With art colleges closing, a Chicago museum has an alternative

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With art colleges closing, a Chicago museum has an alternative
Group BAM School Shot Milan Session (Group BAM School Modality at MUDEC in Milan).

by Zachary Small

CHICAGO, IL.- The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and educator Romi Crawford have become partners in a new program that focuses on pairing instruction by artists of color with hands-on learning by students working alongside them. This intensive, semester-long course, which its founders announced on Monday, is called the New Art School Modality and will start in September at the museum.

Traditional models of art education have become increasingly endangered as trusted schools — from the San Francisco Art Institute to the Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee — have fallen into bankruptcy or merged with larger institutions. These developments have been a wake-up call for some leaders in the art world, who are now financing alternative modes of instruction that sidestep degree-granting programs altogether.

The New Art School Modality is intended to create a sweet spot in academia. Starting in the fall semester it will provide about 50 students each with a free course in Black art history taught by scholars working alongside some of the history-making artists themselves, and underwritten by a $250,000 grant from the nonprofit Terra Foundation for American Art.

“The flashing words are experimentation and improvisation,” said Crawford, 56, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There is a crisis in arts education, and we hope the sustainability of our model will force others into realization.”

The coming semester will focus on the lessons of FESTAC 77, the 1977 Pan-African convening of Black artists in Lagos, Nigeria (its official title is the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture). The monthlong event was a celebration of the continent and the African diaspora, a milestone that Crawford considers a crucial but largely unknown chapter of art history.

Two years ago, she organized an exhibition about the festival with artist Theaster Gates, but she hopes students will deepen their knowledge through exposure to photographer Roy Lewis and painter Gerald Williams who attended the original exhibition nearly a half-century ago. Many of the instructing artists have deep ties to Chicago, including Williams, who helped found AfriCobra, an influential arts collective from the South Side of Chicago that started in the 1960s.

“This is a hack to a different kind of education,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, adding that she hoped the program would make art more accessible. “My measure of success for this program would be if this cohort of students considered themselves apprentices to the arts and are hired into positions on the same level as those with more traditional degrees.” (The semester-long program does not offer a degree or college credit.)

Other cultural institutions have found success with their own models for combining history and studio art. The Whitney Museum’s Independent Studio Program is still going strong after more than 50 years with a reputation for producing cultural leaders like the Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong and conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. During the pandemic, a new crop of these experiments appeared online, including the Alternative Art School by curator Nato Thompson, who enlisted artists like Trevor Paglen to teach.

According to educators, traditional art schools are struggling to recruit students who question whether a fine arts degree is worth the high tuition cost.

“The closures have predominantly been about schools relying too much on tuition and not considering if students could afford it,” said art historian Corinna Kirsch, who taught at the San Francisco Art Institute before it was shuttered.

Kirsch said that alternative approaches like the one in Chicago could offer the kind of diverse programming about artists of color that universities have been slow to devise. But those courses would not fully replace the need for a fine arts degree, which she said she viewed as a pathway toward critical thinking.

Crawford said her program had somewhat different goals. “There’s intentionally less hand-holding, and the art school apparatus is reduced,” she said, adding that she wanted students to create projects that “live in the world, rather than course credit.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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