merely passing a specified number of courses (pp. 10-11).

10. WORK OF LAST Two YEARS FOR ALL IN A CHOSEN MAJOR Field similar in aim and method to honors type of work now open to selected students in several existing colleges (pp. 11• 12).

11. MAJOR WORK FOR STUDENTS NOT LIMITED TO DEPARTMENTAL SPECIALIZATION but planned for varying vocational, pre-vocational, or avocational life interests (pp. 11-12).

12. OPPORTUNITY TO FOLLOW SIDE INTERESTS as they develop, through individual work rather than by attending courses, thus definitely developing self-dependence (p. 12).

13. A LONG WINTER RECESS giving students and faculty opportunity for travel, field work, and educational advantages of metropolitan life (p. 12).

14. PROVISION FOR NON-RESIDENT WORK IN UNIVERSITY AND OTHER CENTERS during last year or two whenever facilities for advanced work are more favorable than at Bennington (pp. 12-13).

15. COMMUNITY SUPPORT OF "STUDENT Activities which have intellectual, artistic, or recreational value and limitation of campus organizations to such activities (pp. 13-14).

16. SMALL, SELF-GOVERNING House GROUPS FOR ALL serving as centers of social life and informal faculty-student contacts (pp. 13-14).

17. CONTINUOUS UTILIZATION OF ALL KNOWLEDGE OF STUDENT PERSONNEL for more accurate and thorough diagnosis of real needs of modern girls in home, school, college, and occupation (p. 14).

18. FACULTY CHOSEN PRIMARILY FOR TEACHING ABILITY; adjustable, ample faculty salaries, with policy of careful selection and re-appointment of faculty, President, and Trustees, to avoid "dead wood" and to maintain flexibility (pp. 14·16). (third page in document)

We know statistically that most able students are able in most things. And at Bennington as elsewhere students with uniformly good records will be welcome. But a goodly proportion of girls have unusual aptitudes in one field combined with temporary or permanent intellectual blind spots in others. Girls with such specialized ability will be encouraged to enter. No one will be kept out merely because she has not succeeded in a single subject such as Mathematics, Latin, or French. Ability in the fine arts will not be obscured merely because it does not lend itself to school tests or grading. Indeed a special aptitude in one line will give a candidate preference over another whose record is more uniform but mediocre in quality. The single emphasis is upon quality rather than upon versatility and the quantitative accumulation of credits. pg 7

The following are some of the fields in which advisors are being selected: the fine arts, music, drama, journalism, vocations for women, natural sciences, medicine and hygiene, law, architecture, and religious education. Pg 16

From Educational Plan for Bennington College

Bennington in the Beginning by Thomas Brockway

Dr. Leigh had no doubt that the visual arts should be accorded full equality in the curriculum, but he was not certain what that would mean in practice. He was therefore eager to find someone experienced both in art and academia who could fit the arts into the Bennington structure without unduly damaging either. Edwin (Billy) Park seemed the perfect candidate for he was not only an architect, a watercolorist and writer on contemporary trends in art, but he had taught at Columbia, the New School of Social Research, Princeton and Yale. Six months before college opened in 1932 Leigh offered Park Bennington's top faculty salary and named him "director of art," a title which barely survived the first year. In addition, Park was made chairman of the division which included not only the visual arts but music, dance and, in another year, drama . Combining the visual and performing arts appeared logical but the difficulties in the way of their integration or even confederation proved insurmountable. Billy Park convened the omnibus division from time to time, but it soon became evident that dance, drama and music would rather go their separate ways. Park deplored the division's breakup, thought it meant that an opportunity had been lost and puzzled over the subsequent expansion of two of the departing. Drama, once liberated, began to grow although it was "no more significant as an art form than painting;" and music, "no more of a subject than architecture, now has a separate building and a large faculty." But could the visual arts themselves be brought into a coherent program? The first question was what subjects should be taught. At the opening in 1932 no one could have foretold what would go into the eventual curriculum for it grew as much by chance as by design. Earlier, Leigh had imagined that the arts could be adequately taught by a painter and a sculptor, but Park persuaded him that architecture (which he taught), design and graphic arts were also essential. Then more subjects were added without premeditation. Painting was taught by Park until the arrival of Stefan Hirsch in 1934. With his European background and training, Hirsch was an experienced painter in oils and fresco. He resigned after teaching five years but his painting continued and a memorial exhibition of his works was held at the Phillips Gallery, Washington, in 1977. Hirsch was succeeded by Paul Feeley who then taught continuously (except for three years with the Marine Corps in World War II) until his death in 1966. Feeley had been teaching at Cooper Union and there had learned about Bennington from two art majors of 1937, Ernestine Cohen and Helen Webster. The latter returned to Bennington with him in 1939 as his wife. Sculpture was taught the first year by Ralph Jester who had studied several media here and abroad. According to Jean Guiton who taught French, Jester and Park "were having a cold war like any tandem of artists" and Jester was not reappointed but went on to a successful career in motion pictures. He was succeeded by Simon Moselsio.


…….Arch Lauterer, appointed in 1933, achieved fame through his scene design and stagecraft but before drama and dance claimed him full time he taught trial majors and majors in art, and his mastery of diverse arts and crafts made him the ideal general practitioner. Design began formally in 1935 with the appointment of Lila Ulrich who had studied at the Bauhaus in Germany. She was succeeded in 1937 by Russell Krob, a versatile artist whose training had been in architecture. Serious instruction in the graphic arts began in 1936 with the advent of Charles Smith, a Virginian who had studied at Yale and the Corcoran School of Art and had published Old Virginia in Block Prints and Old Charleston. Though he referred to himself as a wood cutter, he was the serene master of a variety of techniques and moods….Several faculty wives completed the unplanned half of the art curriculum. Herta Moselsio gave ceramics a secure place in the program. Though she was highly trained and had won honors in her field, she remained a part-time "assistant in art" until the trustees voted her faculty status on Jan. 7, 1941 though "ceramics majors" had to wait another 15 years. Helen Lauterer added weaving and dress design which the division classed with ceramics as crafts and recommended as recreational. Jean Brockway was brought in to arrange exhibits and teach art history on demand; and Elsa Hirsch offered instruction over a varied expanse including fresco painting, primitive art, art criticism and contemporary critics.


….The art offering was broadened still further by the instructors' willingness to teach subjects on the periphery of their specialties. In consequence the college appeared to be competing with art schools when the later Leigh catalogues announced that instruction was offered in "exterior and interior architecture," housing, design (including book, dress, furniture and textile design), shop work, easel and mural painting in several media, sculpture (including casting), lithography, etching, ceramics, drawing, weaving, photography, optics, anatomy, chemistry of color and industrial design, to say nothing of the analysis, criticism and history of art from cave painting to Kandinsky. This astonishing curriculum suffered a notable deflation in the 1940s.


….Park was serious about the Bauhaus approach and tried to enlist one of the Bauhaus founders, Josef Albers. Herta Moselsio recalled writing the letter that was meant to interest Albers in Bennington but by that time he had already accepted an appointment to Black Mountain College. Nevertheless teaching in the Bauhaus mode began at Bennington in February, 1935, with the arrival of Lila Ulrich who had studied with Albers, Mies van der Rohe and Kandinsky, and by the end of the Leigh era Park was convinced that art teaching at Bennington accepted the Bauhaus dictum that form in the modern world emerges from "material and function rather than from a borrowed historical source."

From Bennington in the Beginning