07/19/2011 06:48 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

International Council of Fine Arts Deans Meets in Florence

Although Florence is best known for its importance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, contemporary art is flourishing.

It is easy to get lost in the history in Florence. It is easier to see how art defines the history of the ages, of our world and mankind. Importantly, all art was contemporary at one time in history. And there is much to be learned from great art whatever period it comes from.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why students from around the world -- whether serious about painting or sculpture or graphics or design -- find the experience studying abroad so rewarding.

No surprise that the deans of art disciplines meeting in Florence want their students to know how the world works, and see the connections in the world between art, culture, creativity and innovation. International experiences can significantly help young people acquire those skills.

The International Council of Fine Art Deans (ICFAD), a 50-year-old "alliance of arts administrators representing institutions of higher education" held its tri-annual symposium in Florence, Italy, last month. It was entitled, "Where the Past Meets the Present."

Hosted by Studio Art Centers International, a U.S. non-profit 501 c (3) university program in Florence for undergraduate and graduate students, the school helped attendees get a quick fix on the city, better understand the enormous role of the Medici's supporting great artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci, and provided a tour of some of the masters which can be seen almost everywhere in the streets and local museums.

Modern painting, and contemporary art was also discussed.

While a linear progression from one period to another is not obvious, the deans know that all art is contemporary in the sense that it is reflective of the life and times of the period in which it is produced; and if truly great, transcends time as it speaks to our most basic humanity and, especially today, as we look to arts disciplines to help prepare students for the 21st century workplace, we are critically looking for ways to merge art and science and create more "whole brained" people.

Toward this end, Joyce Gattas, Dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts at San Diego State University (SDSU), started a "Collaboratory in Creativity and Innovation" to bring the arts and sciences faculty together -- with community partners where possible -- to forge new electives and new interdisciplinary projects.

Jack Risley, Associate Dean of The College of Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), spearheaded careers in design, and partnered with the college of business to teach entrepreneurship. Some of the same emphasis is found in the arts programs in Qatar, an international enterprise of VCU.

And Sue Ott Rowlands at Virginia Tech (VT) will soon launch a new minor in "21st Century Thinking Skills" that will take students to Morocco, Turkey and Sri Lanka.

University education in the field of art is being "internationalized" -- slowly -- and the linkages between art and creativity being made -- to the extent the higher education bureaucracy allows.
In the coming decade, the bigger challenge for humanity will be whether we can come to grips with the idea of a world community, and the notion that the racial, tribal, and religious differences between us can be understood and appreciated.

While there are countless disciplines, which might reasonably serve as a means to understanding culture, only art serves so superbly as a universal language -- as a means toward understanding the history, culture, and values of other peoples.

Raymond Tymas-Jones, Dean, College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah and the President of ICFAD said it best: "The arts have a unique role in human existence. They teach us playfulness and responsibility while intensifying cross-cultural understanding... the arts can be a uniting force that serves to establish connections between people, ideas and cultures."

Hopefully, ICFAD can be more aggressive in forging those connections around the world (ICFAD's membership at present is give or take 90% U.S.-based), and broaden its agenda to include discussions about collaboration, and a shared view of the vital role of art in a global society and a global economy.