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Steeped in history. Eye on the future.

For nearly 150 years, SMFA has been on the cutting edge of art education. From our original focus on the French École des Beaux-Arts movement and the English Arts and Crafts movement, to our early embrace of Bauhaus ideas, to our 1960s emphasis on exploring a mix of techniques and mediums, to our present-day emphasis on an open curriculum, we have never strayed from our mission of preparing students to become contemporary artists and thinkers determined and prepared to make a difference.

Key Moments

1876 – The School of Drawing and Painting opens within the Museum of Fine Arts at its first location in Copley Square.

1879 – Enrollment climbs to 160 students (120 women and 40 men). The Art Student Association, which later becomes The Copley Society, is founded. American impressionist painter Edmund Tarbell studies at the school.

1884 – The school offers first diplomas. A student journal, The Art Student, publishes a review of photography as art.

1890 – Museum School alums, Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell, take charge of the school.

1899 – Robert Billings bequeaths $100,000 to the school.

1901 – The Museum of Fine Arts incorporates The School of Drawing and Painting, changing its name to The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

1903 – The Massachusetts School of Design (formerly the Lowell School of Practical Design) merges with SMFA.

1904 – SMFA students exhibit nearly 300 works in the Department of Education of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

1904 – The Copley Society presents the work of James McNeil Whistler.

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History 1908
SMFA painting class in 1908.

1909 – SMFA moves from Copley Square to the Fenway and is housed in temporary buildings on the site of the surface parking lot. It is no longer contained within the Museum.

1913 – The Copley Society presents the European portion of the Armory Show.

1918 – Enrollment doubles in size in the years after the end of World War I.

1919-1923 – Influential artist Loïs Mailou Jones enrolls in SMFA night classes.

1927 – The school moves into new quarters, designed by Guy Lowell, at 230 The Fenway.

1934 – Alexandre Lacovleff becomes director of the Department of Drawing and Painting.

1937 – Karl Zerbe takes over the Department of Drawing and Painting. A significant shift towards individualism takes place.

1940 – Russell Smith becomes head of the school.

1944 – Smith becomes visiting professor at Tufts College.

1945 – SMFA and Tufts University collaborate on their first joint degree program focused on teacher training.

1946 – Painter Ellsworth Kelly studies at the school.

1953 – The Student Exhibition Committee presents a retrospective (1935-1953) of the paintings of Willem de Kooning.

1956 – Bachelor of Fine Arts program established in cooperation with Tufts University. 

1956 – Jan Cox appointed head of the Painting Department.

1956-1959 – Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art shares quarters with SMFA at 230 The Fenway.

1960 – Master of Fine Arts program established in cooperation with Tufts University.

1960s – Groundbreaking video and performance artist Joan Jonas studies at the school.

1966 – The Wingspread Conference reaffirms the mission of “non-university” art schools to educate professional artists. This lays the groundwork to allow faculty and students to reformulate SMFA.

1968 – William Bagnall is appointed dean of school. Faculty hierarchies are dissolved, all students have access to all courses and studios at SMFA, and the Review Board system is established.

1987 – Building expansion at 230 The Fenway includes the addition of the B Building and the Atrium.

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Groundbreaking of the B Wing.
Groundbreaking of the B Wing.

1995 – Israeli video artist Omer Fast completes a combined degree in Painting and English.

2003 – Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi earns an MFA.

2016 – SMFA begins new partnership with Tufts University and joins the School of Arts and Sciences.