Haas Library exhibit marks 150th anniversary of Yale School of Art

A vintage photo co-ed drawing class from the Yale School of Art
The Yale School of Art, the first art school based on a university campus in the United States and the first school at Yale to accept women students, marks its 150th anniversary this year. (Photo courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives)

A historic ledger book on display at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library documents two milestones of Yale history in elegant copperplate script: the founding of the Yale School of Art and the first women admitted as students anywhere at Yale.

It records the names of all students enrolled in the Yale School of Fine Arts from its founding in 1869 to 1917, when its inaugural director, John Ferguson Weir, stepped down. Two of the first three students listed, Alice and Susan Silliman, were the university’s first women students.

The ledger anchors “The First University Art School: 150 Years of the Yale School of Art,” an exhibit that celebrates the oldest art school on a university campus. It will be on view through Jan. 18 at the arts library (enter through 190 York St.)

Miko McGinty ’93 B.A., ’98 M.F.A., and Mar González Palacios, associate director of the Arts Library Special Collections, curated the exhibit, which was organized in conjunction with “50WomenAtYale150,” a year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women students at the university. The exhibit draws on materials from Manuscripts and Archives and the Arts Library Special Collections — including photographs, departmental records, and student work — to highlight key moments in the school’s evolution and to honor the people and spaces that have shaped its history.

The school has supported artists and thinkers for generations,” said McGinty, an art book designer and member of the 50WomenAtYale150 organizing committee. “The art school is a part of a bigger story of the global art world, about Yale’s own development, and also the story of women at Yale.” 

Weir, a practicing artist as well as an educator, reasoned that co-education was important to the school’s financial health and believed in educating women in the arts. In fact, women outnumbered men at the school during Weir’s tenure, the exhibit notes. The Silliman sisters were the granddaughters of Benjamin Silliman 1796 B.A., 1799 M.A., a pioneering Yale professor whose teaching of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology established scientific education at the university. Silliman was an early advocate of co-education, according to the exhibit text.

While doing research for the exhibit, McGinty said, she was struck by the fact that those vital to the school’s founding were committed to welcoming women into its classrooms.

They were progressive in ways that we recognize today — a deep belief in the importance of art making, in coeducation, in forging connections between Yale and New Haven, and in leading the way in the sciences,” she said.

Stand-alone art academies operated in the United States 1869, including Cooper Union and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, but Yale was the first university to establish a school of fine arts. The school was originally housed in Street Hall, which was a gift of Augustus Street 1812 B.A., who donated the building specifically to house a school of fine arts. A photograph on view shows the building, today part of the Yale University Art Gallery, while it was under construction.

A plaque on the outside of Street Hall today: Yale School of Fine Arts A.D. 1864
A plaque on the outside of Street Hall today. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Innovative collaboration between the arts and sciences is one of Yale University’s enduring strengths, and the exhibit describes the close relationship between the School of Art and the Sheffield Scientific School, which was founded at Yale in 1847 as a center for study in science and engineering. Into the early 1900s, Sheffield students were required to take freehand drawing classes at the School of Art. A set of photos on display from about 1907 shows students drawing live models. In one of the photos, men stand alongside women behind easels as a model poses on a platform in front of them. The size of the depicted classes suggests that Sheffield students continued to take art classes into the 20th century, the exhibit explains.

The school’s evolution included adding design to its curriculum. In 1950, Joseph Albers, a pioneer in art and design, became the director of the school’s new Department of Design. News of Albers’ arrival at Yale was reported in The New York Times. The letter informing Albers of his appointment is on display. A visionary artist and educator, Albers led the department until 1958.

The exhibit highlights the School of Art’s important role in the establishment of two of Yale’s other renowned professional schools in the arts: the School of Drama and the School of Architecture.

In my archival research it became pretty clear why the art school was able to help establish two other professional schools,” McGinty said. “Artists are committed to new ideas and innovations across all fields, so the school was a place for new disciplines like drama and architecture to flourish.”

The exhibit covers the construction of the Art & Architecture Building, now called Rudolph Hall, which opened in the fall of 1963. Designed by architect Paul Rudolph, who headed the Department of Architecture, the building’s Brutalist style has fans and detractors. The exhibit quotes Alexander Purves ’58 B.A., ’64 M.Arch., professor emeritus of architecture, on the building: “You can find fault with it, but it’s like an eccentric member of the family you defend outside the family. I love working in the building. I’m still discovering spaces I never knew.”

The School of Art and the School of Architecture were split into separate institutions in 1972, though they continued to share space in Rudolph Hall for many years. Deborah Berke, dean of the School of Architecture, designed Green Hall, the current home of the School of Art.

Green Hall, the current home of the Yale School of Art, as seen from Chapel Street.
Green Hall, the current home of the Yale School of Art, as seen from Chapel Street. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

A section of the exhibit explores students’ theses — a graduation requirement for many decades. Examples of theses on display include that of C.F. Curry ’42 M.F.A. examining the role of art during times of war, and a graphic design thesis by Jane Doggett ’56 M.FA.

The exhibit presents materials from the early years of the Yale Norfolk School of Art, an intensive six-week undergraduate summer residency program that was established in 1946 in Norfolk, Connecticut, and continues to offer opportunities to students from art schools across the country.

This summer artists Lisa Sigal ’90 M.F.A. and Byron Kim ’83 B.A. became the new directors of Yale’s Norfolk Art School, and I had a chance to visit for the first time since I was a grad student,” McGinty said. “Norfolk is both a big part of the story of the Yale art major and the School of Art, so I wanted to include archival materials from the early years of the program.” 

The exhibit’s last two cases celebrate the work and legacy of Robert Reed ’60 B.F.A., ’62 M.F.A, who taught painting and drawing at the School of Art for 45 years and was its first black tenured faculty member.

Professor Robert Reed holds court during a class at the School of Art.
Professor Robert Reed holds court during a class at the School of Art. (Image courtesy of the Robert Reed Estate)

Professor Reed was a student of Josef Albers, an accomplished abstract artist, and a giant figure in the art major when I was an undergraduate and a grad student,” McGinty said. “His drawing and painting classes were famous for his unique approach and rigor.”

The exhibit draws on the scholarship of Cathy Braasch ’99 B.A., one of Reed’s former students and an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University. In 2019, Braasch directed the Robert Reed Drawing Workshops, which were held at Penn State, Hunter College, and the Whitney Museum and were meant to preserve and honor Reed’s teaching legacy and artistic practice.

The exhibit’s text quotes Braasch on her former teacher’s approach: “Reed’s ideal classroom placed all the emphasis on process. He spoke once of a classroom of chalkboards: at the end of the semester, after all the students’ efforts, only a pile of chalk dust on the floor would remain.” 

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324