Historical circumstances in the 17th-18th centuries led to the development of Armenian spiritual life and culture mostly beyond Armenia, in the Armenian colonies spread all over the world. Traditions of arts education of this period were enriched with the latest achievements of European art that reached the Armenian artistic milieu mostly through the spread of printing. In the second half of the 19th century in several Armenian colonies as well as in Armenia a number of seminaries and colleges were opened. Their curricula included such subjects as painting, music and aesthetics.
Nevertheless, Armenian youth received higher education beyond Armenia in prestigious academies and institutions of Georgia, Russia and Europe. The majority of the first generation Armenian young professionals educated abroad taught at newly opened schools and seminaries in Armenian colonies, helped founding higher educational institutions, designed syllabi and painting methodologies and printed first textbooks. While the second generation artists laid the foundations of higher education in arts already in their homeland. Thus first painting schools opened in Soviet Armenia in 1921, while in early 40s the idea of establishing a higher educational institution of fine arts was widely discussed among Armenian artists.
Renowned sculptor Ara Sargsyan and the father of Armenian fine arts Martiros Saryan made several trips to Moscow for negotiations with the committee leaders to get permission. Finally, in the spring of 1944 a permission by the USSR relevant committee to open Fine Arts Institute was granted, which was approved in July 1945 by a decree of the Armenian Central Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars.
In a letter to Martiros Saryan, Ara Sargsyan writes, “For the first time in the history of the Armenian people a dream comes true! This is history.” First entrance exams were held in the summer of 1945. The sculptor Ara Sargsyan was appointed the first rector of the Institute.
Since then Fine Arts Institute became the major hub of Armenia’s cultural life, a vibrant venue for creativity, exchange of ideas, vision and styles, as well as a place of collision and formation of artistic principles.
Always alert and responsive to changes, the administration of the Institute kept in mind the importance of development of different branches of art for the country’s cultural and economic growth being the first to respond to the needs of creating new departments.
Two departments were opened from the outset: painting and sculpture with Martiros Saryan and Ara Sargsyan as the deans of each. The two departments included chairs of painting, drawing, printmaking, theory and history of fine arts, which were founded and headed by Gabriel Gyurjyan, Ara Sargsyan, Hakob Kojoyan, Vramshapuh Shakaryan and Yeghishe Martikyan. They were assisted by both acclaimed masters and young artists, among them Suren Stepanyan, Aharon Khudaverdyan, Ararat Gharibyan, Ruben Drambyan, Grigor Aharonyan, Eduard Issabekyan, Ara Bekaryan, Mher Abeghyan, Arpenik Nalbandyan, Vahan Harutyunyan, Karapet Metsaturyan, Eda Abrahamyan and Tereza Mirzoyan.
The founders of Armenian art school were successful and renowned artists with versatile artistic education who had mastered various elements and techniques of Russian and European art. Each of them was a visionary of color, line and volume combining their mastery and knowledge with the existing classical teaching methodology. Gradually traditions of classical and purely Armenian art in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing took shape.
Over the years the curricula and teaching methodologies were revised and upgraded standing the test of time and reaching us today.
In 1952 Theatre and Fine Arts Institutes were merged and moved to a former school building in Isahakyan Street by decree of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union.
The new Institute of Fine Arts and Theatre reorganized into two departments: fine arts and theatre arts each with its subdivisions. The opening of ceramics department in 1955 was a major achievement in 50s and 60s. Famous decorative-applied arts master Hripsime Simonyan was the founding head of the department. Participation in the graduate exhibition of the Soviet Union Republic art universities held in Moscow (1956), the opening of the department of textile and tapestry, folk art and traditional crafts (1961), as well as the establishment of a new chair of design (1963) marked the series of important events of the period. Chief painter of Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theatre Ashot Mirzoyan became the first Head of the Chair.
The 1970s and 1980s are considered the Golden Age of the Institute. The main fine arts institute became a rare place where the freedom of creativity was encouraged and considered the basis for educational system. Regardless of many difficulties that emerged after the two institutes were united, delirious coexistence of theatrical and visual art worlds generated creative energy that permeated the whole building from the entrance to courtyard.
During the summer months the courtyard buffet turned into an open-air bohemian café where everybody knew each other. The most remarkable personality of those years was the painter and Deputy Rector Manuk Hovsepyan. In 1980s first studios were opened in the chairs of painting and sculpture each headed by one distinguished artist. Thus, Eduard Issabekyan and Ara Bekaryan (succeeded by Anatoli Papyan in 1984) headed the painting studio, while Tereza Mirzoyan, Sergey Baghdasaryan and Ara Harutyunyan headed the sculpture studio. These are names that had a great impact on the history of the institute bringing fame to a place where artistic vision of the new generation took its shape.
Another important achievement of the 80s was the opening of the department of Art History and Theory in the faculty of visual arts. Here the leading art historians, archeologists, architects and historians were invited to give lectures.
During 1960s and 1980s middle and young generation artists were teaching in the visual arts chairs. It is hard to mention anyone for each was remarkable and unique. Painters Grigor Aghasyan, Hrant Hovsepyan, Masis Grigoryan, Armen Atayan, Mkrtich Sedrakyan, Varos Shahmuradyan, Paravon Mirzoyan, Edvard Vardanyan and Aram Issabekyan; sculptors Tariel Hakobyan, David Bejanyan, Ara Harutyunyan, Getik Baghdasaryan, Frants Simonyan, Arsham Shahinyan and Levon Vardanyan are all utterly different each with his own input, vision and artistic language. Some of them set off in quest of modern forms and alternative expressive means and through a complicated path of artistic language they enriched the Armenian visual arts with new subjects and statements, defining new aesthetic taste and standards.
The Institute of Fine Arts and Theatre took an active part in the 1988 Karabakh movement and its consequences: the process of gaining independence and outbreak of the war with Azerbaijan. From 1990 to 1991 students of visual arts department Artur Gharibyan, Aram Petrosyan, Aleksan Babayan, Robert Abrahamyan, Smbat Hakobyan and Andranik Ghazaryan volunteered to go to the frontline. Unfortunately Artur and Aram died in liberating fights of Martakert and Hadrut and were posthumously awarded with Medal of Honor. In memory of Artur Gharibyan, by rector’s decree Fine Arts Institute dedicated one of its studio spaces on 42 Komitas Street to house a museum of the hero. The opening ceremony took place in 2001.
Alongside a common euphoria after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new independent status of Armenia in 1991, the country entered a phase of political turmoil: the 1988 devastating earthquake, the Karabakh war, energy crisis and blockade imposed on Armenia were bitter challenges and to overcome those great efforts and resources were necessary.
During this harsh transitional period the Institute of Fine Arts and Theatre too faced problems that demanded solution.
In 1990 professor of the Chair of Painting Aram Issabekyan was elected Visual Arts Department Deputy Rector who, in order to reorganize and reform the work of the Visual Arts Department, made every attempt to find effective solutions during those harsh war years. Without minimal state subsidies it was necessary to supply the institute with sufficient materials, equipment, artistic paraphernalia, as well as pay the sitters and implement reforms in study programs.
However, the most urgent remained the building issue. The need to separate the two institutes was prompted already in 1987. And in 1994 Fine Arts and Theatre Institutes split up. Fine Arts Institute remained in the old building in Isahakyan Street. Aram Issabekyan was appointed as the rector of the new institute. While extending the independent status and possibilities of the institute, it faced difficulties as well that first of all hit maintenance of the building and financial means. The building was in disrepair: auditoriums, halls, bathrooms were dilapidated.
As a result of poor management by the previous administration, many aspects were neglected, archival materials and graduation works created within the last 20 years were lost or perished; there were no laboratories, exhibition space, facilities and equipment necessary for arts institute.
A flexible and smart management combined with caring attitude would help settle the situation and move forward. As a rector Aram Issabekyan showed remarkable organizational skills, strategic intelligence and foresight, which enabled him to quickly lead the institute through a crisis. He initiated constructive changes and envisioned development perspectives. To have full control of the situation the new rector formed a group of allies to study and manage economy and give solutions to other relevant issues. Human resources and commitment were of utmost importance during this period, which in fact enabled to preserve the heritage and continue moving forward through a new and arduous path. First, the roof of the building was totally repaired; in 1997 a new building next to the main one was acquired through great efforts. Dilapidated building was repaired and given to the Department of Design and Decorative-Applied Arts. Unfortunately due to lack of funding, the major hall of the Institute was not repaired. As a result of the expansion of the space, extra studios and labs were opened, as well as new departments and chairs, as for example the Department of Design and Outfit Modeling which was the first one to open in Armenia back in 1990, started to operate as a separate Chair of Fashion and Textile Manufacturing Design, which upon the initiative of the Deputy Rector Aram Issabekyan later merged with the Chair of Design. With the same farsightedness the Chair of Graphic Design opened for the first time in Armenia in 2001.
In 1994 classes of printmaking resumed with re-equipment of necessary facilities and printing presses of the laboratory.
When the faculty of Design and Decorative-applied Arts split a third joint Chair of Drawing and Painting opened. Unfortunately, the Department of Metalworking opened back in 1997 was closed due to lack of students and low demand. New approaches and changes of educational core values led to the review of subjects taught at the chairs of theory, as well as to the engagement of new professionals. In spite of difficulties Armenia faced during that period, students kept the tradition of summer internships, visiting various regions of Armenia and its historical monuments, as well as liberated territories in Nagorno-Karabakh. Concerned with psychological recovery, creation of job opportunities for young people and as an encouragement of the population in the disaster area in 1988, the branch of Fine Arts Institute opened in Gyumri in 1997. It has five chairs: Painting, Sculpture and Decorative-applied Arts, Printmaking, Outfit Modeling, Arts and Humanities. The second branch opened in Dilijan in 1999, which aimed at promoting the arts and crafts typical of the region. The main focus of studies is carpet weaving, ornamental art, stylized textiles and outfit modeling. Opening of the Albert and Tove Boyajian Exhibition Hall in 2001 next to the institute building marked another important step to promote artistic life of the Institute. It was realized upon the initiative of Rector Aram Issabekyan and American-Armenian benefactor Albert Boyajian’s support.
Soon the gallery became one of the vibrant cultural hubs of Yerevan. Through its cultural events and exhibitions the art-loving community learns about aspiring artists and contemporary art trends. Famous Paris Cité Internationale des Arts marked next remarkable initiative of Aram Issabekyan with generous donation of Gagik Tsarukyan in 2007. So now the Academy owns a studio for 25 years. As a tribute to distinguished artists and pedagogues for their commitment and input, the studios were posthumously named after the artists. The painting studios bear the names of Eduard Issabekyan, Ara Bekaryan and Anatoli Papyan; sculpture studios: Ara Sargsyan, Ara Harutyunyan and Sergey Baghramyan. In addition graduates of best diploma works are awarded with prizes after Eduard Issabekyan, Ara Sargsyan and Hakob Kojoyan.
Scientific research is very important for any university. It enables professors to combine pedagogical skills with science activity. The result of the research is the Collection of Scientific Articles issued since 1971, which was reissued in 2004 as a Yearbook.
Other than that, in 2013 a Fine Arts Academy Yearbook: Art Historical and Humanitarian Researches was published in a new format and layout.
As an encouragement to the institute’s research activity and promotion of its students’ potential, Fine Arts Institute launched post-graduate studies in 1999. The Academy has had 29 post-graduate students so far, and the majority has successfully defended their thesis. In 2000 after long and persistent efforts of Aram Issabekyan and by decree of the RA Government, Fine Arts Institute was renamed into Yerevan State Fine Arts Academy and entered a new development phase through the Bologna Process. Alongside its branches, the Academy adopted the cycles of higher education since the year 2004-2005. Educational programs were sufficiently upgraded aimed at the development of students’ analytical and critical skills, as well as encouragement of independent research. The system of credits was introduced; international collaboration of universities was launched and developed. During six years 18 collaboration agreements were signed and ties established between the art universities of France, Georgia, Ukraine, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, and CIS countries.
A rare inter-university cooperation with prestigious Japanese Soka University took place in 2010. Rector Aram Issabekyan and Professor Karen Aghamyan were awarded the title of Honorary Doctors of Soka University. Respectively, Aram Issabekyan awarded the founding president of Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement Daisaku Ikeda with the title of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Academy.
Involvement in the TEMPUS International Program gave the Academy an opportunity of changes in educational programs, international cooperation development, re-equipment of laboratories and purchase of facilities. The Academy also initiated structural changes; new subdivisions and centers were created. At present the Academy is engaged in five different TEMPUS programs, managing one of them. It also implements a joint project with the World Bank.
In 1945 there were only 16 lecturers, while total number of lecturers 2014/15 is 149 with 31 professors and 3 correspondent members of the National Academy of Sciences. Total number of lecturers in Gyumri and Dilijan branches is 36 altogether. Students too show high numbers: their number from 1945 to 1947 rose from 244 to 402, while in 1970s and 1980s their average number varied from 360 to 430, including students from Theatre Department. During the harsh years of 1990s after the split of the institutes the Academy successfully maintained the number of its students. In 2000s their number almost doubled reaching its highest 680 in 2010/11.
The best acknowledgment of the 70-year traditions of the State Academy of Fine Arts is success, recognition and awards students and graduates receive both in Armenia and abroad. Through commitment and professionalism of professors, high standards of new educational approaches the Academy graduates become highly competitive and independent artists sought after by local and international art markets.
Dedicated to its prime mission, Yerevan Academy of Fine Arts continues to educate highly qualified professionals in the history and theory of art, visual arts, design and decorative-applied arts. By adjusting creative and educational processes with today’s social and cultural sustainability needs the Academy claims to become not only a leading educational center, but also a modern cultural and research center in the region.