There have been a lot of articles about the rise of education debt accrued by students in the United States, especially where arts-focused degrees are concerned. Few degrees these days can guarantee employment, regardless of the field, and it is becoming increasingly hard to justify the value of an art degree that has the least hope of creating jobs for its future graduates. Yet grad school admissions skyrocketed shortly after the 2007/08 economic crash, when the stakes for getting a new job shifted from life experience to credentials—all for less pay.
Despite my ten years’ experience owning a gallery and working with museums and civic institutions, I found myself unemployed for the first time in my adult life. Of course there are many other reasons to continue with grad school, but for myself and others, deciding to go to graduate school was a very personal decision that came about as a result of the recession. Many at the time, myself included, were reflecting deeply on the state of affairs, feeling uncertain about the future and about the art world. It was a do or die moment; it was also a time to have deeper conversations about art and its role—and my role with it.
Irina Contreras, A Racket is a Racket, Performance Documentation, Ghetto Biennial 2013. Photo: Tom Bogaert
A Racket is a Racket was first performed for the Ghetto Biennial 2013 in Port Au Prince, Haiti and later as part of Hemispheric Institute's GSI in NYC in 2014. Taking the cue from prolific US Attorney General Smedley Butler's speech and booklet, War is a Racket created in 1935, the project looked to the ways in which the West or Westerners have looked to make peace with violent actions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
I graduated from California College of the Arts 2014 with a Master of Art in Visual & Critical Studies and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture. (Full disclosure, I have and still work as a part time writing consultant for students at CCA, predominantly assisting them with critical thinking, and honing the language surrounding the purpose of their practice.) I chose CCA because of its founding history as a seminal school at the height of the California Arts and Crafts Movement in 1907; its principles were in keeping with the movement as an anti-industrial response to the growing machine-made economy, concerned with social reform and empowering independent makers and designers. The political sentiment still holds true today, which is why I chose it over other more affordable options that didn’t offer the same quality of education or the same specific ethics.
In 2016, the CCA’s MFA program will add a Master of Art degree in Social Practice. The new MA will join the school's existing Social Practice Workshop, first-of-its-kind in the U.S., which started as a degree option in 2005, and became a stand-alone curriculum option in 2007. On its website, CCA defines Social Practice as a field that: “focuses on topics such as aesthetics, ethics, collaboration, persona, media strategies, and social activism, issues that are central to artworks and projects that cross into public and social spheres.” A field-based model is emphasized “to co-create their work with a specific audience or propose critical interventions within existing social systems that inspire debate or catalyze social exchange.”
Megan Lavelle, A Facade of Idyllic Fortitude, 2013, Sculpture and performance. Addressing issues of insurance, corporate output, branding, and personhood.
Considering the subject of conscience and the roles that education and MFA degrees play in the art economy, I spoke with Ted Purves and Ranu Mukherjee, CCA’s Graduate Fine Art Chair and recent Assistant Chair respectively. The new program is not attempting to reconfigure the MFA program as is, but rather add an option for artists whose practice predominates outside of the romantic lone-practitioner’s studio. Purves will now become Chair of the MA in Social Practice, and James Gobel will be the new Chair of the MFA program, and both are excited about the focus that the new arm will bring.
The move is going to be vital, not only for the future of art education, but for its potential to offer people a stronger foundation for their practice and ultimately their future as makers in the world, not just as producers of things.
Leora Lutz: I’m writing a piece for the Conscience Issue of ArtSlant.
Ted Purves: Conscience… the students will definitely be bringing that to the program.
LL: Of course! With the new MA, is there going to be a set curriculum with standards and criteria? What are some of the main differences between the MFA program and the new MA?
TP: Yes, there will be letter grades. One of the destinations after the program would be towards an art practice PhD and the students will need grades. One of our alumni is getting a PhD in education, or perhaps someone would go on to study Urban Planning.
Ranu Mukherjee: We’ve been feeling more and more that the artists in Social Practice (SP) who were interested in the MFA had a need for a studio practice. So the MFA in Social Practice, or what is called the Social Practice Workshop, will still be in place for artists that identify with a studio practice and they will be taking courses that are aligned with the MFA program.
The MA will be a group studio environment and is being added as a separate, accredited program.
TP: On a nuts and bolts level, the primary difference is that the MA will not require an exhibition, which all MFA programs in North America are required to have.
RM: A good percentage of SP students were not interested in an exhibition and some found it problematic [it didn’t make sense for the kind of practice they were developing], whereas other people really wanted it.
TP: So now, students could have the option to do other things for their final project: a creative project, curate a show, preparatory work, design a curriculum, write a thesis. It’s a very flexible and individually determined project that will have parameters, but it doesn’t need to be a certain “thing.”
LL: Are you going to have a selection of “things” to choose from or work toward, or will it be open?
RM: It’s a negotiated thing—it has to be in line with the person’s research interests and to help them move toward their... life.
LL: That is great! The problem I had in my MA program was that the “thing” had to be only one form, and that form could not deviate from an exacting norm. That was highly problematic for me.
TP: This is not that. Without getting into arcane accreditation language, we incorporated the “research and work towards a conception of larger works of art” category of completion. It caters to students who have an idea of what they want to do coming into the program. We came to this point where we were discussing the MFA model: that it is viewed as a time for you, that this is your time to explore your subjectivity as an artist.
Calen Russell Hall, Setting/Clearing the Table, 2013, Digital Video. Performer sets the table via a speeding truck.
LL: I think students deserve more opportunity from a school than personal reflection on themselves as makers. I feel like I did that in undergrad. Those conversations were driving me crazy in grad school, because I was more interested in what my art was doing, not where I was coming from with it. It sounds like your solution to that problem is to say: “This is your opportunity to dream big, and think about what your art is doing and we will help you do that.”
RM: [nodding “yes”] It’s a productivity platform.
TP: It shares pedagogical goals with more of a curatorial program. There is an assumption in that program that you are going to go on and work in the field, be it at an institution, as a program director, a curator. We’ve put forth something for community-based artists, artists interested in residencies, site-specific work…
TP: Yes, it’s a lot of “working with and working in,” rather than working inside. We also came to a point that was difficult in our program, where the SP was making students think about research, long-term outcomes, and pushing them in a different direction than the MFA program was asking them to do.
RM: Students got to a point where it became so much focus on how to make the work that they were doing outside relevant or conducive to a gallery space. That is not a conversation that you should be having when paying so much money for an MFA program. It’s an ethical issue—if your work is conducive then you can figure that out.
TP: But some people may not even need that. Public projects, engagement practices—they don’t necessarily need a gallery space to do them. With that also, we are thinking that our final projects will be similar to the Visual and Critical Studies (Vis/Crit) final project symposium, but maybe a type of presentation weekend and a publication which Vis/Crit also offers. And maybe also incorporate writings from our visiting artists.
Monte Masi, Songs for Open Studios (Lauren Marie Taylor), Guitar by Lex Kosieradzki. Still from performance 2013
LL: It would have been great to see our outside advisors contribute to our Vis/Crit publication, as a show of support for the work that was happening at the time.
TP: Fiscal and flexible responsibility is important to us too.
RM: It’s a 12-month program that includes the summer.
TP: And we welcome part time students. Let’s say there is a student “A” who gets a Fulbright from Bogota—they can come and complete the program in a year. Or student “B” is someone already living in San Francisco programming at an institution with a BFA, and they want to up the ante with what they are doing, but they can’t afford to quit their job and go to school full time.
There’s another ripple that we are thinking about too, which is setting up a matriculation program with community colleges. We aren’t sure yet if community colleges will be free on a national level, but it might be something that California tries. For example, Berkeley City College, which has a community arts track, and we can work with students from there to offer a two year BFA in community arts with the one year MA in Social Practice and be done in three years.
LL: I see a morph happening now with art. You have, on the one hand, makers who are looking at the role of what art is in the world, and on the other hand you have people from non-art backgrounds looking at ways in which art can be a facilitator for other social concerns.
TP: We think about this a lot. How art can be a diagnostic system for understanding the world, rather than a vehicle for expression. If you really want to be a part of how art operates in the world, on the street and in peoples’ lives, that is really what the course of study that the MA in Social Practice is going to be doing. I bring in a lot of theory about public space and globalization, and Ranu brings in theories of embodiment and affect. But we are finding that MFA programs are heavily based on theories of the self, image theory, representation—but I also think that there is a slightly different theoretical toolkit that Social Practice artists are concerned with: post-colonial theory, anthropology…
RM: The public realm is the basis of the studio practice.
Omar Mismar, Transient City (San Francisco Camera Obscura Tour), 2014, Camera obscura inside a U-Haul. Viewers rode inside for a tour of San Francisco.
In many ways my conversation with Purves and Mukherjee brings us back to the difficult and personal decision that justifying or choosing to go to graduate school can be. It also opens onto how institutional structures and pedagogical requirements can be of better value to students, and potentially the community. Mukherjee brings up a good point when she says that certain conversations (namely, in MFA degrees) emphasizing studio contemplation, and navigating gallery space do not warrant the cost for students with more project-based or community practices. If institutions are to take monetary concerns in mind, it behooves them to revisit their programming and curriculum to offer students critical tools that navigate beyond the traditional, studio/gallery trajectory of making.
The economy seems to have picked up recently despite the rise in real estate costs that are pushing many artists out. More galleries are cropping up in the Bay Area all the time; the opportunities are becoming more plentiful, museum programming more engaging. So what does that mean to people interested in pursuing an art degree now?
If economic downfall is the catalyst for rise in college attendance, prices, which are already soaring, may increase with demand; but viewing education as a mere commodity is a dangerous notion that turns access to knowledge into a privilege. It is a very expensive privilege that my DIY roots and social conscience grapples with on a regular basis. Debt looms, but my consolation is to view the cost of my education spread out over the rest of my lifetime, which amounts to about $8 a day. There are a ton of analogies to apply to my $8 in order to further validate my debt logic to cope with the expensive cost, but art education need not be devalued by metaphor. It is a type of education as important and viable as any other; what one does with it is its greatest value.
(All images are of MFA in Social Practice alumni. Image at top: Monte Masi, Two Weeks of e-flux, 2015, Video still from single channel video, Parceling e-flux with commentary)