Study Abroad Advisor
Art Study in Italy
An Interview with Mary Beckinsale of SACI in Florence
Palazzo dei Cartelloni in Florence: Home to SACI
This fall Studio Art Centers International (SACI), www.saci-florence.org, an American not-for-profit art school in Florence, will move into the recently purchased Palazzo dei Cartelloni, a beautiful 23,000-square-foot Renaissance palace, with a central garden, in the city center. Thanks to the schools steady growth since its founding by artist Jules Maidoff in 1975, SACI is not only Europes largest American-style art school, it is the only American overseas art program accredited by the National Association of American Schools of Art and Design.
We spoke with Mary Beckinsale, a Cambridge-educated art historian and author who four years ago succeeded Maidoff as director, about how the school began, its changes under her direction, and its plans for the future. Since SACI is the largest art program of its kind, we were particularly interested in what trends, if any, she has observed in the background and interests of its applicants over the years.
Transitions Abroad: First, tell us how the school got started.
Mary Beckinsale: The reason for starting the school was a personal one: Jules Maidoff, one of the youngest Fulbright scholars to study in Italy, wanted to provide a program for serious U.S. art students in Italy to gain the kind of inspiration he had himself experienced. At that time, it was still an uncommon idea for artists to study abroad--unlike language majors or political science students.
The new site, which will open in September, will provide a single building for all undergraduate programs, which at present are spread over four different buildings in Via San Gallo and Via Ginori. SACI will retain its separate graduate center.
T.A. For an art school, space is one of the most important considerations. Please describe the new building and why it was chosen.
M.B. The new building combines everything that SACI was seeking. It is in the center of Florence, a few yards from the central market, Santa Maria Novella and the Duomo. It has a large garden of 2,000 square feet, it is fully modernized and equipped with air conditioning, and it meets all European safety and fire requirements for its classrooms and studios. It has a sculpture studio, ceramic and fresco studios, drawing and painting areas, a gallery, a library, three large academic classrooms--one with full projection, another with a conservation laboratory--a graphic design room with multimedia laboratory, a video film area, two darkrooms, student and faculty lounges, and five office areas for full student services.
T.A. We know that SACI has taken some new directions and added new programs since you took over as director in 1996. Has this been in response to changes in the kind of students who are applying to SACI and the kinds of things they are interested in doing?
M.B. Since 1996 SACI has grown to its full enrollment capacity, approximately 100 undergraduate and 30 graduate students. We have introduced an ongoing school gallery, and a program with visiting artists and teachers. We have also expanded the conservation area to include archaeological conservation. Starting this fall, in cooperation with Bowling Green State Univ., SACI will offer a Master of Arts with a specialization in Art History. The graduate program will cover periods from early Roman and Etruscan to contemporary Italian Art. Our two-year diploma program has drawn a steady stream of interesting young European students, some of whom finish their education in the U.S.
The original emphasis on excellence and seriousness in visual art studies, combined with excellent academic courses to help form intellectually informed and skilled artists, is still the key to the success of SACI. The school has not followed passing fashions; its educational program requires application and diligence. The mixture of serious students from many different universities or colleges and many countries and backgrounds is one of the great strengths of the program. A lot of individual attention is given to help the student focus on structured work, while following their own inclinations and talents.
T.A. You mentioned that since 1996 SACI has grown to its full enrollment capacity and with the increase of numbers has come an increase in programs and community outreach. To what do you attribute this success?
M.B. With the explosive growth of information technology and Internet use, we have found that our web site has become an increasingly important recruitment tool. In addition, we have centralized our U.S. operations, by appointing Mr. Jim Miller as Senior Executive to handle and supervise our marketing, recruitment, and student coordination from the U.S. SACI offices located in the Institute of International Education, at 809 United Nations Plaza, in New York City.
T.A. What percentage of students come to you directly and what percentage through affiliations with U. S. schools? Has the student profile changed in recent years?
M.B. Approximately one half of our students come to us directly, and one half through affiliated schools. Recently SACI has set up a consortium to help key schools that send students to us regularly with information and scholarships. We also assist schools who want to arrange their own summer group with an individualized program.
More and more students are interested in modern and contemporary Italian art and less in the Renaissance. There has been a shift towards photography and multimedia, but a steady and consistent number of students continue to focus on drawing and painting. More and more students now come to SACI on the advice by their home school advisers; fewer are self selecting. One result is that fewer students have to struggle to be accepted as artists than before. Recent students are noticeably less well informed about history. Coming to Florence and confronting its historical past as it is reflected in the present is very important for all the students development. In response to this, we are adding a new class on creative writing to tie in with the modern Italian literature class.
T.A. What major changes lie ahead?
M.B. One of SACIs principal aims for the future is to continue to integrate our program into Florence and Italy. At the present, apart from conversation exchange partners for all students and centrally located housing, we are working with the historic commission to restore a major chapel in the historic center of the city and with archaeological museums in Volterra and Marciana and the Etruscan site at Cetamura to restore Etruscan terracotta and bronzes. This restoration work, in cooperation with Italian towns and villages, will expand.
Now that we own one of the key historic palaces of the city, dedicated to Galileo by his pupil Viviani, we will have a role to play not only in preserving the palace and garden but also in working with various local individuals and organizations concerned with historic preservation. We also expect to be able to work more directly with Italian art students and scholars.