C Magazine: We’re interested in understanding what kinds of artists are being produced through MFA programs. First, what does the ideal applicant look like? Do art school admissions processes implicitly exclude certain kinds of applicants?
Dana Claxton: An ideal candidate is someone who is engaged with ideas and theory, the socio-political, interdisciplinarity and contemporary art. They are someone who wants to expand their knowledge base, be challenged, be part of a community, engage with other students and take electives in other departments. Candidates at The University of British Columbia, where I teach, should be interested in the larger Vancouver art community and they should look friendly!
Admissions processes don’t exclude certain kinds of applicants, but sometimes, if someone is just out of a BFA program, we ponder if it would be better if they were out in the field for at least a year or two. If recent BFA/BA students apply to any department, they should know that they can always reapply. My department likes applicants who are interested in various art discourses.
Jan Peacock:: I have to presume that we exclude many who don’t apply, though I have no data that identifies those groups. For those who do apply, our criteria are both loose and highly specific. For instance, we don’t have a minimum grade point average requirement, but we do expect to find very strong academic, critical, material and conceptual abilities. Transcripts are useful tools, but where we really look for evidence of potential is in the applicant’s writing and work.
All applicants must have completed an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree program at an accredited college or university, but we don’t exclude applicants without a BFA degree. Without a BFA, they must show a developed awareness of contemporary issues within their area of practice, and it helps to have a record of involvement with the cultural communities with which they identify. We have had terrific MFA students whose academic backgrounds were in music, architecture, design, philosophy or sciences. If they have interesting work and intelligent things to say about it, we give those applicants the same consideration as BFA graduates.
NSCAD has a small MFA program with a group of MFAs from disciplines across fine arts, media arts and craft, so we may not attract, say, a painter who wants to be part of a cohort of mainly painters. MFAs have intensive and specialized conversations with advisors in their medium; the interaction among the MFAs is equally intensive, but tends to be cross-disciplinary, networked, collaborative, outward-looking.
John Cussans: The ideal applicant already has a well- developed fine art practice that evidences awareness of contemporary trends and debates within the field. They should have experience writing academic essays and have a good grasp of the local language. All entry criteria implicitly assume that applicants who don’t meet them are less likely to be offered a place. But exceptional students, who have proficiencies that exceed what they may lack in base-line qualifications may be offered an interview if the admissions panel deems that appropriate. While there may be very good intellectual and socio-political reasons for questioning these criteria, which as academics, artists and educators we continually do, these standards are as much in the interests of the students as the institution. It would be unethical to accept students who are likely to struggle with the level of artistic and academic competency expected of them.
Scott Rogers: I don’t think there is any “ideal” applicant for MFA programs. From my experience, it seemed like there was a range from relatively young and inexperienced to mature artists with long exhibition histories. There isn’t a consistent format or structure for MFA programs throughout the world, so that pretty much excludes the possibility of there being an ideal applicant.
There are factors that limit who is admitted to MFA programs, the primary factor being financial. This limits individuals with fewer financial resources from attending MFA programs. So, if you are from outside North America, Europe and a few other countries, or are from a social or economic situation that is afforded less wealth, you will also have a hard time getting into an MFA program.
To be clear, I think MFA programs intend to admit those who they feel are the best fit for their program, and this means that their “ideal” candidates will be offered a place no matter what their finances or background. But, at some stage I believe most schools have to make decisions where applicants with greater financial stability will be chosen to either fill the number of places in the course, or will be given precedence over applicants with less financial means.
C Magazine: What is the profile of the successful graduate? Is it ideal to be an art world professional, to have gallery representation or to be a university instructor? Are there other modes of participation in society that MFA programs teach, as intended outcomes of a program?
Dana Claxton: For me, the successful graduate is one who is dedicated to their practice and even praxis, who will become a practising artist. An ideal graduate doesn’t necessarily do any of these things, especially right out of school. Art takes time to make and think about. Recent grads need to spend the time required to make art. Wash dishes for a few years or drive a cab! Work in the field, while you develop your practice.
The field has changed drastically since the years when Emily Carr only offered diplomas. Many successful artists from Vancouver and beyond have this diploma. But with the professionalization of the arts, it has become more common to obtain an MFA or PhD. Aside from the learning aspect which is great, I ponder if art has fallen into a competitive model. Having a dealer to sell your work can be helpful and useful, as can having a teaching position. For some artists, teaching comes much later in their careers, when they have “succeeded” in the field, so an MFA or PhD isn’t necessary, while for those without international careers MFAs and PhDs are important to have a profession beyond creating and exhibiting. Artists today have multiple professions: artist, professor, curator, writer, community/cultural worker, activist, department chair, artist-run centre director. Artists also work at galleries and coffee shops. Not all artists will make a full-time living from “just” being an artist, while others will. For some, becoming/being born an artist is not about selling art – it’s about the magic of creating. Selling art is a byproduct to creation. But it certainly is nice to have one’s work in private and public collections.
MFA programs teach students how to become thinking, feeling, engaged citizens!
Jan Peacock: Becoming art world professionals or university instructors, and gaining gallery representation are all usual and reasonable expectations that many of our graduates aim for and achieve. But I am continually surprised by how wide open our MFAs are to their life options. Their experiences in the MFA program sometimes shape their expectations, but they seem to remain open to all types of possibilities. Some set up their own businesses; they train as sommeliers, organic farmers or massage therapists. They work as researchers, administrators, designers and writers.
In a survey we conducted of MFA alumni from NSCAD in 2013, 93 per cent of those who responded maintain a professional art-making practice. 60 percent are in jobs related to art production, arts administration or teaching, 20 percent are working at jobs outside the field of art and 20 percent are self-employed in the field of art.
John Cussans: Successful graduates have a highly developed artistic practice, are able to contextualize their work in art historical, art theoretical and socio-political terms, and can communicate these ideas to an informed public audience. They don’t have to operate as an art world professional, strive for gallery representation or become a university instructor, though all of these expectations are built into the MFA.
Socially engaged practices are now an established part of contemporary art. In the MFA programs in the UK where I have taught, this has been addressed through visiting speakers and one-off workshops, rather than in the formal curriculum. At Emily Carr, where I also teach, social practices are embedded in how art is taught at the MFA level.
There are many other ways of participating in society that an MFA student may choose to pursue, such as art writing, publishing, curating, art therapy, arts policy and arts programming, just to name a few. At the Ruskin, where I hold my primary appointment, there is scope for these professional trajectories to be assessed as outcomes of the MFA program.
Scott Rogers: There are a lot of different profiles that represent a successful graduate. It depends on institutional and individual definitions of success. A baseline quality of a successful candidate is that they continue to practise as an artist or within the art field after completing their MFA. That is probably fairly close to universal.
I think that institutions wish to graduate people who develop a notable profile and can circulate that profile back to their MFA program. Schools all want to represent themselves as formative to high-profile art careers in some degree, as this is the easiest way of driving desire for their programs. At a certain point, this feedback loop becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: attend the high-profile school, receive high-profile recognition, increase the school’s profile, increase the value of the school’s program for future applicants.
C Magazine: What are some of the pressures within the university, such as academic standards and economic pressures, that affect how visual arts programs at the MFA level are structured and how artists are taught?
Dana Claxton: It seems to me that academic standards and economic pressures have always been part of the equation when it comes to post-secondary education, so that hasn’t changed for some time. It is my hope that MFA-level programs, in Canada at least, maintain a level of engagement that challenges students to learn deeply and to create truthfully, and not for the market. The market will come.
Jan Peacock: It is very rare for a graduate student in an MFA program anywhere to get through without accruing debt. We offer scholarships to some, and we guarantee modest teaching assistant stipends each semester to all MFAs, but the rising cost of graduate tuition and paying rent make it very hard for an MFA student to break even. It is a constant concern for NSCAD and for our students. In the 2013 survey, 78 percent of MFA alumni of the previous 10 years had graduated with debt between $2,000 and $10,000.
We have a small graduate community so our graduate- level courses are very expensive to run, certainly more expensive than our highly enrolled undergraduate classes. It is a challenge to maintain this model with the pressure to balance the budget.
John Cussans: Some universities put more pressure on art departments than others in terms of revenue generation and student admissions (which these days can amount to the same thing), departmental savings, or the acquisition of external funding. Where this pressure is strongest there are clearly adverse effects on teaching and course programming, largely due to the consequences of trying to teach more students with fewer teaching hours. Over six years of teaching at Chelsea (which is part of the University of the Arts, London), my teaching contract and hours remained constant while student numbers increased from 40 to 90. This meant that I had to reduce the time and attention given to each student and ultimately I had to make time-saving changes to the curriculum that were far from ideal. Thankfully this is not the case at the Ruskin. Given the gradual withdrawal of funding for the arts and arts education in the UK as a whole, the shift towards a “research culture” in the arts, and the economic realities of survival as an artist in the current climate, we encourage students to think more pragmatically about their future prospects and long-term career strategies than we used to. This includes preparing them for PhD-level research, teaching and public presentations with workshops and symposia on “professional practice.”
Scott Rogers: One interesting result of economic pressure on MFA programs is the recent rise of one-year Master’s degrees. Students cannot afford the tuition for two years of school, but they want to improve their employability with a Master’s degree from a notable school. Schools have limited resources in terms of space and faculty, but need more sources of revenue, so they create one-year Master’s degrees designed to produce more intensive experiences, more graduates, and more revenue than the regular two year MFA does.
In some ways, this development is positive, because instead of increasing class sizes, these one-year programs result in a variety of different Master’s streams. These different programs have the potential to be customized and responsive to students with different intentions for their life in the art field.
In other ways, one-year programs are problematic, fundamentally changing how art education works. One-year programs can be more competitive and goal-centred. There is less time for students to adapt to the institution and learn to work within it, or despite it. One-year programs benefit students who already know what they want to do and why, but reduce the amount of time for reflection and experimentation, and for mentorship relationships to develop with faculty.
C Magazine: What are the consequences of relying on contract and sessional faculty, for programs, for instructors and for students? If you teach as a sessional, how does your own situation affect how you teach and mentor students into a professional practice?
Dana Claxton: For some, contract and sessional faculty may not be as deeply invested because they don’t have the responsibility of committee work. What makes a healthy and thriving department is having faculty who can both teach and create, and who have job security. It’s best that sessionals negotiate and try and ensure there are pension plan benefits available. Sessionals and contract workers need to organize! I taught sessionally for seven years, and now having a tenured position has greatly changed and deepened my relationship with students.
Jan Peacock: The increasing ratio of part-time to full-time faculty affiliated with the university means we have to create ways for graduate students to work with as many qualified artists and scholars as possible. At NSCAD, we offer a small stipend to recognize the individualized time that part- time and full-time faculty members contribute, outside of their regular teaching duties, to mentor MFA students in their studio research.
MFAs seem very aware that current job prospects in academia seldom promise full-time appointments, and yet many graduates persevere and succeed in their pursuit of teaching positions. NSCAD’s MFA program maintains a committed focus on pedagogy for practical experience, but also for pedagogy’s material and procedural links to studio and community-based practices.
John Cussans: Sessional faculty bring a great deal to MFA programs and often constitute the main corpus of teaching staff. Due to the unusual nature of art as a career many artists prefer to work part-time on flexible contracts in order to fit teaching in with their arts practice. This keeps teaching vitally linked to the actual practices and experiences of the teachers. I have taught as both a sessional and a permanent member of faculty. Being a sessional gave me much more freedom in terms of what I could say to students. As a permanent member of faculty, with stronger professional responsibilities to the school and university, one must be much more aware of, and sensitive to, protocol, professionalism and pedagogical ethics.
Scott Rogers: I don’t teach as a sessional, so I can only speculate, but it seems to me that the precarity of sessional labour has a negative impact on the experience of both faculty and students. If there is an up-side to sessional instruction, it might be that those who are involved in it are much more acutely aware of the inequalities within postsecondary education. I like to imagine that they are trying very hard to do right by their students because they also want the system they are a part of to be more interesting, more engaging and more fair.
C Magazine: Can you think of a few ways that the teaching of artists sat the MFA level could be reimagined? What would your ideal art school of the future look like?
Dana Claxton: The art school of the future would have more engagement with the metabolic rift!
Jan Peacock: Of course, generous funding to encourage graduate research has to be at the top of the list. I would like to see more openness among art schools and universities, more possibilities for students to exchange and collaborate. That public funding for post-secondary education has devolved from federal to provincial agencies creates a false competitiveness that runs counter to many of the philosophies of both global and community-based art practices. Artists and educators recognize that travel and diverse experience are vital elements in an artist’s development, yet students who live in one province must pay a premium to study in another, each province mandated to protect its slice of the pie. What if it’s not a pie?
John Cussans: At the Ruskin we are constantly questioning and experimenting with how art education can be re- thought. Such questioning is often student led. Graduate students are responsible for organizing crits and seminars in ways of their choosing. So we are constantly performing a kind of balancing act between established ways of teaching and the questioning and transformation of those methods. My idea of the ideal art school would take more time to explain than I have the time for here. But, having taught at and visited many art schools, I think the Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht during the 1990s was one of the best models I have seen.
Scott Rogers: My future art school would:
• Be driven by a feminist and intersectional ethos that would vigorously challenge any assumption of supremacy based on race, gender, wealth, sexuality, age, or ability, and focus on political and philosophical questions regarding these ideas. It would be a central tenet of the institution to exemplify a feminist ethos and an intersectional critique in its actions, both internally and externally.
• Involve processes of care, healing, and forgiveness within the school’s teaching and social structure. Discipline would be practiced communally and publicly without violence. The entire school would share authority for decision-making and accountability of its members. It would provide bursaries to non-violent ex-convicts who wished to attend.
• Be free, or nominally priced. Students would be given a direct breakdown of what their money was paying for. Budgets would be fully transparent.
• Be focused on shared social spaces with good kitchens. There would be sports facilities with trainers to teach athletic development. There would be bars, places to smoke indoors, musical instruments, access to the outdoors and beer in the vending machine. There would be a venue for parties and for gigs. There would be a swimming pool and some proper saunas and cold plunge pools.
• Ensure that anyone employed by the school would receive at least 10 percent more than the living wage, and no one would be expected to work for free.
• Have a psychoanalyst, mental health experts, therapists, and addictions counsellors on the faculty.
• Have a chef on faculty. There would be gardens inside and outside.
• Teach skills for technical tool use. Everyone can and should have the opportunity to learn how to use the tools they want to work with.
• Teach practical skills such as accounting, grant-writing, legal advice, graphic and web design.
• Teach skills for art-handling and exhibition installation. All artists and people involved with art should be given a foundation in these skills.
• Be flexible, and allow people to opt in and opt out as they wish.
• Have very few rules, but be very well organised and efficient with a small administrative staff. There would be limited grading, and no symbolic endpoint. There would be no graduation, so you could keep going to the school throughout your life. To receive professional accreditation, students would go through an application procedure where both faculty and students vote to award a degree. You could get your MFA on the first day or after 40 years. Students could apply for a degree only three times.
• Have some school pets, such as goats.
By email asked the following questions
RE: Graduate School “The MFA”
1. What kinds of artists are being produced through MFA programs? What does the ideal applicant look like? Do art school admissions processes implicitly exclude certain kinds of applicants?
2. What is the profile of the successful graduate? Is it ideally to be an art world professional, to have gallery representation, or to be a university instructor? Are there other moss of participation in society that MFA programs teach, as intended outcomes of a program?
3. What are some of the pressures within the university, such as academic standards and economic pressures, that affect how visual arts program at the MFA level are structures and how artists are taught?
4. What are the consequences of relying on contract and sessional faculty, for programs, for instructors and for students? If you teach as a sessional, how does your own situation affect how you teach and mentor students into a professional practice?
5. Can you think of a few ways that the teaching of artists sat the MFA level could be reimagined? What would your ideal art school of the future look like?
1. A. Educated ones. B. Someone who knows how to make a sexy picture. C. Some faculty prefer less experienced students over already developed artists. Applicants require money to attend.
2. A. Someone who will make a great feature in the alumni news. B. Depends on the program. C. One inevitable outcome is the cohort: A community of artists who (may or may not) go on to support each other long after the program.
3. Maximum number preferred; students who may not be ready are admitted anyway. Studio spaces shrink. Academically, the drive to make visual arts equivalent to other humanities puts focus on texts.
4. A financial precarity for sessional workers. Physical presence of faculty diminished. Students may be unable to work with their chosen mentors: Full-timers are overburdened or part-timers unavailable for additional service. Over-emphasis on student evaluations. Creeping cynicism. Two-tiered faculty undermines the union.
5. Make it free. More politically radical. Pass/fail. No course structure or semester-based evaluations of progress. Studio. Studio. Studio. Teach self-criticality but not to the point of paralysis. Refine existing modes of critique. Help artists learn to write more tears.
Eleanor King spent the summer of 2016 in rural Scotland trying to exists without the aid of modern technologies. She just finished her MFA at Purchase Collage and she lives and works in New York City.
Dana Claxton is a Canadian artist who teaches in the Visual Art program at the University of British Columbia.
Jan Peacock is a Canadian artist and writer; she directs the MFA program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
John Cussans is an artist, writer and researcher who teaches at the Ruskin in London and at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.
Scott Rogers is a Canadian artist living in Glasgow; he completed an MFA at the Glasgow School of Art as well as an exchange at the Stäedelschule in Frankfurt.
Response by John Kissick
It is an old grudge, and one that seems to permeate a lot of discussions around MFA programs (especially ones that are housed in large research universities), but it remains more true than not that professional practice degrees are largely misunderstood and thus undervalued in many institutions. I have never viewed this situation as particularly malicious, but simply a knock-on effect from what is a pervasive bias towards quantitative research and metrics around gauging success with granting agencies (which has become pretty much an obsession in the university sector). We in the arts have this odd notion that everyone is against us, especially within post-secondary institutions. The actual reality is that nobody is thinking about us at all, because they are too busy thinking about their own survival. In any event, this reality has spawned two very different modes of adaptation in the world of post-secondary art education: one being the advent of the Visual Arts PhD, which attempts to mimic the look and ethos of “research” and thus attempts to gain access to scarce resources, together with what is sometimes ludicrously described as “prestige”; and the other being the hard-core, studio-centred, go-out-into- the-world-and-make-art MFA. The presence of the PhD in visual arts has had, for better or worse, a profound effect on the meaning and currency of the MFA as the terminal degree in the field. And, over the past decade, plenty of ink has been spilled over this contentious debate about the relevancy of each degree in the face of diminishing job prospects in academia and in the greater art world. But the debate has also been productive in helping many institutions forcefully reassert what the MFA degree is, and is not, in the face of the “social-science-ification” of the visual arts.
Let’s face it, at least from the Canadian perspective, there is no pot of gold raining down on any of the arts or humanities disciplines in the post-secondary sector; nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future. Since around the time of the last economic downturn in 2008, students, both undergraduate and graduate, have been voting with their feet, and those feet have been literally running away from the arts. In turn, this has created two specific dynamics: a less-competitive field of truly qualified applicants for most graduate programs, and fewer resources available to attract the best ones when they are considering your school. The difficulty of attracting interesting, qualified applicants is a huge one for many programs across the country, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to current debates about the relevancy of an MFA degree. The best artists who enroll in quality MFA programs will most definitely succeed in navigating the trials and tribulations of the art world; the mediocre ones will instead become the embittered and broke poster kids for everything that is wrong with the degree. And in an age when student debt is astronomical, the best prospective graduate students want at least some assurance that the degree is worth the cost and the years of paying back their loans… which is pretty hard to guarantee with a straight face.
In my opinion, the best MFA programs are the ones that don’t pretend to sell something they can’t deliver, and forcefully provide an environment in which the actual skills and mindset of an artist can be honed to a very high degree. Put another way, we need to stop telling students that it is a teaching degree and start telling them it is a making degree. Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that the MFA should relinquish its status as the terminal degree in the field to the research-based PhD – quite the opposite in fact. The art world doesn’t need any more “researchers” and it sure as hell doesn’t need researchers teaching studio art. It needs artists! But the old chestnut that an MFA leads to a gig in the post-secondary sector is a non-starter for over 90 percent of recent grads, and the quicker we dump that expectation, the better. Sure, learning some pedagogy and getting some teaching experience is never a bad thing, and a professional artist absolutely needs to have those skills in their toolbox. But at the end of the day, it is the quality of work and the reputation of the artist that will get them teaching gigs, not the degree itself. When we strip away false expectations, we are hopefully left with a cohort of artists, studying together, reading and thinking through relevant and stimulating texts, critiquing each other’s work, writing and making and thinking and asking. It is an environment where visiting artists are welcome, and seen as a support, and not a threat, to established faculty members; where the faculty are less professors and more mentors, and where their own legitimacy comes from their own track records and work as artists. And finally, where work… the production of art, is paramount.
John Kissick is a painter and writer, and Professor of Art at the University of Guelph.
Response by Bogdan Luca
When I joined an MFA program, my goal was not to become a teacher, but to simply learn more and to work with other people who were dedicated to making art that had a critical dimension. I imagined my MFA would also open doors for my work to be seen and written about, and help me to make art that was relevant to the time I lived in. My work became more complex and I had a very positive MFA experience, largely because I was exposed to ideas outside of my own medium and discipline. However, the most marked consequence of my training was that I was hired as a sessional instructor in the Fine Arts program at OCAD U, where I continue to work six years later.
During my time at OCAD U, I have learned that being a sessional instructor is not the same as holding an entry-level teaching position that necessarily leads to more stable, tenure-type employment. Many sessionals have been working at OCAD U for more than a decade while continuing to be treated as adjuncts: never receiving a raise, never having access to benefits, or first right of refusal on courses they have taught repeatedly. As I became involved with the Faculty Association and contract bargaining, I came to understand that universities across Ontario are increasingly reliant on sessional faculty to deliver curriculum. These institutions claim they need a workforce that can expand or shrink in response to fluctuating enrolment and funding. According to its current Strategic Research Plan, OCAD U is focused on finding ways the university can create corporate partnerships that will fund its programs. While this strategy may be applicable to some practices, it’s not always possible for (most) fine art streams. This vision forces the institution to invest more time and resources in areas, such as digital technologies, that are more likely to receive funding. While this is certainly important, it risks sacrificing more traditional practices and potentially eroding the diversity of program offerings that are the strength of a school like OCAD U. An essential facet of arts education remains its ability to resist specific application and to be able to respond to broad shifts and patterns in society at large.
OCAD U functions with shortcomings in terms of studio and storage space for students, faculty office space, resources for studio/shop operation and management. All faculty invest enormous effort in trying to make the school live up to its projected image: the university of the imagination. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the school depends on cheap labour: sessionals make up a remarkable 56 percent of faculty. According to contract stipulations, OCAD U sessionals are not expected to do service nor are they in any way recognized for their studio practice or research. Nevertheless, it is common for sessionals to be involved in service work: participating on committees, conducting admissions interviews and portfolio evaluations, advising students outside of class time, being involved with developing curriculum or new academic streams, serving as advisors to graduate students, organizing and mounting student exhibitions, and so on. These activities are vital to the running of the university and fostering a sense of community at the school. However, since the university does not officially expect sessionals to do such tasks, it does not pay them for this time. The institution thus draws great benefits from this invisible and free labour. Sessionals do this work because they are dedicated to teaching: they want to participate in the life of the university. They know that when they apply for a tenure-track position, they will be asked about their experience doing service work and curriculum development. Sessionals feel pressured to do this extra work, and often feel that, should they refuse to get involved at the request of their chair or dean, their contract will not be renewed. All this no-compensated time, when placed into an equation with sessional pay rates that are among the lowest in the province, results in OCAD U sessional faculty routinely surviving on poverty wages.
OCAD U students don’t know that there are several types of faculty with whom they might work: tenured, continuing, contractually limited, teaching intensive and sessional. More than likely, though, they are being taught by a sessional. While sessionals will do their best to be available to them beyond class time, that may not always be possible. It is normal for students to expect that their faculty will support them outside of class time yet sessional contract fees don’t cover this additional time.
OCAD U graduate students are in a strange place as both students and faculty. They experience challenges in both roles, as their TA-ship expectations are onerous. The crushing workload trickles down from tenured faculty through contract categories, and finally lands on graduate students. Placed in oversized seminars, they often teach subjects they have no background in. Because they have to play catch up, they work way beyond the 10-hour rule: more free labour. During my graduate studies, I was thrown into teaching a studio class with little guidance. This approach is the rule rather than the exception and is not a good way to foster quality education. Indeed, it may serve to completely deter candidates from a career path that might otherwise be very rewarding. Lack of training means that assessment with performance improvement in mind is not possible.
My hope is that the art school of the future will cultivate growth and development among its faculty by recognizing their artistic practices and rewarding them for their contributions to the academic community. This means a change in the culture around how sessionals are used and regarded. The art school of the future will not focus on finding answers, it will focus on articulating the right questions. OCAD U is not like other universities. Its strength is in its difference. What better place than an art school to invent new models for teaching and treating faculty equitably?
Bodgan Luca is an artist and Sessional Instructor at OCAD University in Toronto.
Response by Laurie Kang with The Student Led Discussion on Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, and Class
I attended Bard College from 2013 to 2015. While there, issues around the lack of consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class became apparent in the MFA context in conversations and critiques of art and student’s work, school-wide discussions and seminars, departmental caucuses and so on. A small group of students and faculty formed, The Student Led Discussion on Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, and Class, and we met several times over the summer to discuss how to go about shifting these dynamics within the institution and program. The meetings were always open to the entire school and attendance ranged from five people to 15 or more. Below is the first letter that was collaboratively written at the end of the summer as a result of these conversations and sent to the Graduate Committee.
July 29, 2015
Bard MFA Graduate Committee
5000, 30 Campus Road
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504-5000
Dear Graduate Committee,
The participants of the student-led discussions are asking the Graduate Committee to address the exclusion of issues of rice, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality form the arts discourse at Bard. This concerns the all-school crits and discipline caucuses as much as it does the dominant character of the social environment at Bard.
Although students have significant autonomy to create change at Bard, we are turning to the Graduate Committee to make structural change.
The participants of the student-led discussions would like to respectfully demand the following:
1. For the second consecutive summer, we continue to request that the all-school seminar directly addresses the issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality that we feel are under erasure in this community and elsewhere.
• The goal of reading Ovid “against the grain” was partially unsuccessful for a number of reasons, although interesting and educational. Firstly, it was not facilitated; secondly it did not directly address issues of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class; thirdly, discussion in small groups, so all voices could be heard, did not happen.
• The seminar is the only place the school comes together to read a specific text, and therefore the only time these issues can be addressed as a community.
• “Reading against the grain” may be insufficient for addressing these issues clearly, instead, a primary text that confronts these issues in a direct manner is necessary.
2. We continue to request the active recruitment of minority students and faculty.
3. We request an open discussion on the “rules of engagement” for the crit space. This would include explaining the forms of pedagogy the community is engaging in, acknowledging vocabularies used, and elucidating the history of the crit itself.
4. We request transparency about admissions statistics regarding Bard MFA students and applicants.
• To the extent that we as students are legally allowed to view this information, we would like to begin a method of collecting and organizing applicant and student statistics. In light of the recent BFAMFAPHD study on artists and art students, we would like to gain perspective on Bard’s MFA program within the larger art world.
In conclusion, we would like to thank everyone who has contributed to these conversations, especially the administrators and faculty who have guided and helped thus far. We are both aware and grateful for their encouragement and input. We hope that this group can continue to function as a place to hold the community accountable for its actions and discourse by all members of the community who wish to participate.
The Student Led Discussion on Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, and Class
Update from Suzanne Kite (current MFA candidate) via email exchange:
Starting in 2015, the Graduate Committee made space in the schedule for the “Student Led Conversation”. This discussion group is not required, but faculty cannot arrange meetings during the scheduled time. I feel this group is essential to provide a space to process events, discuss needs and desires of the students, and make changes within the institution. While every institution can and should listen to students, the very simple institutional structure at Bard MFA allowed for changes we asked for to be made very quickly. There is only one group making decisions, the Graduate Committee, which is comprised of faculty from each discipline, the three administrative staff, and the director. After meeting in the Student Led Conversation, and providing a list of structural changes, almost all of the suggested changes were made, and all of them were considered. The seminar reading this year was Samuel Delaney, and we read books he selected as well as Phallos and his autobiography, and held a four-hour question-and-answer session with him. Most excitingly, many amazing new faculty and students were hired and admitted this year. Regarding the last two points in our letter, the “rules of engagement” for the critique are still being discussed at length by the GC, and I think for as long as Bard holds critiques, they will be in a process of “becoming” and not remaining static. In regards to “transparency” about admissions statistics, since this letter was written, we have learned that there are no statistics on race to be transparent about, as they are not provided to the MFA program upon application or admission. Perhaps there are wider questions to be asked about how institutions can track their success or failure to bring in a diverse group of applicants. I believe the Student Led Conversation has been and will be a productive tool to work alongside the institutional structure of Bard MFA, allowing the space students need to recognize needs in the Bard community, holding both the students and faculty responsible to both maintain what has been done and continue to make positive growth.
Laurie Kang is an artist who works in photography, sculpture, installation and video. She holds an MFA from the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.
The Student Led Conversation includes students, faculty and administrators in the MFA program at Bard College, convened to discuss issues of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class as they structure and affect the program and beyond.