Launching “What Is an Art School?,” an ongoing series examining at the past, present, and future of art education, the following is an interview exploring current self-organized art schools. It is connected to a larger set of translations—to appear in English for the first time—and commissioned texts focused on critically important, forward-thinking art teaching that will be published in the weeks to come.
What is an art school? A simple, even naive question, but one that is particularly fraught in today’s art education landscape. If one takes seriously the challenges of contemporary art and the myriad ways that artists engage with the world—from restoring contaminated soil to enabling conversation to presenting the experience of light itself—it becomes difficult to know where the lines are drawn between art education and education more generally. Adding to the complexity of the situation are economic shifts in educational funding and student debt, sociocultural changes brought about by the internet and other technologies, and the consistent battle over the politics of the classroom. Within this environment, a number of potential pathways have been proposed by artists, curators, and educators in the forms of new art schools and programs throughout the world. They range from short-term projects attached to museums and universities to globally connected digital universities to schools run out of artists’ houses for the neighboring community.
Sam Thorne, director of the UK’s Nottingham Contemporary, has been researching and interviewing practitioners of these various projects over the past few years. This summer, Thorne will be releasing a book that looks at these new developments, entitled School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education. I recently had a discussion with Thorne about his book, the histories of art education, and its shifting terrain today. The interview has been collaboratively edited, added to, and reworked for emphasis and clarity.
Daniel Atkinson: What led to your interest in art schools generally?
Sam Thorne: Around 2010 I was working in London as an associate editor at frieze magazine. My role meant that I was traveling a lot, most often to the West Coast of the US and in the Arab world. Across these very different geographies I began to notice how a lot of artists, as well as curators, were setting up projects that were describing themselves as schools, academies, or universities. I became interested more broadly in why that was happening. Why then? Why in places as different as LA and Ramallah? Not much research seemed to be out there, so it became part of my conversations in my travels and so on. Around that same time I was also teaching a series of seminars at the Royal College of Art, looking at different activist practices in the 1980s, often in New York, and the ways in which they had come to be historicized and exhibited. Crucial among those was Group Material, particularly some of the projects they had done in the late ’80s around education, as well as Martha Rosler and Suzanne Lacy. So these twin interests started to coalesce.
Atkinson: You’re also the co-founder of Open School East. How does that play out in relation to all of this?
Thorne: Open School East (OSE) is a study program and community resource that from 2013 until the end of 2016 was housed in Hackney in East London in a former public library. At the beginning of this year it moved to Margate in Kent, where there’ll be a pilot year. To jump back a bit, OSE came out of conversations that I was having with several friends—Anna Colin, Sarah McCrory and Laurence Taylory—in London in late 2012, very much in parallel with the increase of tuition fees in the UK. At the same time, studio provision in London was dwindling rapidly. We started talking about establishing something that might, in some way, bring together the best parts of art schools, studio complexes, public programs, and residencies. A model emerged based on offering free tuition and free studio space to 13 to 14 practitioners every year. In lieu of paying rent and tuition fees, these practitioners, who were called associates rather than students, would take a very active role in developing collaborative projects within that particular part of Hackney.
OSE has evolved in all kinds of ways in the last few years. The school itself has generated all kinds of events and projects, many of which have lived beyond the single year of the study program, as well as beyond the walls of the building itself. That was always the idea—to create an art school that was more porous, that from the beginning would be speaking to its constituents and communities, and that would be rooted in a place in a meaningful way.
Atkinson: Could you outline your book and its contents?
Thorne: I was working on the book through most of 2015, while I was working at Tate St Ives, and it has two parts. The first takes the form of a contextualizing essay, a general overview of the ways in which some art schools have changed over the last 100 years. It charts some of the key shifts in art pedagogy since the Bauhaus. The rest of the book takes the form of 20 conversations with different artists and curators who in the last decade or so have set up their own education platform. They cover a range of different practitioners, for example, Tania Bruguera’s school in Havana that she ran out of her own home, through to initiatives which have close ties to established art schools, like Olafur Eliasson’s Institute for Spatial Experiments in Berlin. The book is an attempt to use these projects as a lens through which to think about art education today. If these self-organized schools might be taken as modest proposals, then what kind of ways forward might they suggest?
Atkinson: The introduction to your book talks about the mobile or temporary character that many of these schools have. It seems to be a recurring theme, and especially in recent months with the tuition hikes of Cooper Union—essentially closing the school in a way—which for us in the States was important to that history of art education. I’m interested in whether you see mobility or nomadism as a potentially positive framework.
Thorne: Several of the more prominent art schools of the last century have tended to be fairly short-lived. Some were conceived of as experiments, and financially they’ve often been small and pretty precarious. Many—Black Mountain College, for instance—were sunk by financial issues. The Bauhaus also struggled financially, though it eventually closed in 1933 because of pressure from the Nazis. In a very different context, even art schools that have run for many decades often become closely tied to, or even synonymous with, a particular five- or 10-year period. Think of Düsseldorf’s connection to photography, for example, or Goldsmiths and the YBAs. Brevity seems almost inbuilt in the way in which art schools survive or function in an exciting way.
I once said to Tania Bruguera that it was a shame that her school only lasted for seven years. She responded that it hadn’t needed to last for any longer—it had achieved what she’d set out to do. Maybe we needn’t be too pious about the longevity of these schools; maybe it’s important that they’re short-term. In that sense, they’re closer in terms of genealogy to alternative spaces than they are to actual art schools or universities.
Atkinson: You mentioned Group Material a bit ago, could you speak to your interest in them related to their work on education at Dia?
Thorne: The Dia project was in the late ’80s, and was part of a broader project called Democracy. It had a series of different chapters, one of which was around education. It was built around a series of town hall–style meetings at which different types of questions were shaped and rooted and debated. What interested me was the way in which this experience of learning was done collectively. From Group Material’s earliest exhibitions in the Lower East Side, they were developing ways of working with their immediate neighbors. That was always particularly compelling to me.
Atkinson: A couple points that you bring up within there—one was this idea of collaboration, the other the idea of community. Can you connect the dots between those two points?
Thorne: The typical length of an MFA program is between one and three years and will be punctuated by an interim exhibition and leading up to a final degree show. That duration suits some practices, of course, but not all. With OSE, we were interested in seeing what happens when you don’t only have one or two moments of visibility, but when dialogue and collaboration was built in from the beginning. This is about a process of learning that is collectively run by participants, and that lasts beyond the lifespan of an MFA program or school experience or whatever.
Atkinson: I’d written to you that I’d read this ad that just bothered me so deeply, and I hadn’t had the chance to talk to anyone about it. I still don’t quite know what to do with it, and it seemed almost like an elaborate conceptual art joke at the time. It was for this school, One River School of Art and Design meant for teaching art to K-12 students. In the text on the site they talk about how the school has a “proven business model […] built by a proven entrepreneur.” There’s even this option to open your own franchise. All this business rhetoric is encapsulated in here and over at USC, and you talked a bit about the YBAs and a very specific kind of economy entering the art school. I’m wondering if you can talk more broadly about the history of this, and then, maybe even more importantly, about how certain art schools that you were speaking to in the book were dealing with this.
Thorne: Well, Allan Sekula predicted a lot of this when he said, in the late ’70s, that school is a factory! The notion of the art school as a free space for experimentation has become radically reconfigured and reduced. What happens when that space becomes marketized or run according to the logic of a corporation? In Europe and the US especially, students are becoming burdened by more and more debt, which is not being reflected by the quality of the education on offer. A few months ago in the UK there was a survey of the percentage of lecturers at leading UK universities who are on zero-hour contracts—that is, schools that are heavily reliant on precarious, untenured labor. In the top 10 of these universities, the level was between 40 percent and 70 percent of lecturers on that type of contract. Increases in fees are not supporting tuition; they are going towards capital projects and expanding administrations, towards the franchising of education, international campuses, and so on. And it’s no surprise that the fiascos at Cooper Union and USC in LA were tied to overreaching capital projects.
Of course, the other aspect of this is that the spheres of the art school and the art market have become increasingly overlapping. It’s no coincidence that these changes are happening at the same time that so many of these self-organized art schools have started to emerge.
Atkinson: How have some of these schools started to handle the situation?
Thorne: In a number of ways. For example, Islington Mill Art Academy, which is in Salford just outside of Manchester, was established by students who, having done a foundation course at age 18, decided that there weren’t any BA programs out there they were interested in attending. Islington Mill opened in 2007 and came out of a rejection of university or art school as almost the prerequisite route for a young artist. They are somewhat unusual in that many of these other kinds of self-organized are supplementary somehow—that is, they are a little like an informal post-graduate program, organized and attended by graduates of MFA programs. Some are even affiliated with art schools or universities, so aren’t independent or alternative per se. Whatever the scenario, though, it’s clear that these self-organized schools and academies are being done in conversation with the changing shape of art education—whether that’s perceived to be moribund, in crisis, uninteresting, too expensive, or whatever else.
Atkinson: A related question I have is what the internet and digital possibilities mean for this. There’s another set of interviews you’ve done through frieze, one of which includes interviews Lucky PDF had with a number of their students, and there’s this great question they posed: “In the course of your education have you ever copied or downloaded materials, resources or tools without paying for them?” Then of course every single one of their students said, “Yes, thousands of dollars worth; I would never be able to fund my education otherwise.” I’m wondering beyond the promises of MOOCs [massive open online courses], how do you think these various technologies and tools of access—torrents, websites like UbuWeb and Monoskop—have influenced art education?
Thorne: A lot of these kinds of shifts have meant that it’s much easier to put together some kind of alternative curriculum. I’ve relied a huge amount on aaaaarg, for example. I studied literature in a very conventional kind of way, and aaaaarg had the stuff that wasn’t being taught. Or there’s something like the popularity of David Harvey’s CUNY seminars on Das Capital.
Atkinson: I don’t know about this. Can you explain this?
Thorne: Harvey, the British Marxist geographer, has since the ’70s been teaching volume one of Capital to his students. Several years ago he put that online—the whole course just with him speaking to his class at CUNY on YouTube and as a podcast. Something like a million people have watched all 13 hours! YouTube launched when I was in my final year of undergrad.
One thing that’s been striking when talking to people who are behind these self-organized schools is that they’re all incredibly aware of all of the other like-minded projects around the world. So they may never have visited The International Academy of Art–Palestine in Ramallah, or Wael Shawky’s art school MASS Alexandria, but they’re all very well-versed. Maybe they’re actually more aware of what’s going on now than they are aware of Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf, say, or Lucy Lippard teaching in Nova Scotia. There’s a networked aspect to these projects even when they are very small scale or locally oriented.
Atkinson: The other thing that I was thinking about was the moving image sharing site karagarga. What’s really interesting to me about that platform is, as part of the way that the site is built, you get the opportunity to download more if you share, but you also get the opportunity to download more if you contribute in different ways. One of the forms of contribution is not just uploading specific file sets—and it’s very specific—but also uploading translations. So you’ll have 10 translations of a work, and they don’t exist anywhere else but on that site. It just made me think about going back to your idea of collaboration and community, but also self-teaching, all within that space.
Thorne: Which is very different to how I understand the thrust of MOOCs. About five years ago there was a lot of neoliberal, utopian thinking about what MOOCs could do. But just because it’s free or inexpensive doesn’t mean that access is open or equally distributed. I saw an article recently that suggested that most people who are actually completing online degrees are typically white guys with PhDs…
Atkinson: Which is totally separate from what karagara is. You can see it in the site; it shows where everyone is from and it’s the most international space.
I’m wondering, as we’re discussing all of this: you open your book by talking about Walter Gropius and John Baldessari in reference to this idea of art being unteachable, which I think serves as a provocation. But also there’s this idea of artists for whom their research and their own self-teaching is always important. There are so many artists who aren’t going to come at to where they are in their work work unless they’ve done their research. As one for instance among many, Trevor Paglen, who also has a PhD. I’m wondering if you can speak to this idea about the unteachableness of art and how the autodidact sort of fits in—you’re already touching on it with these guys who have PhDs but also autodidacts in this strange way.
Thorne: A lot of artists who teach, like Baldessari, claim that art is unteachable. That wasn’t the case in the 19th century, when you still had a kind of academic model of copying from your masters, copying from life, learning a métier. But as soon as you get a rupture from the academic model, and you move away from art as technique to art as expression of creativity, it suddenly starts to make claims about art’s teachability really difficult. This tension somehow shapes still a lot of these debates.
If you scan just about any biennial list today, the vast majority of artists on that list will have attended art school. Most will have an MFA, probably from one of a couple dozen art schools in Europe and North America. More recently, in Europe, there’s a growth in practice-led PhDs too, which in the UK didn’t begin to be granted until the late ’80s. Though there are of course several exceptions, the routes to mainstream visibility in the art world are relatively professionalized and narrow. The autodidact has a very curious role to play here. Think about something like Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale in 2013. In that exhibition, if an artist had done an MFA—well, that was taken as a given. But if an artist was self-taught, or had been in some kind of mental institution, well that was of course dutifully listed. For me, this speaks to something kind of troubling about the role that art schools play in delineating boundaries between the “inside” and the “outside” in these discourses.
Atkinson: You talk about all these art schools and these various histories in the book and there seem to be some common threads. I’m wondering what you think can be learned from them in terms of what might be applicable today?
Thorne: The first thing to say is that there is still so much more we don’t know about the history of art schools! Very few have been thoroughly researched, or even documented. With the exceptions of, say, Vkhutemas, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain, Nova Scotia and a few others, there are very few definitive accounts of the more significant art schools we have. And that’s just in the context of the West. Beyond that, it’s even patchier. There’s so much more to be done in terms of writing these kinds of histories. Maybe there’s even something about art schools that actually resists being captured?
One of the strands that connects many of these kinds of schools is the way in which they go beyond a workshop-based or studio-focused curriculum. The way in which Black Mountain students were encouraged to work on the land, to give a famous example, or how in Lux Feininger’s photographs of the Bauhaus you see students cooking together, playing in bands, and so on. They’re proposing different kinds of social formations to go beyond what happens in the studio. Perhaps that accounts for why several of the important experiments in art education during the 20th century were relatively remote, whether that’s in North Carolina or Nova Scotia or wherever it might be. I wonder how the promise of isolation might be reconfigured in the 21st century.
Atkinson: Part of it might just be—at least for me—when you teach you’re not thinking about documenting your teaching, you’re thinking about teaching. It is curious when you look at some of that work, simply what was produced out of there, I think it’s really hard to understand for instance Soviet art of the time if you don’t understand that extended set of practices, because it was all about social formations and changing the social formations and education was a huge part of that.
Thorne: We might even be limiting ourselves to only looking at graduate programs. I’m thinking of Molly Nesbit’s book Their Common Sense (2000), when she argues that if you want to understand Cubism, you need to look at how technical drawing was being taught in French schools in the late 19th century. The history of art has to also be a history of art education. Speaking as someone who is neither an art historian nor an art teacher, I do think that it would be fruitful to bring these histories closer together.
Atkinson: I have one more question, and it’s the hardest question. I’m wondering if you could talk about what your vision or ideal art school would be in the future.
Thorne: I’ve been looking at how several studio programs are trying to rethink themselves as they go along. The Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam has started to invite artists or curators to propose a pilot MA every two years. The Dutch duo Bik Van der Pol based their School of Missing Studies there from 2013 to 2015. I guess the ambition is that the lessons from that temporary school begin to affect the operations of the host organization. Also in the Netherlands, I’m interested in the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem, and their Roaming Academy. Essentially it’s a kind of nomadic project. It still has its roots in Arnhem, where they meet every month, but then it dots around, connecting in different ways with different kinds of museums or exhibition centers and so on.
That kind of fluidity or lightness seems really crucial to what an art school should be. I would like to see an art school that is more collaborative, that is constantly shifting, and where the students are not completely separate from the workings of the organization, where working together on running the organization is itself a part of the school.
Atkinson: It sounds like you’re talking about the kind of flexibility and mobility on one end and at the same time this kind of more intense institutional structure. Something that sits somewhere in the middle—it has this relationship to a larger structure, which is extremely important economically, but also can move and change. You were talking about this program that changes every two years. Like you said, having its mobility built into its DNA.
Thorne: It is certainly striking that many of the projects that I cover in my book are located in the artist’s own studio or at home. In a way that goes back to the age-old kind of model of grand master, an overlapping between studio and school. But these kinds of platforms are not only being developed in conversation or in opposition to art education. They’re so connected with how exhibition-making is shifting, how studio practices are shifting—it’s part of a broader web.