Tess Wei displayed a “Defund the Police” sign instead of her usual work at PAFA’s Annual Student Exhibition this year. (Image courtesy of Tess Wei)

For this year’s Annual Student Exhibition at PAFA, graduating MFA student Tess Wei chose to exhibit a “Defund the Police” sign in lieu of her usual work. For one upcoming show, however, her medium will be dissent. Wei is one of over a dozen PAFA students boycotting the 2020 Annual Student Exhibition (ASE), scheduled to run from September 12 through October 3, in protest of the school’s actions during Black Lives Matter demonstrations this year.

Earlier this summer, the art school faced backlash for asking faculty not to affiliate with PAFA in their activism activities. After nine faculty members signed the “Philly Arts for Black Lives” petition, which called on city leaders to reinvest police funds into human services, PAFA sent a memo reminding staff to maintain their “civic involvement” activities separate from their professional roles. Alumni and students, including artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Didier William, signed letters of concern denouncing the college’s non-affiliation policies.

“One main issue for me is that this is not a political position, so the non-affiliation clause is not applicable,” Wei told Hyperallergic. “This is a human rights issue. Police violence against the Black community is a human rights crisis.”

The school responded by committing to hiring a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) coordinator and at least two full-time faculty members from communities of color, as well as hosting a series of “listening sessions” facilitated by Dragonfly Consultants.

Still, some members of the PAFA community claim issues were inadequately addressed, and that the demands outlined in open letters to the Board of Trustees by student and alumni groups, housed at changeatpafa.com, have remained unmet. These include terminating PAFA CEO and President David Brigham, who has been accused of mishandling a 2016 incident of sexual assault, and guaranteeing job security for faculty and staff who actively support the BLM movement. Many of these employees are hired as adjuncts with little benefits, Wei points out, and are thus especially vulnerable to policies like the non-affiliation requirement.

In the hopes of pressuring the school to revise its practices and reconsider its leadership, some students have chosen to sit out the annual exhibition  — the 119th student work show in PAFA’s history and a long-awaited occasion for many recent grads pursuing professional careers in the arts. In place of artwork, Wei has hung a sign that reads “Defund the Police” on her assigned wall space in the PAFA galleries.

“Dress Bags,”(2019), paper pulp, plaster, wire mesh, hangars, cedar chips, an installation of MFA graduate Victoria Davis’s work at AUTOMAT (courtesy of Victoria Davis)

The boycotting students are showing their final work in Action Verbs > Action Words, a group exhibition hosted at four artist-run galleries in Philadelphia: AUTOMAT, Pink Noise Projects, Grizzly Grizzly, and Practice. Anna Zorina Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood has also organized a separate online show and fundraiser, Boycott Annual Student Exhibition (B.A.S.E.), featuring work by recent MFA, BFA, and Certificate graduates from PAFA.

“Where one shows their artwork is equally important to the work itself,” reads the press release for Action Verbs > Action Words.

Like Wei, several of the students boycotting the ASE have also chosen to install protest signs or didactic material in lieu of artwork in their assigned exhibition space at PAFA. MFA graduates Victoria Davis and Julia Way Rix have hung small paintings that read “Change at PAFA” and include a QR code that leads to the group’s website.

Rix later learned that the painting had been moved from the wall in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Gallery of the Hamilton Building, where she had originally installed it, to another gallery that includes all of the protest work by dissenting students.

“PAFA looks to be trying to erase our gesture of protest not only by hiding the empty physical space in the galleries but also by claiming that 26 graduate students are participating in the exhibition in their recent email newsletter,” Rix told Hyperallergic. “That is a very misleading number. Because I hung one small work indicating my protest I am now included in that list of ‘participating’ students.”

(A spokesperson for PAFA told Hyperallergic that 75 students are exhibiting in the show, but did not clarify how many of them were participating with protest work.)

A small acrylic painting by Julia Way Rix reads “Change at PAFA” and includes a QR code that leads to the group’s website (courtesy of Julia Way Rix)

Autumn Casey, who focuses on sculpture, video, and performance, is presenting a framed, hand-written letter explaining her reasons for not participating in the show.

“I condemn the recent actions and words that have come from the administration and the board of trustees, specifically, threatening faculty and staff to not affiliate with PAFA when standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement and defunding the police,” Casey’s letter reads.

“If this is the one action I can take to disrupt ‘business as usual’ in my immediate reach to inspire some small change, to bring attention to problems inherent in institutions like PAFA across the country, then I have to take it,” she continues.

Graduating student Autumn Casey’s handwritten letter explaining her decision to boycott the Annual Student Exhibition (courtesy of Autumn Casey)

“At PAFA, we support and champion free speech and artistic expression in all its forms,” said Clint Jukkala, Dean of the School of Fine Arts, in response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. “While the majority of eligible students will be participating in the Annual Student Exhibition, we fully support those students who have made the decision to protest this year’s exhibition.”

Dean Jukkala’s statement continues:

It is a strong and clear example of these individuals’ commitment to bringing about necessary change in our community, and we respect their choice to use their platforms as artists to fight for their convictions. Artists have long served as a moral compass for society, and there are countless examples of artistic actions throughout history that have paved the way for real and lasting change. PAFA shares our students’ commitment to racial justice in society, and to building a brighter, more just and equitable future for our own community.

Lily Furniss, another graduating MFA student, said she chose to boycott the annual exhibition in order to support the faculty that signed the Philly Arts for Black Lives petition in June. She points out that PAFA takes a 30% commission of any work sold at the ASE; by pulling out of the show, she will be able to direct those funds toward Black women-led, social justice organizations, like Assata’s Daughters in Chicago. (A spokesperson for PAFA said that the entirety of this commission goes directly to student scholarships.)

Furniss hopes to see actionable plans put in place at PAFA. “They need to revise their eurocentric pedagogy, hire more BIPOC faculty, and reconstruct their board of trustees,” she told Hyperallergic. “Also, pay the PAFA faculty better wages and give them medical benefits! University of the Arts faculty just filed for a union and I think that’s amazing.”

In her email to Hyperallergic, Davis echoed the desire for a change in leadership, including a restructuring of the board, which she says is “majority male, white, and skews older.”

“The solution is to change the board so that PAFA is more reflective of the vibrant and diverse arts community it serves,” Davis said. “Until that happens — demographic representation at the board level of women, people of color, and both young and old people — PAFA will repeat its errors at every turn.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...