A version of this story first appeared in the 2023 issue of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.
The perception of an art degree is changing.
While other areas of academic study may struggle in the wake of the pandemic, recruitment numbers are up in the Department of Art at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Department Head Angie To credits some of that change in perception to the state of affairs in the modern world.
“At this moment, there is a lot of global upheaval and uncertainty,” she said, “so when people think about college, they are realizing that this is a moment you should prioritize your deep passions.”
Students pursuing those passions benefit from training skills that will prepare them for various careers. With an undergraduate degree in art, many paths are open to students after graduation.
“Some students continue on to be studio artists, but we have a lot of students who bring that critical thinking and creative problem solving to all different sectors of society,” she said.
To joined the department in July 2021, coming from Alfred University in New York. She said she was drawn to UTC because of the tight-knit nature of the department.
“I’m here mainly to connect the art department with the city of Chattanooga, at large,” she said, “but also across campus.”
In her year and a half in Chattanooga, To already feels connected and supported by Chattanooga’s art scene. She recently won a 2023 Racial Equity Grant from local non-profit ArtsBuild, saying she will use the funds to produce a suite of six large-scale paintings that address the lack of Asian representation in the Western canon.
She sees the grant as a badge of support. “It’s incredible to feel so supported by both fellow artists and the community.”
To is working to ensure that students engage with the local art community.
“I’m in the process of setting up internships across town with different entities,” she explained. The goal is to immerse students in work positions to exercise what they learn at UTC before they graduate.
To has been showcasing her department across campus. Since she arrived at UTC, Art Department pieces have been produced and displayed in the provost’s office, Advancement House and the Division of Diversity and Engagement—which created a fellowship and gallery series last winter.
To said the Department of Art is built around student success. Its acceptance requirements differ from other art programs, as no portfolio is required to apply.
“We get students from all over the region,” she said, “and there isn’t always strong K-12 art education. We accept every student who has an interest in art.”
To help level the playing field, students are taught the basics during the first two years of pursuing an art degree at UTC.
After those initial two years, the program becomes more individualized. Upper-level students can be found honing their craft in various spaces around campus, including the Fine Arts Center—which contains a woodshop; studio areas behind Patten House; and the 801 McCallie Building, with workspaces utilized by students and faculty.
For To, student success comes at the intersection of on-campus learning and community engagement.
“It’s my goal to help students have an experience out in the community where they can see how their skills and the unique things they do translate into job skills.”