Tom DeBiaso in the MFA Studios and Gallery. Photo by Shun Jie Yong ’18, MFA.
Tom DeBiaso in the MFA Studios and Gallery. Photo by Shun Jie Yong ’18, MFA.
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In his forty-third year at MCAD, Tom DeBiaso is getting ready to retire from the visionary program he helped create, teach, and steer—the master of fine arts in visual studies.

Having directed this community of makers, thinkers, theorists, researchers, and creative professionals for the past six years, DeBiaso feels like he’s going out on top. “This period has been a tour de force for innovation and experience in creative study made possible by building a graduate community grounded in a commitment to studio practice, setting a solid foundation for current and future students as they move into their careers as meaningful cultural contributors,” DeBiaso says. But it’s not his first time getting ready to leave MCAD—or his second.

DeBiaso has been here as long as the Main Building has been open. “There was a lot of excitement here at that time,” he recalls. It was 1975, and DeBiaso was fresh off the heels of his first major education project—founding Film in the Cities, a regional education and media access center for junior high and high school students. A natural next step was arriving at MCAD to teach film production, which was housed under the Design Department at the time.

MCAD’s Main Building around the time it opened in 1975. Photo courtesy of the MCAD Library.

Keeping up his personal filmmaking and photography practice, DeBiaso would often travel back and forth between Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles. He had taught at MCAD for seven years and decided he was ready to make the move to LA when Aribert Munzner, MCAD’s dean at the time, asked him, “What would it take for you to stay?” DeBiaso had an idea: combining filmmaking, video, photography, and animation together into an interdisciplinary program of study. Munzer, who was very interested in blending new technology practices with the arts, gave him the green light and MCAD’s Media Arts Department—one of the first in the country—came into existence. DeBiaso chaired the department for almost a decade, deepening his roots at the college but retaining his personal practice. “The college was very generous. They would let me go and I could come back. I was incredibly fortunate to continue a career as an educator and as an artist working across art and design practice with my own work,” DeBiaso says. 

Creating an Inspired Graduate Program

In the early nineties, MCAD President John Slorp—whose tenure generated the MCAD Art Sale and the Entrepreneurial Studies Program—noticed something missing. “He said, ‘Any great art school has to have a graduate program, and we don’t have one,’” DeBiaso recalls. Slorp, with the help of Anedith Nash, former associate provost, and Andrea Nasset, former dean and provost, handled the accreditation and early development of the program but charged DeBiaso with breathing life into the idea. DeBiaso was inspired by his own interdisciplinary experience and practice as well as the convergence of disciplines he had overseen in the Media Arts Department. 

He had also participated in mixed-discipline critique seminars at other graduate schools and felt strongly that the model worked. “We had the idea that every student would have a mentor, that we would use the college as a broad resource and backdrop for this advanced area of study, that students from a number of disciplines would come together, and that we would have a program that was devoted to making but that was reinforced by a strong liberal arts core,” he says. The innovative, foundational facets of the program—interdisciplinary, mentor-based, personalized, and with a focus on intensive critique seminars and studio practice—were in place from the beginning of the program and still exist today. “The model continues to be relevant as students expand and elevate their education in the dynamic interdisciplinary environment,” DeBiaso says. 

“The model continues to be relevant as students expand and elevate their education in the dynamic interdisciplinary environment.”

MCAD accepted the first class for its master of fine arts in visual studies—twenty students—in 1993. “When the doors opened, it was full right away,” DeBiaso says. Nash served as the program’s first director and DeBiaso transitioned to serving as the dean of studio programs for a few years before going back to teaching in media arts and continuing personal work. “I had reopened my video production studio, taken a sabbatical, and was doing a number of projects. All this stuff was happening and it just felt like, ‘I think I can seriously think about doing something else,’” he says. But it was not to be.

Meanwhile, the MFA program had gone between several directors in a few short years—Carole Fisher, a former fine arts professor who retired after having laid a solid foundation for the program for over a decade, Media Arts Professor Rik Sferra, and Vince Leo, former media arts professor and vice president of academic affairs. “I get this email from Vice President of Academic Affairs Karen Wirth: ‘Will you meet me for lunch?’ Sure! What the hell’s this about—am I going to get fired?” DeBiaso laughs. “We sat down and [Wirth] said, “The MFA Program needs some direction. Would you take it on for a year?’ and in a heartbeat, I knew this is what I needed to do. That was six years ago.” 

A Season of Growth

Building on the previous twenty years of excellence, the program flourished under DeBiaso’s leadership. Putting his personal work on hold to focus on building the program, DeBiaso increased the amount and attendance of exhibitions, brought in visiting artists and designers, encouraged crossover with the undergraduate programs, created collaborative projects with outside groups, formalized much of the academic structure of the program, established an MFA website and social media presence, and introduced an annual thesis catalog. The latter two were important for increasing the visibility of the program on a broader scale. “It’s been enormous to have this ongoing digital archive of all of the activities in the program. And the catalog acknowledges who we are as a creative community. It’s focused around student achievement and becomes a living document that can be used to set us apart from any other graduate programs,” he says. 

Guests at the 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition in the new MFA Studios and Gallery. Photos by Christopher Selleck ’16, MFA.

Perhaps the most important change was one of location. When the program originally started, it held space in MCAD’s Main Building, but was gradually moved off campus to the Whittier Studios as it grew, where it stayed for a decade. One of DeBiaso’s charges was to reintegrate the program into the fabric of the institution. “There was this moment that we knew we were leaving Whittier, but we didn’t know where we were going,” DeBiaso recalls. He knew he wanted the program to be closer to campus as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), which he saw as a valuable resource for the students.

“We were looking at spaces all over town and nothing was seeming very good, and then, all of a sudden, this pops up,” he says. “This” refers to the new MFA Studios and Gallery on First Avenue that the program moved to in early 2016. “Mia had owned the building for ten years and they were considering their options. Kaywin Feldman, director and president of Mia, had always been an incredibly good friend of MCAD and was talking with President Coogan. He and I stood in the gallery of the building and I said, ‘Jay, this is it. This will work—I can see it. We can build out the studios.’ And he made it happen,” DeBiaso says. The building includes more than fifty studios, a computer lab, a 3D shop, a smart classroom, a 3,200-square-foot professional gallery space, a stage, and a black box space for new media and installation work. Designed by a team of MCAD staff, graduate faculty, and lead architect Patrick Regan of noted local firm James Dayton Design, the space hosts annual events for Open Studio Night and the thesis exhibition.

“It’s a phenomenal thing, to be in this building, to feel really unrestricted by what the students might want to do.”

For DeBiaso, the new home for the program signifies an expansion in possibility. “In some ways, the MFA Program has come full circle from back in 1992 when we were talking about this. Many years later, it’s really arrived at this manifestation of a place that reflects the philosophy of the graduate school that has all the resources that we need to be really unstoppable as a program. It’s a phenomenal thing, to be in this building, to feel really unrestricted by what the students might want to do. We’ve kind of reintroduced ourselves as a graduate program to the broader community,” he says. Not only does the new building symbolize increased visibility, but the proximity to campus means graduate students have easier access to resources in the Main Building and partnerships with undergraduate students.

Crossing Disciplines, Crossing Boundaries 

No matter where the program was housed since its beginning, one of the things that sets it—and the college overall—apart from others is the Twin Cities community. “Mia and their phenomenal collection is next door, the Walker Art Center is down the street, there’s this incredible design community that’s here, this expansive cultural community that exists, the history of philanthropy, the theater community, being here next to Eat Street. You start adding up these things and you think, ‘How many places have really got this?’ The city is still walkable and relatively safe, you can move around and get to things here,” DeBiaso says.

And DeBiaso sees the MFA program as inseparable from MCAD itself. “It’s hard to imagine MCAD without it. It’s so much of the DNA of this place,” he says. Many students are able to work part-time at facilities such as the Service Bureau, DesignWorks, and the Learning Center through a graduate award, gaining valuable skills in their fields. “Everything we’ve tried to do is about advancing the students’ education. They can get a graduate award, and spend two years in a place like DesignWorks working on all these professional projects, growing exponentially,” DeBiaso says.

MFA students show their work at critique and events like the annual Open Studio Night. Photos by Chelsea Reeck ’17, MFA, and Forrest Wasko ’17.

The small environment at MCAD allows for these kinds of opportunities and is one of the strongest pulls for DeBiaso. “I stayed in a private school of art and design because I like to think about how every person that’s hired, every brick in the wall, every table, every tool in the shop, every book in the library, it’s all focused around art and design education,” he says. This setup also allows for personal attention and commitment from faculty—“most of the students aren’t expecting what they get here in terms of that interpersonal support”—and the success of the mentorship model, which DeBiaso cites as one of the oldest across the country. “It’s a place that cares about their education and cares about them being successful.”

“I stayed in a private school of art and design because I like to think about how every person that’s hired, every brick in the wall, every table, every tool in the shop, every book in the library, it’s all focused around art and design education.” 

But perhaps the hallmark of the program is its interdisciplinary nature, allowing for all involved to create unexpected, generative connections. “I took all the doors off the studios so the students would be able to look across the hall and see somebody in a different discipline than theirs. They go to crit seminar and they have illustrators talking to graphic designers and filmmakers talking to sculptors. And the students genuinely like each other in this program. It all infuses a kind of sophistication in the making of art and design and graduate study that doesn’t exist in a lot of places. And students have a lot of access to facilities, so we’ve got students crossing boundaries and crossing disciplines,” DeBiaso says.

MFA students spend many hours in their studios before interdisciplinary critiques with other students, faculty, and visiting artists. Photos by Libby Wiswall ’18, MFA.

This kind of open atmosphere allows a graduate student to pursue a highly personalized, yet very structured, education. “The program is really committed to personal voice, and always has been, but has a clear academic vision about it. “It isn’t that there’s the MCAD graphic design look or the MCAD painters. Many schools are very successful with that, but our commitment is to the individual development and honoring a creative voice that is in and continues to develop with each student while they’re here. Students are doing hard creative studio practice thirty-five to forty hours a week to be successful in the program, so it’s structured in a way that they can find voice and become a master in their discipline,” DeBiaso says.

The Right Time 

DeBiaso is a true believer in the value of a master of fine arts degree. “As creative practice becomes ever more rich with opportunity, in turn comes a demand for greater and greater expertise. This degree takes students out into the world in a meaningful way, so that it provides them with training in conceptual development, with professional networking and credentials so that they can teach, and confidence that they didn’t have before that’s grounded in the practice of art and design,” he says. 

“The purposeful education is built into what we do.”

And the program turns out successful alumni who continue to work in their fields, whether that be independently as visual artists and designers, for outside agencies and companies that engage their work, or as full-time teachers. DeBiaso says he sees students continuing to work in art and design long after they graduate. “I’m really proud. There’s an incredibly high number of alumni that I connect with that continue their practice and are very happy with their experience with graduate school, and they wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t feel like it took them someplace. The purposeful education is built into what we do,” he says.

As DeBiaso reflects on his decades-long career at MCAD, he voices that not only did he help shape the Media Arts Department and MFA Program—they shaped him, too, both professionally and personally. “MCAD has always kept me open and alive and creatively enriched me because I was working with students and colleagues from so many different disciplines. Being director draws upon all of your resources, your personal knowledge, your experience and it pushes you out into the world to be current across art and design practice,” he says. DeBiaso also met his wife, who worked at Mia, through his time at MCAD.

MCAD recently announced the hire of Ellen Mueller as the new director of the MFA program. Although DeBiaso knows it will change under new leadership, he remains optimistic that it will continue to be a successful program that gives students a creative home and supports them every step of the way. “The program is like life is—it’s responsive enough to change. The interdisciplinary nature of what’s available here feels a lot like how we exist in the world. In the end it’s all about the students, working in the curriculum and being supported by incredible faculty and staff,” DeBiaso says.

“The program is like life is—it’s responsive enough to change.”

After the Spring 2018 semester, DeBiaso will say goodbye to what he calls an incredible capstone to his career at MCAD, his “professional home,” as an educator and administrator. “I feel phenomenal gratitude for having the opportunity to work with all these incredible students, staff, and faculty and be supported by the administration that’s here now. This opportunity to work with Karen Wirth and Jay Coogan on a closer basis is really important to me, partly because of the way the college was becoming much more public and sophisticated. I couldn’t be more happy that I decided to have lunch with Karen that day because it changed my life.”

DeBiaso has shifted from creating art to assisting with programming and curation over the past few years. He serves on the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul board and looks forward to doing more work with the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and other local arts organizations as well as continuing his own photography and filmmaking practice.

“It’s funny, again there was this moment where I thought, ‘This is the time to go.’ The program is here, integration with the broader community is here, integration with MCAD is here, so it seemed like a good time,” DeBiaso says. Asked if he thinks anything will stop him this time, he smiles and replies, “I don’t think so.”

MFA Program Director Tom DeBiaso and President Jay Coogan with It Takes 2, a collaborative piece by Frankie Castillo ’18, MFA, and Zoe Cinel ’18, MFA. Photo by Libby Wiswall ’18, MFA.

 

This story originally appears in NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Want to receive the next issue in your mailbox? Join the NEXT mailing list.