In Search of an Alternative Art Education #AltEdu

Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men leading a discussion with our New York Arts Practicum class in Central Park (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men leading a discussion with our New York Arts Practicum class in Central Park (all images via Michael Mandiberg on Flickr)

Lately there has been a rising trend of artist-run schools and programs popping up throughout the country: Trade School, the School for Creative Activism, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and New York Arts Practicum, to name just a few in New York. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon, perhaps the current manifestation is a response to exponentially rising tuition prices as well as stagnant employment opportunities for people (such as myself) who have already spent a great deal on their education thus far. Discontent with the current art school model also seems to be an increasingly common attitude among students and faculty alike. defines “education” as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring knowledge”; by that definition, I consider myself a perpetual student. Being fresh out of art school last year and wanting to continue my education outside of the institutional context, I found myself interested in some of these alternative programs. I believe that every student should be able to shape the institution he attends to make it work best for him. As many of these programs are relatively new, they are often quite welcoming to any criticisms that participants may have.

I’ve also been considering the amount of money I now owe in student loans and, as a result, am beginning to question how much a traditional education can really be worth. While many of us took a chance and decided to become vastly indebted to an institution, is there any real alternative to an expensive college degree? With all of this in mind, I participated in two of these experimental art school programs.

Penelope Umberico invited us into her studio to discuss some of her most recent work. (Click to enlarge)
Penelope Umberico invited us into her studio to discuss some of her most recent work. (Click to enlarge)

The first was Michael Mandiberg’s New York Arts Practicum, a summer program in which participants focus on making artwork outside the traditional art school setting. When I say “outside,” I really mean it: there are no facilities, no campus, and sometimes not even enough chairs. The practicum feels very much like a never-ending field trip, and Mandiberg wouldn’t have it any other way. Each participant works with a mentor during the course of the program and is expected to not only create art, but also to participate in various discussions, attend a series of artist talks, and go on site visits.

I was selected as one of the first participants in this program, and for me, it felt like a much needed crash course in what really means to be a working artist in New York City. The selection of visiting artists and mentors was quite impressive: we met with Trevor Paglen during the final stages of his The Last Pictures project and with artists Eva and Franco Mattes, who enlisted us to take part in their newest piece, “Emily’s Video” (named after one of my fellow classmates who worked on the project). More often than not, we were personally invited into these artists’ homes and studios and were asked to critique the work, breaking down any sort of barriers between teacher and student. Much to my surprise at the time, not every artist had a separate studio space, and many of them worked multiple jobs just to keep their artistic practice afloat.

An example of a reaction to “Emily’s Video,” a project that New York Arts Practicum assisted on from start to finish

In addition to the New York Arts Practicum, I recently enrolled in Brad Troemel’s Chat Room, one of the many classes offered at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. The premise of the class was simple: each week we received a group of essays by an artist, writer, or cultural critic and then met with them later in the week to discuss our thoughts on the writings. A lot of emphasis was placed on the class being an open discussion in which everyone could contribute and speak at any time, rather than a simple Q&A with the author. The discussions were quite casual yet nonetheless informative; we talked about celebrity breakdowns, internet memes, and social media, all within the context of contemporary art discourse. (You can hear an example of one, our discussion with David Joselit, here.)

There are many different types of classes offered at BHQFU, and while I can’t speak for all of them, I felt like Chat Room was very much worth my time. A detail worth mentioning is that I already knew most, if not all, of my classmates, although only through the guise of the internet. So I saw the course as a good way to bring all of us together, in the same room, without the inherent blasé attitude that most of us express so freely online. We were able to discuss texts seriously and in depth, and while two hours may not be enough time to fully analyze a piece of writing, the classes were more about sharing our initial reactions to what we were given. Usually we left with many things still to consider — not a bad way to spend a Sunday evening.

My involvement with both the New York Arts Practicum and Brad Troemel’s class at BHQFU at times felt much more genuine and open-ended than some of my prior experiences in art school. It seems to me that one of the most valuable parts of life after graduation is finding a core group of colleagues and having an ongoing dialogue with them. I’ve made numerous connections in New York and across the country through these programs — connections that may very well prove to be invaluable to my career. However, I do wonder whether these small alternative schools are sustainable, and whether universities will begin trying to capitalize on the appeal of these programs. Or will education remain as it is and continue to push young people into massive amounts of debt? Are these truly alternatives or just new mainstream schools in their infancy?

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