Nancy Bauer Named Dean of Museum School

Acquisition of SMFA will strengthen the arts and art education at Tufts
Nancy Bauer
Artists show us how to be progressive, communicative and provocative, says Nancy Bauer. Photo: Kathleen Dooher
April 7, 2016

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Nancy Bauer, an academic dean and philosophy professor whose scholarship spans feminism and film, has been named dean of the School of Museum of Fine Arts, which will become part of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences this summer.

To further strengthen connections among the arts programs at Tufts, Bauer will also oversee the Experimental College and the departments of Art and Art History, Music, and Drama and Dance, as well as the new Film and Media Studies Program, which she helped create.

Her appointment, announced on April 7 by Dean of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, follows successful negotiations for Tufts to acquire the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), affiliated with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, on July 1. It is a first-of-its-kind alliance that takes advantage of the strengths of a major research university and the only art school affiliated with a world-class museum. Among its alums are director David Lynch, musician Peter Wolf, children’s author and illustrator Richard Scarry and Harlem Renaissance painter Lois Mailou Jones.

“I believe arts education is absolutely essential to Tufts,” says Bauer. “I care about promoting the arts on campus, about creativity and breaking boundaries. Artists show us how to be progressive, communicative and provocative. My vision is to take what they’ve already done at the Museum School for a very long time and give them what they need to soar.”

The university has had an association with the Museum School since 1945, and students in the combined B.A./B.F.A. program take all their liberal arts courses at Tufts.

Glaser says Bauer is a natural choice to lead the SMFA. She played a key role in negotiations between the university and the Museum of Fine Arts, and is the architect of the academic strategy that led to the acquisition. As dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences for the past four years, Bauer has been responsible for the existing Tufts-SMFA relationship.

“Being a dean is about making the people around us better,” Glaser says. “If we’re doing our job right, we are mentoring and nurturing faculty and students so they have the resources they need for success.” To these prerequisites, he says, Bauer brings another vital asset: a deep enthusiasm for art and art education. That is critical as the university community welcomes SMFA faculty and students to Tufts, begins to build new programs and collaborations across the university, and strengthens art education.

“We’re bringing together two different institutions—it’s a complex marriage,” Glaser says. “We have to overcome both geographical and historical boundaries. It’s important that the new leader of the school is someone like Nancy who understands both places and can integrate them, so that the two parts come together as one whole, new school.”

Bauer, he says, is up to the task. “She is the smartest, most persuasive person I know. When she put together the case for this new endeavor, it was logically sound, well-researched and beautifully crafted.”

Glaser notes that there is already excitement about the SMFA acquisition from Tufts students and faculty in diverse fields, from computer science and education to entrepreneurial leadership and art history. The strong connection with the MFA, he says, “will contribute to Tufts’ reputation as well.”

Glaser notes that Bauer’s scholarship in philosophy is a natural asset for a dean who will work closely with artists. “If you listen to people talk about their art, they’re really talking about ideas,” he says. “In the contemporary art world, art is not just about your ability to create something beautiful; you have to create something meaningful. A philosopher who also understands the arts, aesthetics and ideas behind the production of work can open up great conversations.”

The Philosopher and the Arts

Bauer came to Tufts in 1998 as a visiting assistant professor of philosophy and was appointed an assistant professor the following year. She served as director of graduate studies for the Department of Philosophy from 2001 to 2008 and chaired the department from 2008 to 2011. She was named dean of academic affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences in 2012.

She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University, a master’s in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and an A.B. in social studies from Harvard and Radcliffe colleges.

Bauer specializes in feminism and feminist philosophy, phenomenology and existentialism, and philosophy and film. From 2002 to 2003, she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. She is the author of Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy and Feminism (Columbia University Press, 2001) and How to Do Things with Pornography (Harvard University Press, 2015).

A celebrated teacher, Bauer received the Tufts student senate’s Professor of the Year award and the Undergraduate Initiative in Teaching Award, both in 2002; the Leibner Award for Excellence in Teaching and Advising in 2005; and a Teaching with Technology Award in 2013.

Her resume, under “other skills,” would also certainly include knitting. A self-described “knitting nerd,” she knits daily and has built up an “enormous” yarn collection. She spins and dyes her own wool and is a regular at knitting retreats and festivals.

The tactile pleasure she takes in wool, she notes, may also explain a sort of kindred connection with the students and faculty at the Museum School. Once, when she was walking through the printmaking studios at the SMFA, she spoke with faculty about color theory and the color wheel.

She told them she was a knitter and dyed her own yarn. “They were so excited,” she recounts, and they asked if she could teach fiber dyeing. “I assured them what I do is not art, it is just how I keep myself sane, but they are deeply interested in the entire creative process.”

The inspiration she found at the SMFA echoes the work of her favorite philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. “She never lost sight of what real life is like; she managed to hold her philosophical reflections in the same space as her everyday experience,” says Bauer. “I try to emulate her.”

As a dean, she observes, it’s very important to stay grounded, “and that’s something I very much find at the Museum School. It is daunting and dangerous to follow the path of self-expression in the name of representing to and for others the way you find things in the world. What you do might not pan out—but you take the risk anyway. There is a kind of courage and tolerance for being wrong that is more humanly significant than the failure of not getting a good grade on a test. I deeply admire the virtues that the SMFA student and faculty artists manifest, and am honored to be working with and learning from them.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.