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Interview of David Davidson, Dean at Studio Art Centers International in Florence

Study at an Art School in Florence

Photos courtesy of SACI
Studio Art Centers International (SACI), an American not-for-profit art school, is located in two central areas in Florence, including the Palazzo dei Cartelloni, a beautiful 23,000-square-foot Renaissance palace and the Jules Maidoff Palazzo for the Visual Arts, which is named after SACI's founder and director emeritus.

We spoke with David Davidson, who possesses an impressive educational background and employment history relating to art in New York City and Germany, and is now the Dean at Studio Art Centers International (SACI). We discussed what he sees as the advantages of the school, what makes the school unique, why an art student would choose to study in Florence, the nature and scope of its curricula and degrees conferred, the emphasis on cultural immersion for its students, and how the possibilities offered by internet technologies are being incorporated.

Palazzo Cartelloni: SACI Art School in Florence
SACI's Palazzo dei Cartelloni (Florence, Italy).

Transitions Abroad: What are the advantages to studying at SACI compared to other art schools in Florence?

David Davidson: SACI, which is non-profit and directly accredited in the USA by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), has been educating emerging artists and designers, conservators and art history students since 1975, longer than any other American art school in Florence. Our large and deeply experienced faculty instructs students in a remarkable range of courses—from cutting-edge contemporary to traditional, from studio-based to academic. And SACI is the only school in Florence that offers US-accredited MFA degrees in Studio Art and Photography.

T.A.: Are there advantages to studying to become an artist in Florence over other locations?

D.D.: Before coming to SACI I was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the New York Academy of Art where I met innumerable students—and a good many faculty members—who either had spent a significant amount of time in Florence or wanted to do so. For contemporary artists, questions of modernity in both outlook and approach can only be addressed fully through direct experience of Florentine art and culture, and no school is more committed—or able—to offer this than SACI.

T.A.: Which programs make the school unique in Florence?

D.D.: Students in all of our programs, whether undergraduate or graduate, are able to take courses at all levels in studio art and design as well as conservation, art history, and Italian language and culture. The breadth and depth of our course offerings are exceptional. In studio art, not only Oil Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, and Photography, but Etching, Lithography, Fresco Painting, Ceramics, Digital Multimedia, Batik, Serigraphy, Book Arts, Jewelry Design, Weaving, Animation, Video, Digital Approaches for 2D Artists, and Installation & Performance Art. In design, not only Graphic Design, Interior Design, Communication Design, and Illustration, but Italian Fashion Design, Infographics, and a seminar course in Design Futures. In art history, we offer separate courses in every period beginning with Early Renaissance and continuing to Contemporary Art. We also offer courses in Museology, Women & the Arts in Italy, History of Italian Cinema, History of Opera, Creative Writing, and Italian Language, from Beginning through Advanced. And SACI is the only school in which both undergraduates and graduates can take courses in Painting Conservation, Mural Conservation, Paper Conservation, Wood Conservation, Diagnostic Techniques for Conservators, Conservation of Archaeological Artifacts, and Conservation Law, Business & Management.

Art conservation at SACI
Student in a SACI Conservation Studio.

Painting student
Student in a SACI Painting Studio (Photo: Jacopo Santini).

T.A.: Are credits awarded and degrees conferred?

D.D.:  Students can earn credits in all SACI courses. We have one-year programs that award Post-Baccalaureate Certificates in Studio Art, Art & Archaeological Conservation, and Art History and two-year MFA degree programs in both Photography and Studio Art (with an emphasis in either Painting or Drawing).

T.A.: What percentage is study abroad for a semester/year/summer and what percentage is certificate- or degree-program?

D.D.: In the Fall and Spring semesters, approximately three-quarters of our students are undergraduates, studying at SACI for one or both terms, and the others are graduates in either our Post-Bac or MFA programs. In Late Spring and Summer, almost all students are undergraduates here for one or both terms.

T.A.: Do students get full credits back in their US colleges as a rule for study abroad?

D.D.: Each student’s home school academic advisor must approve all SACI course work before the student enrolls, so students are able to apply credits earned at SACI toward the degrees toward which they are working at schools in the USA or elsewhere.

T.A.: How would you describe the curricula developments at SACI over the last few years?

D.D.: In a word, exciting! SACI is now a degree-granting institution. We’ve just enrolled our first class of MFA in Studio Art students, and they are a terrific group who are thoroughly enjoying studying at SACI. We recently received approval to offer an MFA in Photography, and the first students in that program will begin in September. And we’ve just begun a partnership with Kendall College of Art & Design that will enable selected freshman Design majors at Kendall to complete their first year of university-level study by enrolling in a special Foundation-Year program at SACI.

T.A.: The economic crisis in Italy and across Europe has pushed students to strive for higher teaching qualifications and to look for ways to have a career path through educational channels. How is SACI meeting this demand?

D.D.: Our creation of new MFA degree opportunities at SACI has in part been in response to this situation. The MFA is essential for those seeking university-level teaching positions and is normally expected of those seeking gallery representation as well. We want our students to be fully prepared for careers in the visual arts, and have therefore also increased the number of contemporary art and design courses we offer. These now include more digitally based courses in areas such as design and animation that train students in techniques that will help them to find jobs.

T.A.: Is SACI continuing to integrate its students into the real life of the city of Florence and into the Italian social reality?

D.D.: This is a major part of our mission. Working in class, SACI students connect to the community in all kinds of ways—they have painted murals in Oncology Departments at local hospitals, worked on book illustrations with elementary school children, and restored tabernacles throughout the city. SACI Conservation students spent eleven years restoring artifacts and five large Baroque paintings by Francesco Curradi in Florence’s Conservatorio di Santa Maria degli Angioli, all of which had been badly damaged in the flood of 1966. The chapel has now been fully restored by our students. SACI Conservation students are currently restoring wall and ceiling paintings in apartments that during the 17th and 18th centuries had been used by actors and their families in Florence’s famed Pergola Theater, Italy’s first opera house, which is just around the corner from a landmark palazzo that SACI bought several years ago in Florence’s historic center. (SACI now owns two fully renovated Renaissance palazzi in the heart of the city.) Outside of class, SACI students are engaged in a wide array of volunteer activities that includes teaching English to children in Florence’s public schools, working as English-language museum guides, assisting at Florence’s Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and other humanitarian agencies, and removing graffiti from public spaces throughout the city. SACI design and museology students are able to pursue internships at firms and museums in Florence and students in many disciplines work one-on-one with artists, designers, and scholars from the community on Directed Independent Studies. Our Italian Language students meet regularly with students from the University of Florence to explore one another’s language and culture.

Multimedia studio at SACI
Student in a SACI Design/Multimedia Studio (Photo: Jacopo Santini).

T.A.: Are there many “field trips” to the beautiful and inspiring surrounding Tuscan/Umbrian countryside?

D.D.: Visiting sites throughout Florence and elsewhere in Italy is an integral part of the SACI experience—both in class and as an extra-curricular activity. Many classes are taught on site so that students can directly encounter the art they are studying. Students draw and paint throughout the city and in nearby towns such as Fiesole and Settignano. They go with art history classes to Pisa, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Rome, Bologna, and Ravenna and on optional field trips to Naples, Venice, and Rome. Our MFA students, in addition to traveling throughout Tuscany, have visited Venice and Turin, and will soon be going to Berlin to tour museums, visit galleries, and meet a number of contemporary artists who are living and working there.

Drawing students at San Miniato
SACI Students Visiting Florence's San Miniato al Monte Church (Photo: John Taylor).

T.A.: How do students handle the costs of attending SACI?

D.D.: SACI offers numerous scholarships that range from full-tuition to more modest awards. Scholarships are based both on need and merit, and are awarded to students working in either studio or academic areas. A number of organizations offer scholarship aid for those intending to study abroad, including the National Italian American Foundation, the Institute of International Education, and the Rotary Foundation. Federal loans, too, are an important, and readily available, source of funding for most students.

T.A.: Does SACI sponsor events for students and the public?

D.D.: SACI has two galleries that feature work from emerging artists, established artists, and our students. Throughout the year we hold group and one-person exhibitions that are open to the public. We also host symposiums on a wide range of topics. Recently, for example, David Hockney was the keynote speaker at a SACI symposium on Caravaggio’s use of optics, and we are planning a special seminar this spring, open to students and the public, on career opportunities for visual artists. Next November, the renowned art historian and philanthropist Dr. Elizabeth A. Sackler will be lecturing at SACI on “Women, Art & the Art Market.” 

T.A.: Where do you see yourself headed in the future given the prominence of the web and virtual world?

D.D.: We are currently developing a course on Web Design that will focus not only on cutting-edge approaches to designing websites but on how artists use social networking to communicate about themselves and to one another. This course will be a cornerstone of a new area at SACI—Communication Design—that will enable our students and instructors to explore together how both artists and art scholars can utilize the internet—and digital techniques—to reinvigorate and possibly revolutionize art making, design, and art scholarship.

David Davidson has been the Dean at Studio Art Centers International since 2001. He earned a doctorate in Cinema Studies from New York University, and prior to coming to Italy worked as an administrator at NYU, the New School for Social Research, the New York Academy of Art, and the University of Maryland University College in Germany.

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