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As history shows, those educated in arts shape the future
MassArt's evolution shows what's possible
THIS YEAR marks a profound milestone in how Massachusetts became a national symbol of ingenuity and creativity, leading the way in preparing new generations to take on the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing economy. In 1871, state leaders had the foresight to make an inspired investment in our Commonwealth’s future.
Without the luxury of the internet or even television, horse-drawn wagons served as the TikTok or Instagram of its day, bringing works of art directly to the people of Massachusetts like never before. What started as a “traveling museum” traversing the rough roads of Massachusetts intending to educate the masses and garner excitement for public arts education two years later turned into the enduring institution today known as Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It had never been done before anywhere in the country, but here a free standing public arts college was born. In the years to follow, its earliest graduates would quite literally change how the world worked and how society and culture evolved.
Now 150 years later, that moment in time stands as a relevant example of how once again those educated in the arts will shape the next century and a half.
Despite Bostonians still reeling from the Great Boston Fire of 1872 and being rattled by an abrupt economic downturn nationally, the leaders of that era were not paralyzed by inaction, but rather determined to double down on a plan to push our state forward. It was a time of transition and perhaps even renewal, not unlike this period following the height of the pandemic that changed everything. While life in Boston in 2023 nowhere near resembles what it would have been like in 1873, the understanding that an arts education will lead the next generation forward with the skills and courage necessary to tackle an ever-changing world and economy is just as true today as it was then.
At its core, MassArt was opened in 1873 to respond to a need: putting more qualified teachers with arts education expertise in Massachusetts classrooms. While that major goal is still as pertinent today, MassArt has evolved to meet the times, and is now educating web designers, UX designers, art directors, video game designers, and fashion designers.
From the earliest days the college’s graduates were leaders in the emerging fields of that era. The indispensable Munsell Color System – still used to teach even the youngest among us the basics of color – was developed in 1913 by alumnus Albert Munsell, and continues to be used by designers and manufacturers today. Recent graduates are continuing the legacy, designing clothing for Lady Gaga and industrial products for the Mayo Clinic. Everywhere you look, the arts stand as examples of our culture and values, and reflect our modern society.
No longer in need of horse-drawn wagons, institutions like MassArt now have advanced resources and platforms to serve as a link between hospitals, public schools, senior centers, community centers, and public spaces of art. In doing so, change can and does happen in the lives of those who come seeking a higher education and to those who will never set foot on a college campus seeking to change their communities.
As we imagine what the years ahead hold, we can only rely on what history tells us: the future is not merely awaiting us, we must make it. And what we make will determine how our world progresses and even how our global economy will be fueled.
Art is already being used in Ukraine as a healing tool, and in Puerto Rico and other countries to make sense of human and natural disasters. As cities across the globe evolve in new ways following the pandemic, it is artists and designers who will bring us new ideas in urban planning and design. As K-12 educators grapple with how to confront severe gaps exacerbated by learning loss during the pandemic, the arts will play a powerful role in engaging students, retaining them, and inspiring them. As artificial intelligence and machine learning – still just in their infancy – evolve, it is a generation of designers that will shape how that complex technology impacts our daily lives.
We can’t fully appreciate, yet, all that awaits us in the next few years, just as those 20 or 30 years ago could never have anticipated all that awaited them, from iPhones and Amazon to self-driving vehicles. No longer at the mercy of how far a horse-drawn wagon can take us, Massachusetts can be at the forefront of mapping where we go from here and if we prioritize it, art and design will serve a central role in what it all looks like.
Mary K. Grant is the 13th president of Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.