PennDesign and SP2: Dual Master’s in Fine Arts & Social Work

Beginning this fall, PennDesign and the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) will offer a dual master’s program in fine arts and social work. The program will offer students the opportunity to earn both a master of fine arts degree and a master of social work degree over three years of study. It will be the first dual degree program in the country to train students as professional studio artists and social-work practitioners, with a focus on the integration of art and social justice.

The MFA/MSW curriculum addresses the needs of two sets of students: those in the arts who are looking for professional credentialing and a career in social justice, and those in social work who are seeking to integrate the arts into their practice as MSW-credentialed service providers. The creators of the program seek to attract artists and community activists and expect the program to generate new scholarship and research opportunities and enhance the ability of both schools to recruit students from underrepresented communities.

“I’ve had tons of students through the years who have had to kind of choose between a social work career and an art career,” said Toorjo Ghose, SP2 associate professor and founding director of the Center for Carceral Communities. “Disciplinarily, we have really kind of bifurcated that in the academy.”

“The program sprung out of collaborative work that was already being done between faculty in the two schools,” he said. The proposed curriculum utilizes current classes and current faculty in both SP2 and PennDesign. No new administrative staff, faculty hires or faculty overloads will be necessary to launch the program. The program expects to launch with three students.

The development of the dual MFA/MSW program overlaps with an “ethnographic turn” in contemporary art, said Ken Lum, professor and chair of the department of fine arts at PennDesign. At the same time, a reciprocal shift is also underway in social work.

“These disciplines have been turning to aesthetic practices in order to question the operations they’ve been under for a long time,” says professor Lum, who co-curated the public art and history project Monument Lab in Philadelphia in 2015 and 2017.

In spring 2018, for the first time, students at Penn had a chance to take an elective class called Art and Social Work: Art and the Ecology of Justice, co-taught by three faculty members from PennDesign, SP2 and the School of Arts and Sciences. Integrating scholarship and material from multiple disciplines, the class sought to engage MFA and MSW students in the theories, histories and practices of social change that shape—and are shaped by—art practices. The class will serve as an integrative seminar for students in the dual degree program, laying the groundwork for a multidisciplinary approach to social change through art.

“There’s always been kind of a bridge between the two schools, and so it seemed like a very natural way to move forward,” said Dr. Ghose. “As natural as the fit seems, I doubt that most universities have seen it yet … I think we will start a trend. It just seems obvious, given the amount of interest I’ve heard in this program from students.”