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As MFA Shows Get Canceled, Alternative Projects Take Shape

It would be impossible for artists not to feel disappointed after dedicating themselves to rigorous and costly programs of study that tout MFA exhibitions as a crowning opportunity.

Still from a video work by Sally Clegg at University of Michigan’s Stamp Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As people on the internet post hilariously awkward senior portraits in solidarity with the high school classes of 2020 — who are being deprived by COVID-19 of signature high school moments like prom and graduation — a different cohort of grads are also feeling left out: the 2020 BFA and MFA candidates, whose culminating shows have been canceled or stalled out by the pandemic. While everyone recognizes that public health and systemic stability are higher concerns, it would be impossible for artists not to feel disappointed by the loss of their grad shows, after dedicating themselves to these rigorous and costly programs of study that often tout the exhibitions as their crowning opportunity to launch into the art world. In a touching TikTok video, artist and Washington State University MFA candidate, Azzah Sultan, encapsulated the devastation experienced by these losses.

@citysultantbh I’ve just been listening to 1D to keep myself calm and less sad lol ##fyp ##art♬ Night Change – One Direction

Luckily, artists are inherently creative, and alternative grad show exhibitions have begun to spring up like mushrooms after a hard rain. Most of these are leveraging the virtual tools to which many a creative-class industry has pivoted over the last weeks, to keep the wheels on while physical infrastructure is untenable. While many universities and arts organizations struggle to create overarching policies and practices that address the concerns of their entire student bodies, individuals have taken swift action to support MFA grads.

One of these is Benjamin Cook, an adjunct instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, who founded the Social Distance Gallery website and Instagram to host grad shows that have been affected by the health crisis.

Screenshot from the Social Distancing Gallery Instagram. Professors wishing to gather and submit their students’ grad work for inclusion may do so according to these guidelines.

“Everybody’s scared and worried because we don’t have all of the information as to what’s happening or what’s next, so people are kind of turning to each other, and this place has been somewhere that folks are reaching out through comments, to me, to each other, and building their own support systems,” said Cook, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic editor Jasmine Weber.

“The end goal is to get views for all of these students who were otherwise not going to get anyone to see all of their work. I also want them to be able to reach out to one another, start to build their own networks, find the colleagues who are interested in similar things than them.”

Instagram is already a tool for many an artist, but it’s become a lifeline for new grads anxious to get their thesis shows into the world. It’s become a mainstay for students from Penn State University, including Zsuzsi Nagy, Andrew R. Castaneda, John Domenico, and Mohammed Shahhosseini, who are working to translate their material visual artworks to the more ephemeral format of Instagram. Ceramics MFA Domenico has additionally released a lengthy written thesis to accompany his visual documentation, while fellow Penn State MFA Cairus Larsen is planning an Instagram-based performance and artist talk in the coming week.

On the institutional level, things are a little slower to adapt. Most universities recognize the need to do something to address the situation for their arts grads, but few have fully implemented solutions — hampered, of course, by the necessity of working remotely and on the fly. RISD has ongoing coverage of their COVID-19 response on its website, and has also formed a task force, which has thus far released the following statement:

The format and timing of RISD’s 2020 Graduate Thesis Show — or potentially multiple shows — have not yet been finalized. A Task Force representing RISD’s graduate programs has formed to work with RISD Exhibitions, RISD Museum staff, graduate program directors and academic leadership to explore options ranging from augmented virtual exhibitions to future exhibitions in the RISD Museum and RISD galleries to global satellite exhibitions.

Over at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), various departments are addressing the situation in their own ways.

“The Art and Photo, and Art & Tech students are holding out for a physically present show, in fall sometime,” said Emma Kemp, the Art Residency Program Coordinator at CalArts, in an email to Hyperallergic. The graphic designers, on the other hand, are working with Professor Gail Swanlund to exhibit their work to the public now. According to Swanlund, “details are evolving” but they plan to use “multiple social media platforms, something web-based, something print-based.”

“It’s been wonderful to work with the students — they’re reinventing and finding the marvelous in what DesignInquiry calls ‘the tension between the known and unknown,'” said Swanlund in an email to Hyperallergic. “It’s a moment to think of an exhibition less as a tool for dissemination or living on as an archival document, but as a practice and performance, as the process of making the exhibition spools out.”

At Brandeis University, plans are in the works for a virtual grad show, on track to open in the coming week.

“We are going to be having an online show on a website made only for the exhibition (not sketch up), guest curated by Efrem-Zilony Mindell,” said an assistant professor of studio art, Sheida Soleimani, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “Efrem will be choosing works that all of the students have shared with them and writing an intro about the collection of images. Each student will be submitting up to 15 images to Efrem, and Efrem will choose two to three images per student for the exhibition.”

Installation by Kim Karlsrud at UM Stamps Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design mounts its visual arts grad shows early on in the semester — the MFA cohort was all set to open the doors mid-March when their opening was canceled. At the time, I made a point of going to see the show by private appointment, before lockdown was instituted in Michigan, in an effort to help bring some of the work to light. Stamps is now planning a May 2 rollout for a Stamps Class of 2020 website, where visitors will be able to explore the MFA Thesis work.

The neighboring Cranbrook Academy of Art has opted in favor of a two-prong approach, deferring the physical exhibition of grad work until the coming fall, and working to build an online platform in the meantime.

“We are planning to host an online degree exhibition for our graduating students,” said Director of Communications Julie Fracker, in an email. “It will be a microsite which will showcase student work. The plan is for it to go live by the end of May, and it will be accessible via our main website. We’re hoping that if this model works well, we’ll produce a special website each year in the future in addition to the physical exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum.”

Cranbrook is also postponing its alumni reunion and exhibition With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932 until next summer, and is hoping to find a space (possibly in Detroit) to allow the Class of 2020 to showcase their work during that time.

Azzah Sultan, “Menyentuh (To Touch),” part of the Anak Dara series (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

These are just a few of the ways in which artists and institutions are trying to bounce back from the hit to art school business as usual. As for Azzah Sultan, she has found grace in presenting her work via an online exhibition, and in social media statements she remains hopeful for her future prospects. If there’s anything veteran artists (and critics) can offer these budding BFAs and MFAs, it’s the reassurance that, despite what art school would have you believe, this is not the last opportunity — or even the most important — to show your work. It is merely one step along the path of a creative existence that must twist and turn to accommodate an ever-changing landscape. In this sense, though COVID-19 has changed how we do almost everything, it has not changed the challenges that face every practicing artist who needs to learn to rise above circumstance to bring their work into the world.

Jasmine Weber contributed reporting to this article. 

Editor’s note: Since the publishing of this article, UM Stamps Gallery shared information on an upcoming website for the Stamps Class of 2020. The article has been updated to include this information. 

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