The teaching of art at Northern Michigan University goes back to the 1899 opening of Northern, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s teachers' school. At that time it wa called drawing and the instructor also taught geography. This situation soon changed. Art was an important component in teacher education. During the early days of Northern, a founding father of the Marquette area, Peter White, provided special funding for the purchase of art replicas (paintings, lithographs, sculptures) that were placed throughout Northern's buildings. The idea was to create a museum effect. One of the most well-known (and well-liked) art teachers in the early days of Northern’s Art and Design Department was Grace Spalding (1903-1938), for whom one of NMU’s residence halls is named.

In 1965, Richard “Mike” Gorski was hired as the department head. It was his task to restructure the Art Department and bring in curriculum change. There was a shift away from the earlier emphasis on art as a teaching tool to art as a creative and unique experience. The younger faculty Gorski hired were experimental artists, interested in exploring new media of artistic expression with their students.

As evidence of this change in focus, on June 11, 1966, the name was changed from the Department of Arts to the Department of Visual Arts. Effective August 1973, the official name became the Department of Art and Design. In August 1972, Northern’s governing board approved the bachelor of fine arts degree. The result of Gorski’s work was the creation of a multi-faceted department.

Since the start of the 21st century, art and design has been one of Northern Michigan University’s fastest-growing academic areas. In 2006, art and design became the top NMU major with more than 400 students enrolled in the program. In recognition of the growth of the art and design programs, the NMU Board of Trustees changed the name of the department to the School of Art and Design in the spring of 2007.

Over the years, the department has had scattered quarters around the campus. In the beginning, the department was located in Kaye Hall with adjacent kilns, which were demolished in 1970. Classes were then held in the Russell Thomas Fine Arts Building. In 1969, the department offices were relocated to the Learning Resources Center. Later in the 1970s, offices and work areas were expanded to Lee Hall and the Birdseye Building, which was renovated into dark rooms. This remained the center of art and design until late August 1996, when ultra-modern facilities were opened in the old service building and power plant, and called Art and Design Studios North.

In 2004-05, a major renovation of Art and Design North was undertaken, which included a significant addition. The renovation was completed and the building reopened in January 2005, marking the first time since the 1960s that all art and design studios, classrooms and faculty offices were in one building. In spring 2007, the new facility was recognized by the Wisconsin society of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for an excellence in architectural design award.

The school is also home to the DeVos Art Museum, which provides students, faculty and the region with exposure to visiting exhibitions in addition to the university’s permanent art collection.

Department chairs or heads: Grace Spalding, 1903-1938; Nadia Thorpe Leonardelli, 1938-1946; Cleobelle Harris, 1946-1965; Richard Gorski, 1965-1975; Thomas Cappuccio, 1975-1978; Michael Cinelli, 1978- present.

Primary Source: A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University, Dr. Russell Magnaghi.