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The BHQF, in Bushwick

A small article by Roberta Smith from the New York Times shed some light on the ongoing and ever morphing state of fine arts education. She begins her piece with the now famous quote from Barnett Newman—“Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds.” And given where things have gone since Newman made that comment so many years ago, Smith posits that now he might say, ‘An artist without a graduate degree is like a fish without a bicycle.’”

Here’s Smith’s overview of where things stand in the world of academic art in 2009:

The professionalization and academicization of the art world has been lamented for some years, but lately they have become epidemic. The recent inflated art market has created the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling. Meanwhile art schools and universities — which often provide tenure (safe haven) for artists who may be taken seriously nowhere else — expanded to accommodate the rising number of art students and are now thoroughly invested in keeping these numbers high.

In this context the growing interest among art schools and universities (mostly abroad so far) in offering a Ph.D. in art makes the blood run cold. It also seems like rank, even cynical commercial opportunism. It’s too soon to tell, but I’d like to think that the economic downturn is doing serious damage to this trend and maybe even put budding artists off graduate school entirely.

Her article goes on to highlight the work of a group called the Bruce High Quality Foundation. This unaccredited, free art school or collective (it isn’t clear exactly what it is) was started by “The Bruces,” a group that has chosen to remain unnamed and anonymous. The conventional wisdom is that they are a band of mostly male artists who studied together at Cooper Union with Hans Haacke.

The latest undertaking: The formation of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an entity being invented in real time, through collaboration and a “best idea wins” approach.

I loved the hearty hope I felt in the way Smith framed this undertaking: “Like any small group with a good idea, they benefit from the fact that the art world is in many ways one of the least regulated occupational spheres on the planet. As a result it is unusually susceptible, on a local level, to being altered and improved by the actions of a few good men or women.”

Here’s more of what the Bruces have to offer:

The Bruces’ new direction was indicated last July when four of the group’s members gave a lecture-performance…Although accompanied by a series of amusingly pertinent or impertinent slides, the lecture was entirely serious. It diagrammed the links among contemporary art, the market and the art schools producing M.F.A.’s who are burdened by debt but largely naïve about the workings of the art world. It ended with the question: “How can we imagine a sustainable alternative to professionalized art education?”

Bruce High Quality Foundation University is one such imagining. Whether it becomes “the thing itself” remains to be seen, but even as “the idea of the thing” it strikes a blow where one is seriously needed, against the big business of art schools. The university’s first course, which is meeting weekly, is titled Bring Your Own University (B.Y.O.U.). In other words, all those present will “design and implement the administrative policy and curriculum.” Whatever happens, this latest move by the Bruce High Quality Foundation adds inspirational heft to its motto: “Professional problems. Amateur solutions.”

Great motto!

I’m back from a weekend in New York. Within a 48 hour period I wept with grief as we gathered on a pier jutting out into the Hudson River to to pay our last respects to Morris, then wept with joy at the wedding of my life long friend Melissa who, as one speaker noted, “has never given up on love.” Both the finality of death and the optimism of a mid-life marriage have left me feeling the deep and sobering expanse of what life serves up to us. We are all being asked to learn how to hold extremes in our consciousness. On every level.

From the interior landscape to the larger terrain: Another domain where extremes are being challenged is in the high stakes battle over art pedagogy. Miami Beach real estate developer Craig Robins announced plans to start a high profile “graduate program” to help Bilbao-ize Miami Beach into a major art center and destination site. Clearly a savvy businessman and marketer, Robins is approaching the creation of this program, called Art + Research, with the endorsing imprimatur of leading art world luminaries. His project, whether timely and appropriate for this 21st century or a vapid smoke screen for yet another money making venture, is as sophisticated as a mutli-million dollar corporate branding campaign. Art education as big business. Is the next step an IPO?

Here’s an excerpt from an article about his proposed initiative in New York Magazine:

The University of Miami–operated venture already has an impressive roster of New Yorkers onboard. Founding faculty include artists Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, both of whom teach in Columbia’s M.F.A. program; Yale instructor Steven Henry Madoff; and White Columns gallery director Matthew Higgs (they will all squeeze Miami tutorials into their current gigs). Former Columbia art-school dean Bruce Ferguson consulted on it. And for added star power, sitting on the board of Robins’s nonprofit Anaphiel organization to guide the school are former Whitney director (and Robins’s cousin) David Ross, John Baldessari, and ex–Art Basel director Sam Keller. Robins will kick in $2 million to help fund Art + Research for its first four years, and the University of Miami has promised to help raise another $2 million.

Unlike at Columbia and Yale, there won’t be any formal M.F.A. degrees awarded to those who complete the two-year program, which will revolve around a topical theme that changes with each entering biannual class. Accordingly, don’t expect to see the “resident artists” hunker down in front of easels and live models. “Most art is conceptually based now. It’s art based on an idea,” says Madoff. “It didn’t turn out that the twentieth century’s most influential artist was Picasso. It turned out it was Duchamp … We don’t need to do foundation courses, how to draw, how to sculpt … You don’t need three credits for American Art History From 1945 to the Present.”

Such an approach, loosely akin to the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, has its detractors. “I like Steven very much, but I think he’s dead wrong,” says Robert Storr, dean of Yale’s School of Art. “The idea that somebody who has read all the critical literature on art can suddenly have an idea and make it is just nuts.” In fact, Storr thinks knowledge of technique is central to an artist’s effectiveness. “Yes, you should teach ideas. But you shouldn’t teach theory and then send people off to subcontract the work to somebody else. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in situations curatorially where somebody’s had a great idea and an absolutely lousy work comes out of it because they don’t know how to talk to the people who are the superior technicians in their field.”

The thing is, the University of Miami already has a conventional M.F.A. program, and many of its professors wonder why Robins doesn’t just support them. “To have $2 million given to this rich man’s fantasy camp is more than annoying; it’s a complete kick in the teeth to the art department,” says UM painting professor Darby Bannard. “We are hurting so bad over here for basic facilities. I spent two years just trying to get the floor in the wood shop fixed—it was so rotted out you could put your foot through it.” Bannard’s own pedagogical style eschews theoretical discussions. “It’s very simple,” he cracks. “I teach people to paint. Inspiration is fine, but if you don’t have the skills, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Madoff groans out loud at that complaint. His role? “It’s not classes and it’s not teaching. It’s advising. The founding faculty will be hovering presences. We’re just going to give you a ton of information and allow you to live free in a place, have a free studio, and get to meet with other artists. Unless you’re a millionaire already, who wouldn’t want a two-year grant?” Indeed, Art + Research is so determined to be innovative that it’s amorphous. At a certain point, Robins waves off further questions on the details of its structure. “It’s not exactly clear how it’s all going to work,” he offers with a bright, knowing smile. “But everybody’s always happy to spend time in Miami.”