Project Space: Harrell Fletcher

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      I know this issue of …might be good is supposed to be about art criticism, and so here is my criticism of art. The system that art operates in is too heavily based on the studio/gallery model. You see it in magazines, in schools, in the general public's understanding of what art is, you see it professionally, and with amateurs—the studio/gallery model is, in my opinion, much too dominant. We have an abundance of graduating MFA students going out into the world, hoping to be discovered and to become successful, but only a very small percentage of them do. That wouldn't fly in medical school or in most other terminal degree programs. But artists who don't make it in the commercial gallery world largely just disappear. The schools highlight their few success stories in their newsletters and the rest of those MFA graduate students find some other way to make a living and pay back their student loans.

      For myself as an artist this approach didn't seem right, so I started looking for other ways to function. I created my own libraries, galleries, publications, web projects etc. and those lead to doing site specific projects for non-profits and public art commissions. I taught in ways that were consistent with the work I do so teaching wasn't a burden, but instead part of my practice. Eventually, I even worked with commercial galleries. I didn’t work with them because I had to or because I hoped to make a living and become a star by showing them, but rather because I really liked the people who ran the galleries and wanted to work with them. I had created a diversified set of work options, so if one option wasn't happening I still had several other options. Somehow my unorthodox approach kept me going and even supported me financially.

      So when I found myself in the position of teaching in an MFA program I didn't feel right about trying to perpetuate what I saw as a non-functional system—the studio/gallery model. After a few years of developing ideas and trying out various pedagogical approaches, I was given the opportunity to start up a new component of the MFA program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, where I am a faculty member. We are calling this new component an MFA in Art and Social Practice. People are not sure what to make of that name. I think it is easiest to say that the program is the opposite of normal MFA programs and the general studio/gallery paradigm. There are eight students in the first year, and none of them get studios. Instead they have a shared classroom space, and a shared office space. We are working now on an off-site neighborhood center, too. The center will be located in a semi-mobile off-grid building that will be sited in different parts of Portland for a year or so at a time. The students do a lot of collaboration with themselves and with the public. Their work is often ephemeral, non-object based and designed to be accessible to a non-art audience. They use blogs to archive their work. Sometimes their work doesn't seem like what people think of as art at all. They often work with other departments on campus—sociology, architecture, physical education, urban planning, etc. They do a lot of work that is made for specific projects—a show at City Hall, a series of projects for Reed College, an event series on a vacant lot, etc.

      When I was asked to do something for this Artist's Space, I decided to let my students show examples of their work. Often times I think the best thing for an artist to do is to show someone else's art. For more information about PSU's MFA in Art and Social Practice, please click here.

      Harrell Fletcher is an artist and runs the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

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