An anonymous art collective in search of “an alternative to everything,” The Bruce High Quality Foundation wants an alternative to art school. After starting the unaccredited BHQFU in 2009, a free, collaborative experiment in which “students are teachers are administrators are staff,” they are taking that conversation on a cross-country road trip in a limousine painted like a school bus (a classic example of BHQF’s style of critique). The five-week, 11-city road trip stops at art schools, art spaces, and museums to discuss the future of art education.
Curated by Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time, Teach 4 Amerika begins tonight at Cooper Union before moving on to New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland.
You’ve already explored alternative education models with BHQFU – why did you decide to take that discussion across the country?
It’s one thing to set up an alternative educational venue in Manhattan. There is a community of artists here that we’re very familiar with. But the failings of fine arts education, and higher education in general, are clearly more widespread than that. We’re going on the road to talk about what we’ve done and the rationale behind it, but more importantly to hear from students about how they’re approaching these problems. As much as the most obvious problems of higher education are the same across the board (high tuition, bloated bureaucracy, and a slumping into professionalization at the expense of critical creative inquiry), the solutions have to be local.
Did you learn anything from BHQFU? Were there parts of BHQFU that turned out differently than you expected? Were there setbacks?
KISS. Keep it simple stupid. As we got started with BHQFU a lot of plans for how to organize curriculum and events could have easily been mired in endless circular conversation. We found it to everyone’s benefit to just get the ball rolling and keep things moving. We try to keep the conversation about what the hell we’re doing in the first place front and center without allowing it to stunt experimentation.
The biggest surprise to us has been the level of participation. We thought we were going to have to spend a lot of time recruiting students, but that hasn’t been the case at all. If anything, we’re behind in developing the infrastructure to support the number of people who want to participate and the number of good ideas worth trying.
As for setbacks, certainly. We haven’t always had the money to keep a consistent space open, so that has slowed things down a bit. But at this point, we’re pretty confident in the future of the project.
How long have you been thinking about this project? How long was the planning process?
Opening BHQFU, to our minds, was simply a way to extend the collaborative practice of BHQF to a wider group of people. For years we talked about what we were doing as a kind of continuation/substitution for formal arts education. We see the tour as just another step along the same path. As for the technical planning, roughly six months.
How did you decide which cities and institutions to stop at?
We started with a much longer list, but our schedule and budget didn’t allow us to be on the road for six months. Ideally we’d visit every art school in the country, and who knows? Perhaps we’ll make a southern trek next year. The route we ended up with this time around is largely the product of practicality. However, we are making a point, in each city, of visiting both established institutions and more alternative venues.
One of the mottos for the project is “for anarchy in arts education” – is giving the decision-making power to the students a risky proposal?
We can’t imagine why anyone else would be running the show. Artists are autodidacts. If they aren’t teaching themselves, they aren’t making art. Are we afraid art students will accidentally burn the building down? It’s unlikely. What we should be afraid of is killing off the creative impulse by forcing students into debt and wasting their time teaching them to format their resumes.
Why propose an “unprofessional art education model” if art is impossible to completely separate from the art market?
It’s impossible to separate anything completely from the economy. Everyone has to pay the rent. But why bother paying the rent if life isn’t worth living? We think art is too important to let it get dragged down into mundanity.
What kinds of discussions are you hoping to have, and what kinds of answers do you hope to get from the project? Do you hope that Teach 4 Amerika will be a starting point for future projects?
We hope to hear some ideas we haven’t heard before, perhaps some things we can use with BHQFU, perhaps some ideas we can pass back and forth with others attempting alternative models. And of course we can’t help but consider the possibility of a national network of alternatives. It’s something we’ve given a little thought to already, a kind of national unaccrediting agency called NASA (The Natural Association of Students of Art). But that’s another story.