The visual arts emerged as a curricular option at the University of Chicago in the mid 1900’s, when the University acquired Lorado Taft’s Midway Studios. The visual arts were first available as an extracurricular respite from the intensity of scholarly pursuits. This attitude towards the arts was endemic to the period, coming from a post-Enlightenment modality that understood there to be societal and individual betterment to be had through engagement with the arts: enriched by their cultural experience as makers and viewers of art, students would become better human beings. Art making was seen as an avenue for personal expression and recreation. Studio courses were taught under the umbrella of The Department of Art (the name of which was later and more accurately changed to The Department of Art History). Midway Studios housed much of the Department’s teaching, although classes were also held in Cobb Hall through the 1980’s.
Beginning in 1950, students had the option to take a master’s degree focused either on the History or the Practice of Art. Even for those who concentrated on making art, the degree awarded was an MA rather than an MFA. Six years later in 1956, the University awarded its first Master of Fine Arts in the Practice of Art.
In 1970 the studio art program solidified as a semi-autonomous committee, albeit still governed by the Chair of the Art History Department. The first Director of the committee housed at Midway Studios was Hall Hayden, who headed the Department until the1970’s, when Tom Mapp assumed this role. He and Bob Peters were hired from the School of the Art Institute and charged with bolstering this disciplinary area. Lecturers and adjunct faculty through these years included Ruth Duckworth, Vera Klement, and Virginio Ferrari. In 1977 the committee was named the Committee on Art and Design, although it continued to be academically and administratively housed within the Department of Art History.
The Committee on Art and Design was modeled on other committees in the Division of the Humanities and the Division of the Social Sciences that had a long history at the University, and this allowed faculty with shared interests in different departments to create units that met perceived intellectual needs not met by the departments themselves. In addition to the studio faculty, CAD was constituted with additional faculty from other departments, including English, Philosophy, Anthropology and Art History. CAD was different from other interdisciplinary committees in that it always had a graduate program: the MFA program. At this time, it shared a common Chair with the Art History Department; the Art History Professor Charles Cohen served as Chair for nine of CAD’s first twelve years of existence.
In 1996, CAD became the Committee on the Visual Arts (COVA). This was more than a name change, since the Committee now became entirely autonomous with its own chair and its own budget separating completely from the Department of Art History. Charles Cohen was lobbied by the studio faculty and agreed to serve as Chair for the newly independent COVA from 1996 – 2005.
In 2005 – 2006 the Committee became a full-fledged department—the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA)—which represented another step in our progression towards the flourishing status of the current program. That same year, Laura Letinsky became the first studio faculty member to serve as Chair of DoVA, after having co-chaired with Cohen 2002-2005.
The emergence of the stand-alone Department of Visual Arts was fueled over the years by the interest and support of many faculty members at the University of Chicago, who engaged in extended dialogue about the role of the arts at the University. Their combined effort and enthusiasm led to the building of the Logan Center for the Arts, which opened at the end of 2012 and has served as DoVA’s home ever since.