Saskia Bos: The Valedictory Interview

May 17, 2016

Saskia Bos in her office, May 2016. Photo by Marget Long/The Cooper Union

Saskia Bos in her office, May 2016. Photo by Marget Long/The Cooper Union

On March 24th Saskia Bos, dean of the School of Art for 11 years, announced she would be stepping down and returning to Europe, where she spent most of her years prior to arriving here in 2005. In her announcement to the Cooper community she wrote that she would be leaving on "a high note" with the school, "on the way back to its original mission" but that she now wanted to focus more on personal projects that the requirements of a deanship would prohibit. We spoke with her three years ago to get a sense of who she was and what she wanted to do. We now return to her office for a conversation that looks back to the highs and lows of her time as dean, as well as looking forward for the school and herself.

In 2005 you came to the School of Art after stepping down as artistic and managing director of a performance and exhibition space in Amsterdam. What drew you to The Cooper Union School of Art?

I wasn't at that moment looking for a job in education. But I was very attracted by the faculty, whom I knew, and I was attracted to being in New York and downtown. The people on the committee to find a new dean I had worked with before. I knew them in the mid-80s. One of them was Hans Haacke, who taught here for 40 years, who had retired by then but embodied Cooper Union for me. Then there was Dennis Adams who sometimes taught in Amsterdam. He knew I was looking for something after having been at De Appel for 20 years. My son was out of college and I felt I could leave.

How did you find the affairs of the school when you arrived?

It was a closed affair. It seemed there were no relationships with any other institutions at that time to make it vibrant. I think coming from Europe with the experience I had curating made the deanship different than the dean they had before, who was an alum. I was very much an outsider. And an insider in another way. An art insider. I tried to do communications better. Nobody here wanted to appear slick. Slick was seen as commercial. So the way they presented bios of the professors was like, "You know, that's him. Or that's her, she's great." It was an inside thing. So I thought they needed to communicate their strengths and qualities to the outside world better. It was interesting to see how the faculty walked that line and me with them. I worked really closely with them over the years.

How did those early years go?

In terms of projects, everything was about the new building. Everything was about getting money for the new building. And I had hardly any influence over the architecture. I thought the gallery was terrible. I never got my hands around that.

What would you have preferred for the gallery?

I would never have put it in the basement. You should never look down on art. I think that is a very bad idea because people get an immediate overview and say, "Been there. Done that." So my suggestion was to make the space into two galleries: one that you would see art on your own level and then you could go down a staircase to a lower gallery. That idea was met with "zoning" objections. But why moan about that? The good thing is that students always solve those problems. They are artists. They go at it. They criticize it. And they change it around in ways I never would have thought about. That has been fantastic and surprising.

During your time here you managed to put on some of your own co-curated exhibitions.

I though it would be nice for the 150th year to curate a show called Free as Air and Water. How free is air? How pure is that water? So we explored ecology and human rights. That was the first one. Steven Lam, the associate dean at the time, and I collaborated. He was lovely to work with. Later Steven and I collaborated again on The Crude and the Rare, which is a riff off of Le Cru et le Cuit [Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1964], The Raw and the Cooked. The crude is the oil. This was just after the BP disaster in the Gulf. The rare was rare earths and those materials. The common denominator would be a consciousness of the earth and of ecological factors. That was 2010. We planned another show in 2011 and realized it in 2012, Ruptures, which explored the struggle for democracy and public space. There were a lot of artists associated with the Occupy movement. They wanted to express their solidarity with the 99%. I found that very interesting, particularly the relationship to the protest works of the 1960s. Then the Peter Cooper suite was occupied.

What was your feeling during that time and the occupation of the president's office a few months later?

I've always felt it as a matter of responsibility. Hoping the students are safe. There was talk of whether the guards were carrying arms. There were lots of extra guards we didn't know. I was more afraid of those guards and what they could do. Would the police come on to campus? Did they want that? We were at that point three women together. Elizabeth O'Donnell AR'83, T.C. Westcott [the V.P. of Finance at the time] and I felt this sort of joint responsibility to deal with it in a strong but soft way.

How did you experience those conflicted years?

There was talk of maybe closing the art school. That was quite drastic. We were really fearful at that moment. I felt responsible that nothing bad would happen. I was called to sign a letter in support of the president. I declined. I wanted to play a bridge role. I was not signing for any camp. But I am very happy to have pushed the students to demand representation on the Board. That's what counts in the long run.

Of the three schools, the School of Art constituencies seemed the most activated by the financial crisis and its developments. Why do you think that is?

A contemporary artist sees him or himself as an agent of change of society. That role is very much embedded in society. Even if you are not out there with a billboard you can still be an agent of change through your work. And there is also the money. A lot of artists don't have a great income. You cannot generalize too much but the affinity of an artist with social change is big.

Is there anything particular to The Cooper Union's School of Art to make it so?

There is a history of social engagement at the School of Art and its faculty. Alums are aware of that. It is part and parcel of the Cooper philosophy. That's also why other institutions admire us. It's a radical approach: we are looking for excellence, we are looking for the very best, we are selecting them in a way that is a meritocracy, we think that the playing field should be level. And at the same time they are all individuals because there is nothing more individualistic than becoming an artist.

What do you see as some of your achievements during your time as dean?

One of my early goals was to bring in "oxygen" in the form of fostering outside relationships with the school. I think I have done that in terms of working with Performa, the biennial, since 2006, as well as working with the New Museum along with the school of architecture to make ourselves present and be a collaborator with them. We also have worked with Creative Time. I also argued hard for film, video, performance and sound art classes to add to the breadth to what has traditionally been sculpture, drawing, painting and photography. A broader spectrum and a more serious consideration of performance comes with the times. Now our performance class is overenrolled. I think the curriculum is how the school is shaped and I do that together with faculty and the curriculum committee. I think I've been able to widen that and also to give support to contemporary art issues, a class I also taught. I really enjoyed that.

You just announced three new hires for full-time, tenure-track faculty. What qualities were you and the faculty committee looking for?

I feel very good about the full time faculty hires. I had hired only one other in 11 years. There never seemed to be money for full time hires. For the new faculty we advertised for candidates in many fields. New faculty needs to be able to teach, "across the disciplines," is how we call it. These faculty hires are a great gift. I must say that Bill Mea in allowing new full time faculty for all the schools has created a sea change, I find that fantastic. For our college it's very daring to say, "We will create these positions." Of course  many people are wondering, "Can we do this? Is it too much money?" But this is core. This is building it from the inside.

Mike Essl A'96 will be acting dean after you leave. Do you have any words of advice?

If I could make a recommendation I suggest continuing to look for outside relationships and be open to the world around the school.  It's good to have alumni and it’s a strength, but not exclusively. I think you should keep opening the windows to this city and this country and other parts of the world.

Why have you chosen to leave?

11 years is a long time. I didn't want to leave at a low point. I wanted to be here. Now we are on a new high so now I can depart. I think Cooper is on a great roll again. And for me personally I am not interested in a nine to five job. I want to travel and rebuild my library. Amsterdam will be my hub. And from there I will travel.

Are you retiring?

No. I am relocating. I am rethinking the way I spend my time. I am not looking for another field, I will be in the same area but with a different way of spending my time. I want to be more reflective and want to be deepening connections that I have. I no longer would spend merely two days in a place where there's something new to see, a new museum, a biennial. It may be three weeks. I am not so in to positions. I am into what I like to do. I once made radio programs with artists. So who knows?

What do you see for the future of The Cooper Union?

It will be positive. Because soon it will be 2018, when the Chrysler Building rent goes up. It's not going to be a windfall but it will be a very positive moment. Since 2010 we have been talking about how are we going to get to 2018. Now it's only two years away. I hope they find a great person to lead the college. And if they don't find someone right away they already have someone who is doing quite well.  I leave on a very optimistic note. I love this institution. It's time for me to move on personally. But it will be fine. It's something to be super proud of to be here and to have worked here.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.