- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

The hit PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” lets viewers inside the world of art appraisal.

Art students in the District will get an even better chance to explore this curious field — and many related professions — firsthand as a trio of major arts institutions band together this fall for a new master’s degree program in the decorative arts.

The two-year program, officially called master of arts in the history of decorative arts, combines the resources of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Sotheby’s and the Smithsonian Associates.

The Corcoran collection alone boasts more than 17,000 works of art from 19th- and 20th-century collections to inspire and enlighten students.

The graduate degree program will give students access to each institution’s resources, plus the option to study abroad at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.

The classes will help students understand the inner workings of three-dimensional art and let them parse what distinguishes the frauds from the genuine articles, among other skill sets. Sessions will explore both American and European decorative arts from the Renaissance to modern day.

The Parsons School of Design in New York, in conjunction with the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, began its version of the decorative arts program in 1982. In 1996, the Smithsonian Associates offered a second campus where students can study in the graduate program.

Under the new program, the Corcoran becomes the degree-bearing part of the program while still keeping the Smithsonian and its resources in the mix. Plus, it adds Sotheby’s international connections for students to consider.

Cynthia Williams, director of the master’s program in decorative arts at the Smithsonian Associates, says the curriculum can produce any number of arts careers for graduates, from curator to collections manager.

“Some go into publishing and either become writers or work in the industry,” says Ms. Williams, who previously worked with the Parsons program. “We also have students who go onto Ph.D.s or become teachers.”

That’s one part of the new program she hopes to instill in new students.

“They’re unprepared for the fact they can work in such a broad range of fields. I need to dispel the notion that the only way they can go is to become a curator,” she says.

Some recent student placements include a museum technician with the Department of State’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms, assistant curator and collections manager at the Neustadt Museum of Tiffany Art in New York and a research associate with the District’s William Doyle Gallery.

She says few arts colleges tackle this topic directly, and one reason is because it’s a relatively new field of study.

“Really serious scholarship in the decorative arts is about 50 [to] 75 years old,” she says. “My sense is it will grow.”

Ms. Williams says students attracted to the decorative arts program come from all manner of backgrounds.

“I have metalsmiths; I have weavers … one woman came from NASA. The common denominator is the desire to study three-dimensional objects,” she says.

The new classes will offer instructive courses covering textiles, metalwork, ceramics, costumes, glass and furniture.

Faculty members will be drawn from a rich group of institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, the Freer and Sackler galleries and others. Classes will be held at the S. Dillion Ripley Center at the Smithsonian, and design electives will be at the Corcoran’s Georgetown campus.

Christina DePaul, dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, says a key element to this fall’s new program lies at the students’ fingertips.

“They’re constantly touching, looking and understanding the differences between a fake and a real piece,” Ms. DePaul says. “Where the Corcoran comes in is that they have access to the actual studios and can understand how glazes work … or how jewelry works, instead of just studying it.”

Jim McCalman, chief operating officer for Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, says the new course addresses the realities of the art world.

“Art is a business. Speak to any auction house. It’s about making money. It’s a competitive marketplace,” Mr. McCalman says.

The District’s connection with the arts program makes sense from Mr. McCalman’s vantage point based on the burgeoning global market.

He ticks off a blossoming Chinese art market as well as peaking interest in the arts in Eastern Europe and Russia as reasons why an international city like the District works with the program.

“There are over a hundred auction houses in China alone,” he says.

Ms. DePaul says the program addresses the disconnect some art students have regarding the real economic world. She says she once suffered a similar blackout.

“When I was in art school, I never thought of the value of a piece of art,” she says. That changed, years later, when she opened her own gallery and was forced to deal with the economic realities. “It was something I was never taught in art school … there was a disconnect.”

Ana Lopez, 30, who is earning her master’s degree in the history of decorative arts via the Smithsonian Associates, says her program primarily involves research. This fall’s master’s degree program, by comparison, will give students invaluable studio time.

“It’s a much different experience if you understand the process and the material. You can talk about what spinning is and what raising is [in metalsmithing], but until you’ve done them, you don’t have that gut reaction to an object,” says Ms. Lopez, a former teacher who is serving an internship at the Renwick Gallery. “It’s the subtlest little things to look for to see if it’s authentic or what things need to be replaced.”

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