From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
This week, as promised, ...might be good is joining the conversation about artist-run schools. To kick things off, in the thoughts that follow I scratch the surface of the relationship between today's artist-run schools and the museums and galleries that are increasingly supporting such projects. Meanwhile, in a related exploration Mary Walling Blackburn addresses pedagogy and aesthetics in "Classroom as Ornament."
Within the field of art production, a lineage for artist-run schools* could be traced to the rise of relational aesthetics in the 1990s. It is not a large leap from the laboratories and workshops Bourriaud labeled as such to the classes and schools established more recently by a younger crowd. However, artists themselves are reluctant to claim this lineage; gargantuan names like Rikrit Tirivanija and Liam Gillick seem to bludgeon the nuance out most any conversation at this point, and moreover, their critique of capitalism has become problematically ensnared in a sticky institutional web. It’s easier reach further back for models, bypassing that history, than to yoke oneself with it. Instead, artists and critics alike cite current events—ballooning MFA enrollment and the rising costs of this professionalization process—as an impetus and turn to models such as Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus for historical precedents. This history and these circumstances—the legacy of relational aesthetics, the history of artist-run institutions, the growth of the MFA machine—are significant, and other writers have pointed to all of them.
What has gone largely unexplored, however, is the wholehearted embrace offered to the artist-run school by more traditional institutions. The Whitney in New York, the ICA in Philadelphia and Arthouse in Austin brought in Fritz Haeg’s Sundown Schoolhouse. After Anton Vidokle organized unitednationsplaza, a self-described exhibition as school in the tradition of the Free University, in Berlin in 2007 and 2008, the New Museum snapped him up to produce Night School, a year-long series of workshops and seminars in 08-09. SculptureCenter produced The University of Trash this summer. Last month the Winkleman Gallery opened #class, a series of events that will transform the gallery into a “think tank.” This institutional embrace has certainly contributed to the profile, if not the prevalence, of artist-run schools.
Why? Artists’ inquiries into pedagogy align perfectly with the recent educational turn within museums. Education departments have grown steadily and gained influence within museums over the past decade in an effort to increase the relevance and accessibility of these institutions to a wider population. These departments have played a significant role in developing lecture series, adult classes and workshops, and the now-ubiquitous yoga-in-the-galleries and monthly singles parties. At its base, the growth of museum education and programming is market-driven. In order to survive, museums must capture a larger audience. While ever-grander buildings have appealed as a mechanism for attracting the high-rollers, regular, hip programming has been seen as a mechanism for gaining larger numbers of loyal low-rollers. (Yes, I’m drawing a loose parallel here between casinos and museums. Harrah’s is well-known for having shunned the construction boom in Vegas, a boom fueled by casinos’ desire to attract the top spenders, to concentrate its effort on building brand loyalty among a broader base of smaller patrons.) Now that the economy has gone bust, wildly ambitious construction projects look less attractive, while, correspondingly, education and programming look all the more attractive.
In this context, I wouldn’t be surprised if institutional support for artist-run schools continues to expand over the coming years. Paying an artist’s honorarium is a whole lot cheaper than hiring another educational administrator to develop similar programming. Cast in a more positive light, grants for educational programming are often easier for museums to secure than grants for operational or curatorial work, and artist-run schools could become a way for artists to tap into those funding sources. (Something artists already do as administrators in museums and professors in universities.)
So then, the question arises, within the walls of a museum, what are the formal and qualitative differences between an artist-run school and a smart museum education program? Are institutions choosing artist-run schools simply because they’re cheaper and cooler, or because they possess formal and qualitative differences from the pedagogical endeavors that may be undertaken by a museum’s curatorial and administrative teams? The answers to such questions, no doubt, depend on the artist and the institution, the school and the programming. In very general terms, I’ll venture a few.
First, institutions are choosing artist-run schools because they provide a mechanism through which to support an artist’s processes and inquiries. Artist-run schools allow artists to develop curricula around issues relevant to their larger art practice. For example, the course Mary Walling Blackburn gave in Austin explored imagery of the women’s health movement, a topic relevant to works by the artist such as her video installation Black Divine Light (2009). A class provides a space for artists to test hypotheses without committing to the (apparent) fixedness of a painting, video or other work.
Second, institutions are choosing artist-run schools because they reframe viewer expectations. Walking into a museum, Most of us have very specific expectations about the structure and purpose of lectures, discussions, classes and workshops that will be offered there. By contextualizing an event of any sort as part of an artist’s project, the institution may evade some of those expectations. An artist-run school values experimentation, non-hierarchical structures, thought experiments. For a larger institution, this has practical implications. The technology doesn’t have to be state of the art, and if it malfunctions, it’s not embarrassing, just part of the casual atmosphere. The class may be led by an amateur rather than an expert, and the material may be presented unsystematically, even chaotically, rather than logically. For some viewers, framing a class as an artist-run project may heighten the viewer’s receptivity to unfamiliar pedagogical structures. Or, put another way, framing a class as an artist-run project may heighten the viewer’s tolerance for the low-budget, the less-prepared and the non-professional. For other viewers, framing a class as an artist-run project may increase the approachability of the material, the artist or the institution as a whole.
Third and finally, institutions are choosing artist-run schools because they provide a justification for repositioning the museum as a hub of public activity and cultural dialogue. If the questions faced by the museum are “toward what end and by what means can we move public interaction around politics, economy, and society into the museum?” an ideal answer lies in art that creates these interactions itself. The very existence of artist-run schools serves to justify and enable the relocation of all kinds of public dialogue to the space of the museum.
These are some of the same reasons institutions welcomed artists like Tirivanija and Gillick with open arms: the earnestness, the public engagement, the production of relationships and information. Inside a museum or gallery, artist-run schools are merely relational aesthetics by any other name. By reframing the work as “pedagogical,” these schools evade the questions and problems posed by these types of projects. Like the earlier work of Tirvanija, Gillick and others, these projects establish an outwardly democratic relationship with the community at large—anyone eat a meal cooked by Tirvanija or attend a class taught by Walling Blackburn, and by extension anyone is welcome at the museum. Yet as any practitioner of institutional critique will tell you, not everyone can participate. The museum is a privileged site. These projects may not charge admission but they do demand free time and the cultural confidence necessary to participate in them. Evading these issues may work for the time being—the art world notoriously loves a hip new trend—but in the end, we’ll end up back where we started. Outside the institution, it’s still an open question: are today’s artist-run schools significantly different from other social practices? At the very least, inside the institution, they don’t much look it.
*I’m using the term artist-run schools in order to allow slippage between schools-as-art and schools-as-schools-run-by-artists. This ambiguity—is a particular school an artwork, or isn’t it?—is already present within the field of artist-run schools today. Depending on your point of view, this ambiguity may be productive promiscuity, or it may be conceptual sloppiness. Either way, I think this ambiguity is an intentional part of many artist-run schools. While it’s an important issue to explore further, it’s beyond the scope of my reflections here.
Thanks to Mary Walling Blackburn, Mary Katherine Matalon and Eric Zimmerman for our extensive conversations on this topic and for reading an earlier draft of these thoughts.
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.