An Open Letter Regarding the Mills College Book Art Program

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On the evening of October 19, an email was sent by Mills College President Alecia DeCoudreaux.  This email included proposed changes and cuts to the curriculum at Mills College, and shocked the community by listing the Book Art Department as slated for closure.  The school will be voting on the measure at the end of November.  This is my open letter to the Mills College Administration and Board of Trustees:

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Dear Mills College Board of Trustees, Provost Sharon Washington, Dean of Letters Ajuan Mance, President Alecia DeCoudreaux, and to Whom it May Concern,

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I am writing to you as a Mills College MFA Student, expecting to proudly graduate in December with a degree in Book Art and Creative Writing.  I am writing to you as a student that has had the rare and fulfilling experience of being completely in love with her school, its campus, its people, and the opportunities it bestowed.  I am writing to you as a student that has, in the past week, watched as a great shadow fell upon her attitude towards Mills College, after its president shocked the Mills community with the announcement that the school planned to close the Book Art program.

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I have experienced in the seven days since this news was shared what feels like a journey through grief: denial, anger, depression… I cannot accept this news because I feel as though the Book Art Department has a great future, with much to accomplish and many lives to change.  How could a medium that has had such a profound affect on my ability to reign in and share my voice be so depreciated?  How could the faculty that have worked tirelessly to give us the most inspiring and thoughtful education imaginable be so undervalued? These are the questions I have been asking myself, with the realization that Mills does indeed need to make changes in order to survive and thrive, but knowing the wrong choices are being made, and all too quickly.  I could share many personal stories and feelings about what Book Art means to me, and about my own experiences at Mills.  But what I feel is most important to communicate to you, or what might best serve the program to share, are my thoughts on the school’s position that Book Art does not fit the spectrum of a 21st century curriculum at Mills College.  I wholeheartedly disagree with this perspective, and urge you to reconsider closing this very important program.

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When I signed and shared the online petition to “Save the Mills College Book Art Program” on Change.org, I added the note: “The 21st century needs artists who can think creatively on multiple platforms, who can effectively and uniquely blend theory with craft, and who can articulate their intentions in a meaningful way. The Book Art program provides its students with these tools, and should be rewarded, not cut.”  I passionately stand by this statement.  Interestingly, I later researched the Mills College Mission Statement in an effort to address each of its points and how they relate to Book Art.  The first paragraph of the statement reads: “The College educates students to think critically and communicate responsibly and effectively, to accept the challenges of their creative visions, and to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to effect thoughtful changes in a global, multicultural society.”  These two statements seem remarkably similar to me.  I feel as though the Book Art Department has guided me towards achieving each of the goals laid out in Mills’ mission statement.  And though as an artist, entering the workforce can be a daunting, uncertain move, I feel that I am very much prepared for what is before me.  I now have the skills and the confidence to perform and grow with a career in the arts, whether it be in design, publishing, teaching, studio art, etc.  I have experienced a multifaceted education that has prepared me well, and gifted me with a range of options.

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The idea of the Artist’s Book is not easy to define, and some argue an apt definition has yet to exist.  But what we do know about Book Art is that it is a unique, interdisciplinary genre.  Artists’ books scholar Johanna Drucker’s states in her book, The Century of Artists’ Books:

Artists’ books take every possible form, participate in every possible convention of book making, every possible “ism” of mainstream art and literature, every possible mode of production, every shape, every degree of ephemerality or archival durability. […] In mapping out this initial definition my intention has been to demonstrate the incredible richness of artists’ books as a form which draws upon a wide spectrum of artistic activities, and yet, duplicates none of them.  Artists’ books are a unique genre, […] a genre as little bound by constraints of medium or form as those more familiar rubrics “painting” and “sculpture.”  It is an area which needs description, investigation, and critical attention before its specificity will emerge.

(pages 14-15)

Book Art, though it has an arguably rich history, is still very young as a medium, and artists’ books “… really did not exist in their current form before the 20th century,” (The Century of Artist’s Books, page 1).  It is an ever-growing, evolving field that has an exciting newness about it.  To eliminate the Book Art Department at Mills would be a great disservice both to its history and its future.  International interest in Artist’s Books is broadening, as art schools are pushing for interdisciplinary explorations, and Artist’s Books are inherently cross-medium. Mills College has been at the forefront of this exciting field, and is known worldwide for its unique Book Art program and its contributions to the greater Book Art community.

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Lastly, Mills should stand by the Book Art Department because Book Art is, historically, a medium pioneered and promoted by women artists.  Book Art was developed as a field by women who felt the imperative need to share their voices and artistic visions, voices that had been historically silenced.  Women’s Studio Workshop, founded as a studio workspace in 1974, is now the largest publisher of limited edition artists’ books in North America.  Their mission statement “… is to operate and maintain an artists’ workspace that encourages the voice and vision of individual women artists, provides professional opportunities for artists at various stages of their careers, and promotes programs designed to stimulate public involvement, awareness, and support for the visual arts,” (wsworkshop.org).  If Mills College seeks to promote the equality of women in artistic fields as it does in all other fields, then they should reconsider cutting a program that has made so many strides and achievements in this particular area.

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Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.  I hope you will reconsider this decision and keep the Book Art Program and its rare and phenomenal faculty.  It would be a shame to see a program that could and will promise so much good in the long run struck down to achieve short term goals.  Please do what is best for the community at Mills College, and keep its highly regarded Book Art Department.

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Sincerely,

Ariel Strong

Book Art and Creative Writing MFA Candidate for December 2015

arhansen@mills.edu

“The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say”
Ulises Carrion, “The New Art of Making Books”
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If you would like to write a letter in support of the Mills College Book Art Program, you can email:
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President Alecia DeCoudreaux: adecoudreaux@mills.edu

Provost Sharon Washington: swashington@mills.edu

Dean of Letters Ajuan Mance: amance@mills.edu

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Student petitionhttps://www.change.org/p/save-the-mills-college-book-art-program

Tumblr:
http://savemillsbookart.tumblr.com

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