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Columbia University MFAs Share Stories of Dysfunctional Studios and Overworked Faculty

Current students and recent graduates of the revered program reflect on a series of internal crises that have come to light.

Prentis Hall (photo courtesy Columbia University)
Prentis Hall (photo courtesy Columbia University)

Last month, nearly all of the 54 students currently enrolled in Columbia University’s revered visual arts MFA program met with the Provost John Coatsworth and David Madigan, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to demand full tuition refunds. Their frustrations with the program, outlined in an extensive report by Juliette Verlaque for the Columbia Spectator, centered around the prolonged absences of many faculty members who are on sabbatical and the abysmal conditions in Prentis Hall, the building where many of the program’s studios are located.

The students’ frustrations were compounded by the incredible cost of Columbia’s MFA program, which consistently ranks among the best in the country but also comes with a hefty price tag: the tuition rate for the 2017–18 school year is $63,961. Though many of these issues have only recently come to the attention of people outside the Columbia MFA community, within the school these problems had persisted for years.

“I think it’s been a convergence of a number of longer-term issues that all came to some kind of stress point in this spring semester and it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing in terms of causality,” Matthew Buckingham, an artist and the chair of the Visual Arts MFA program, told Hyperallergic over the phone. “It’s the combination of things that the students are talking about, many of which are not actually related, and yet were unfolding or having an effect all at once.”

For one current MFA student, who wished to remain anonymous, the precipitating event was quite clear: the resignation of photographer Thomas Roma in January following accusations of sexual misconduct by former students.

“Overall, [Roma’s departure] fueled what was already a growing mistrust between the student body and those who actually have power to make certain decisions (like spending, hiring), and why that agency feels so distant from the people who are directly impacted by such decisions — ie. the students and the faculty,” the student said. “We’re basically trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. In order for even a Dean to be able to make any tangible change to a program they need monetary support, and when art students are paying $63,000 a year for inconsistently functional studios (which is where all of our classes take place, ostensibly), it feels all very confusing as to how the tuition that we are paying supports a functional — and safe — school environment.”

At least one member of the Columbia MFA class graduating this semester, Tim Roseborough, took the situation at the school in stride and did not seek a tuition refund.

“I did not participate in the meeting with the Provost, although I fully appreciate and respect my colleagues’ concerns,” Roseborough told Hyperallergic. “For me, it was a matter of where I chose to direct my creative and emotional energy, and I directed my enthusiasm to my school work and art projects. Not a particularly dramatic course of action, but it served my purposes.” He added: “I consider it a rare honor to have been accepted into the Columbia MFA program and I concerned myself with the opportunities to meet and interact with faculty (the ones present), visiting critics and the working artists in our Mentorship program.”

However, others faced problems — especially related to the conditions in the Prentis Hall studios — that were impossible to ignore.

Water damage to Ilana Harris-Babou's studio in Prentis Hall during her time in the Columbia MFA program (photo courtesy Ilana Harris-Babou)
Water damage to Ilana Harris-Babou’s studio in Prentis Hall during her time in the Columbia MFA program (photo courtesy Ilana Harris-Babou)

“My studio flooded during the first semester of my second year, and it was highly disruptive to my ability to focus on my studies,” artist Ilana Harris-Babou, who graduated from the Columbia MFA program in 2016, told Hyperallergic. “I ended up spending hours that should have been spent making work filling out paperwork and trying to recover damaged work and electronics. Facilities entered the space after it flooded, and cut into the walls with my ceramic sculptures still on the shelves. I returned to my studio to find a pile of my broken artwork on the ground, with no forewarning. I spent more money than I have to have my most valuable possessions destroyed. During first year, my windowless studio was sometimes too hot to work in. My skin became irritated by the dry, stagnant air. I was lightheaded from temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees.”

Another student from the 2016 MFA class, who wished to remain anonymous, praised the faculty’s perseverance and availability in the face of the facilities failures and the administration’s inaction.

“My experience with faculty was exceptional. I learned so much from them and I am very grateful to have had that experience,” the student said. “Matthew Buckingham in particular always made himself available and held program-wide meetings to discuss the structural problems of Prentis and to collectively think of solutions. It would be incorrect to make this story one of faculty against students. The students and faculty are aligned on having a functional space for the students to create works.” The student added: “To the best of my knowledge, the new Lenfest Center was designed without the consultation of the faculty or students. It’s a shame that that funding went into an exhibition space that serves as a face of the School of the Arts instead of going into fixing the building and scholarships.”

Indeed, directly across West 125th Street from the faltering Prentis Hall building is the pristine, Renzo Piano-designed Lenfest Center for the Arts. Though that new structure, opened in April 2017, does offer ample new exhibition spaces for the school’s Wallach Art Gallery — which is currently hosting the MFA program’s 2018 thesis exhibition — it doesn’t include any studio spaces or other production facilities to alleviate the needs no longer fulfilled by Prentis Hall.

Installation view of the 2018 Columbia Visual Arts MFA Thesis exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery (photo by Zachary Small for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of the 2018 Columbia Visual Arts MFA Thesis exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery (photo by Zachary Small for Hyperallergic)

“We’re very lucky to be able to do two exhibitions in a brand new professional exhibition space and also to partner with the Wallach Gallery, which strengthens our relationship with art history, which we’re very happy about,” Buckingham said. “The problem is that while one problem has been solved spectacularly, we still have a very real problem of teaching and learning in our own home base, and so I understand very well the frustration from the students.”

Meg Turner, a 2018 MFA printmaking student, echoed the complaints of many of her colleagues about dysfunctional studio spaces, citing uncontrollable heating in the student facilities. Turner had to vacate her studio for four days in the winter so her pipes could be better insulated and was compensated for the time lost. And although she feels that she’s received an outstanding education from her professors, she also connects the administration’s disorganization with recent departures.

“Our faculty is comprised of hardworking, dedicated, world-renowned artists,” Turner said. “I fully expect MFA faculty to take leaves of absence or sabbaticals to pursue residencies, research, and shows … No graduate full-time photography professor was installed [after Thomas Roma’s resignation], nor were full-time replacements found for the three professors on genuine leave. In February, after we began putting pressure on our Dean of the School of the Arts, Carol Becker, who is in sole control of the Visual Arts budget, we were told that next year, professors on leave will be replaced by full term appointments. There has been a pattern however in promises not followed through by the administration (such as the promise when I arrived in 2016 to provide free standing air conditioning units to all internal studios), so I hope this pressure will force a public commitment.” (Buckingham noted that plans are afoot to hire a full-time, permanent replacement for Roma next year.)

Bryan McGovern Wilson, an artist who graduated from the MFA program last year and had a studio in Prentis Hall throughout his two-year stint, cited the prolonged absence of essential faculty members as a much more damaging issue for him than the shabby facilities. According to the Spectator, three of the 11 full-time faculty members currently listed on the Visual Arts website are on sabbatical (Sanford Biggers, Shelly Silver, and Tomas Vu-Daniel), and another is currently only teaching undergraduate classes.

“I had lived and worked in NYC for eight years before going to Columbia, so I was used to compromised studio spaces and I never felt like I couldn’t get my work done,” Wilson told Hyperallergic. “That said, it’s nearly impossible to be creative in a windowless studio and it’s 90+ degrees in the wintertime. Of course, the price tag you’re paying to be in the program makes all of this obscene.”

The absences of faculty members and extra work heaped on those remaining “was much more of an issue for me and one that I felt very conflicted about,” Wilson said. “I felt that, in general, the faculty were either working far too many hours (and had been in the program way past what their energy would allow) or sporadically giving their time. Despite bringing concerns up repeatedly, not just as a student/teacher dialogue, but artist to artist, nothing really changed during my time.”

While the facilities problems in the MFA program may take longer to fix, the issue of faculty absenteeism may be resolved as early as the fall semester when, according to Buckingham, the department will begin hiring full-time replacements for faculty on sabbatical.

“I fully understand the students’ concern about three full-time faculty being on sabbatical at once, it is more than I would like to see,” Buckingham said. “It’s difficult in a two-year program because then you’re missing half of your time with someone. It’s a little more complex than that, but on the other hand, as chair, even before there were concerns voiced to me, I secured the possibility to make one-year, full-time appointments for people who go on sabbatical. So for next year, any sabbaticals will be replaced by a visiting full-time faculty, rather than individual adjunct faculty teaching in different classes. I’m very happy about that.”

Installation view of the 2018 Columbia Visual Arts MFA Thesis exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery (photo by Zachary Small for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of the 2018 Columbia Visual Arts MFA Thesis exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery (photo by Zachary Small for Hyperallergic)

As for remedying the shortage of functional studio spaces, the university’s administration is looking to replace Prentis Hall by retrofitting a nearby property, the Nash Building, into a studio complex.

“The facilities problems in Prentis Hall are regrettable, and the University is working aggressively to address them,” a university spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “To that end, we have compensated the Visual and Sound Arts Students in studios that previously experienced excessive heat and also those students whose artwork was damaged; in addition, we have been making substantial investments in interim improvements to Prentis Hall. These are only short term remedies. For a permanent solution, we are looking into creating newly renovated studio space in the nearby Nash Building as the most promising alternative for Columbia’s talented MFA students. The steps required to redesign Nash and ready it for this use are being pursued on an accelerated timetable.”

Buckingham hopes the move into the Nash Building, for which a feasibility study is in the works, can happen as soon as possible. That relocation, he said, paired with either decreasing tuition or offering more scholarships and the forthcoming change to the program’s sabbatical policy, are essential to helping the MFA program regain its standing and reputation.

The school must move quickly “to concretize the idea of moving to Nash Hall, to do the feasibility study as quickly as possible, and then to create a realistic timeline for the buildout and move so that we can plan accordingly,” Buckingham said. “And then to immediately take steps to begin fundraising for the visual arts program endowment that is within the School of the Arts with an objective of increasing scholarships to close the gap of need for incoming students in a way that will ensure we continue to attract the best emerging artists internationally and nationally. We have a great faculty, we have great students, we really just need to stabilize our teaching environment and then insure the future of incoming students.”

However, many of the students Hyperallergic spoke to felt that would-be applicants to Columbia’s MFA program should reconsider.

Water damage to Ilana Harris-Babou's studio in Prentis Hall during her time in the Columbia MFA program (photo courtesy Ilana Harris-Babou)
Water damage to Ilana Harris-Babou’s studio in Prentis Hall during her time in the Columbia MFA program (photo courtesy Ilana Harris-Babou)

“I no longer recommend attending the Columbia MFA to folks who ask me,” Harris-Babou said. “I care deeply about the program, and that’s why I feel the administration must be held accountable if it is going to move forward. I had amazing experiences, but I did not have to go through the struggles I went through in order to have those experiences.”

Wilson, meanwhile, sees the problems at Columbia only as a more extreme version of the crisis affecting many similar programs. “The Columbia program is in crisis, but it’s not radically different than what most MFA programs are facing nationally,” he said. “Too much is expected of grad students — financially and working for the school to justify their financial awards — and there aren’t enough strong incentives to have instructors/mentors that are passionate about teaching, rather than seeing the job as a compromise in their career, charity for the overprivileged.”

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