Scheri Fultineer Embraces Holistic Arts Education as New Dean of SMFA at Tufts

The experienced educator hopes to draw on the university’s breadth of disciplines to give art students “multiple ways of looking at the world”

Humankind has been pondering the nature of art for eons. Scheri Fultineer, who in January 2023 will become dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA at Tufts), sees art as a force that brings “awe and wonder” to both artist and audience. “Art asks uncomfortable questions and sometimes shocks,” says Fultineer. “It catalyzes examination about the most critical aspects of being human and being alive, and artists are constantly involved in examining and remaking worlds.”

Fultineer has pursued that vision throughout a distinguished career as an artist, landscape architect, professor, and higher education leader. She most recently served as dean of the Division of Architecture and Design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she also held the roles of interim associate provost of research and a department head. She taught for more than a decade at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“Scheri Fultineer impressed us as someone who will be able to not only sustain the incredible momentum at SMFA but also to lead the school to new achievements,” said James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “She is a highly experienced educator whose artistic practice is intellectually provocative, with themes that will resonate on the Fenway and Medford/Somerville campuses and university-wide.”

Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of Tufts University Art Galleries and chair of the search committee, said that in a talented pool, “Fultineer stood out for her impressive depth of administrative and leadership experience, her clear commitment to holistic arts education, and her rigor and creativity.”

SMFA’s tradition of innovation in arts education was a strong magnet for Fultineer, who will also be a professor of the practice at the school and is eager to advance multidisciplinary collaboration. “Together SMFA and the university offer an intellectually and creatively rich community with multiple resources, multiple ways of looking at the world, and multiple knowledge sets,” says Fultineer. “They can be extremely powerful when they work together.”

She lauds SMFA’s interdisciplinary BFA and MFA degrees and the fact that each student identifies their own academic trajectory and works with faculty advisors to identify what knowledge they need to reach their goals. For some, she says, that might be learning to weld. For others, it might be learning about the science of climate change and how their art can represent those processes in a way that makes them accessible to other people.

SMFA’s approach also teaches students to be entrepreneurial, says Fultineer, a founding principal of Reisen Design Associates, where she practiced for almost 20 years. “That preparation is important,” she says, “because we live in an increasingly complex world with challenging issues. The ability to navigate these complexities requires skills that build the ‘intellectual muscle’ to determine what knowledge you need, go after it, assess what you’re learning, and apply it.”

A foundational skill, adds Fultineer, is “learning to become comfortable with ambiguity.” Pathways to success, she says, are rarely linear; often they resemble a network of knowledge that nourishes itself. Fultineer believes the ability to navigate ambiguity is particularly valuable when large groups address complex problems such as social justice and historical exclusion. She wants to nurture approaches that may be nuanced and messy but yield significant results.

As a landscape architect, Fultineer relishes working with living material because of the special relationship between artist and material. “Is it going to grow, thrive, or die? There’s an ethical dimension that I love,” she says. She traces at least part of her scholarly interest in how cultural practices influence human shaping of the landscape to her grandfather, a minister who often offered services outdoors, and being raised partially among people with a deep practical and spiritual relationship with the land.

Earning master’s degrees in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and landscape architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design helped her integrate her disparate interests. It also taught her how to sit across the table from people with diametrically opposed views and “argue ideas” in a way that brought understanding and the ability to work together. “That was a very precious thing to learn, and it’s a set of skills I want to keep honing,” she says.

Fultineer’s researchmuch of it funded by the National Science Foundationhas examined the challenge of incorporating sustainability into our landscapes, whether the issue is declining shellfish populations or deciding whether and how to restore failing regional dams. Effective solutions require public engagement, says Fultineer, and the arts are uniquely able to foster such understanding, for example, through images showing how an oyster’s tiny foot must attach to a stable base in order to thrive.

Her work has inspired novel art courses such as “Oysterculture: Creating Sculptural Shellfish Habitat” and “The Future of Dams: Visualizing Alternative Scenarios.”

“These courses have been among the richest teaching experiences I’ve had because students are hungry to address these topics and bring so much to these courses,” says Fultineer.

Fultineer’s appointment follows an extensive national search launched after the untimely passing of Margaret Vendryes, who had been named incoming dean in January.

Nate Harrison, SMFA dean ad interim, and Eulogio Guzmán, faculty affairs advisor to the SMFA dean ad interim, will provide continued leadership until Fultineer joins SMFA January 1. “We’re greatly indebted to them for their ongoing support,” said Glaser.

While Fultineer says she has a lot more to learn about SMFA and the university as she takes a “ground up approach to growth,” a clear priority has emerged from her conversations so far.

“One of the things I hope to work on right away is knitting SMFA more deeply into the larger university,” she says. “The students and faculty at the school have so much to offer, and so many different talents and abilities to focus on today’s issues. Having a strong and vital engagement with the larger student body and faculty will be beneficial to everyone. I’m looking forward to doing everything I can to create that sense of active community.”

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