“Back to school” sounds good to children (who get to see their friends every day again) and to their parents (who get to not see their children for a number of hours every week day), but adults often find that their own schooling – say, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree – can be a hassle, what with the job, the kids, the cost of tuition, moving. Tuition for an MFA in sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art currently runs $43,760 for a full year (and it is a two-and-a-half year program), and then there are a range of required and optional fees, and we haven’t even gotten to food and accommodations. The low-residency MFA in studio art at the college is exactly half the cost of the full-time rate, which may be more palatable but still a big chunk of change.
The cost and time required for artists to earn a graduate degree has become a focus of attention for a growing number of nonprofit organizations, leading to the creation of what are being called alternative art schools. This past November, a group of 46 organizations held an alternative art school fair (https://pioneerworks.org/alternative-art-school-fair/) in Brooklyn, New York, offering a glimpse of what learning might be unencumbered by huge costs and the weight of a college or university bureaucracy.
Catherine Despont, co-director of education at Pioneer Works, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that offers short- and long-term educational workshops, as well as provides exhibition and performance space, for artists and who was one of the organizers of the fair, claimed that alternative art schools is a growing movement, with “close to 200 around the world, based on people who look to develop their own school and their own ways of learning.”
A number of these alternative art schools do not charge tuition but are supported by their fundraising, and those that are not free charge considerably less than accredited colleges and universities. For instance, the 12-week evening course for architects and designers that aims to empower them “with the tools to use design to be transformative of society” offered by Archeworks, a design school and “multidisciplinary think tank” in Chicago, costs only $3,100, said the organization’s executive director Andrew Balster. “MFA programs cost tens of thousands of dollars and take much longer to complete, but what we offer is short in duration and more focused, which fits the newer style maker-slash-start-up-slash-entrepreneur who wants to dive in, meet a whole new group of people and then move on.”
The alternative art school is “based on a European post-graduate model in which there are seminars of varying lengths for people working in an art practice, discussing broad theoretical, aesthetical and philosophical issues,” said Howard Singerman, who chairs Hunter College’s fine arts department. “In this country, the model that people refer to is Black Mountain College,” a nonaccredited, nondegree-granting school of sorts near Asheville, North Carolina that drew a variety of artists and writers in the 1940s and ‘50s, including Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Allan Kaprow, Alfred Kazin, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Siskind. Some were instructors and others were students, “but what came about was a fluid interaction between students and students, students and teachers, teachers and teachers. It was lightning in a bottle, and a number of places are hoping to recreate that.”
The starting point for this alternative art school movement is often thought to be 2010, according to Greg Sholette, associate professor in the art department at Queens College, “given additional momentum by Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and Movement of the Squares,” referring to mass demonstrations protesting government action in Europe and the Middle East. After 2010, he claimed, “a bevy of alternative, do-it-yourself educational experiments start to crop up from the U.S. to Europe.”
Alternative art schools may not be for every artist. “If your goal is to sell your work, to get noticed by art dealers and critics,” in effect, to feed the art market, “then the traditional Master of Fine Arts program probably makes sense for you,” said Craig L. Wilkins, an architect and professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning and one of the speakers at the alternative art school fair. “But, if your primary goal is to put art in the world and effect social change, to create work that crosses disciplines and doesn’t create problems for traditional schools – is this person an artist or an architect or a something else? – then an alternative art school is a better choice.”
Some aspects of the alternative art school is entering the more traditional universities, such as Nomad/9, an interdisciplinary low-residency Master of Fine Arts program that began this past fall at the University of Hartford’s Hartford Art School. The customary art school low-residency MFA consists of students who remain in their home towns but take academic courses and pursue their independent artwork in their own studios during the year, only coming to the college or university for a few weeks annually to meet faculty and other students, as well as attend workshops. Still relatively teacher-centered. Nomad/9’s students do their coursework and artwork at home for most of the year, but the program’s twist on the traditional low-residency MFA involves the art student residencies not taking place at the Hartford Art School but at designated locations around the country. This year’s students have been sited at Oakland, California and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The aim, according to Nomad/9’s program director Carol Padberg, is to create a “living classroom,” where students are “embedded in a community, participating in actual artists projects and cultural non-profits.” They also work with other artists in the MFA program. “Eco-artists, craft practitioners, studio artists and socially engaged artists all work side by side. One of our strengths is that when you get such a wide variety of artists together in these classes the conversation really takes off, because of all the different points of view. It all makes for a very dynamic, connected educational experience.”
It may be the fate of alternatives to become adopted or co-opted by the larger institutions, and some of the leading proponents of alternative art schools – such as Carol Padberg and Craig Wilkins – work for major universities. Still, many small nonprofits are holding out. “We have partnered with a number of institutions,” Archework’s Balster said, “including the University of Chicago, but we prefer to remain independent rather than a division of a department or a college, where we might be bogged down by the bureaucracy of the institution and get told what to do. We would have to charge more and we wouldn’t be alternative anymore.”
By Daniel Grant