The New Alternatives: Online Art Education Now
First as students, then as teachers, Caitlin Cherry and Nicole Maloof witnessed how art schools promote an MFA-to-gallery pipeline that prioritizes homogeneity and leaves too many behind, burdened with student debt. The absurd cost of a graduate education in art deters entire demographic groups from even applying. After the onset of the coronavirus, in-person learning halted and an already precarious job market for adjunct instructors collapsed. It became clear to Cherry and Maloof that something other than the status quo was needed to imbue the new online learning environment with care, to mitigate the new stresses of pandemic life.
Cherry was in an economics study group led by Maloof last spring when they began to develop these ideas. The alternative school they imagined would pursue experimental pedagogy and operate beyond the parameters of the university. It would treat virtual study as an asset and embrace collaboration across perspectives and backgrounds as an organizing principle of intellectual inquiry. They called their new project Dark Study.
Alternative art education is not a new concept. From Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which ran from 1933 to 1957, to the Àsìkò International Art Programme, organized by the late curator Bisi Silva in Nigeria in the early 2010s, a number of learning environments have worked to decentralize and democratize higher art education. Today, a host of new initiatives seek to redefine the alternative, propelled in part by the ubiquity of online communication during Covid-19, but also motivated by a need to address the art world’s inequities.
Like Black Mountain, Dark Study prioritizes interdisciplinarity. As at Àsìkò, the program is structured around intense, intimate conversations. But unlike these two predecessors, Dark Study revels in the absence of studios, which is not just a necessary condition of the times but a signal of the distance from a university approach.
Cherry and Maloof are both deeply imaginative artists with the ability to excite. When they describe Dark Study as working to exist beyond the neoliberal framework of higher education, I believe them. Their critique, informed by personal experience, is firm; the pleasure they get from their own brainstorming is palpable.
The program welcomes artists whether or not they are currently enrolled in MFA programs. Accepted students can participate in one of two tracks. One involves a course of study with either Cherry or Maloof. Divergent I, moderated by Cherry, asks how artists can navigate the world with progressive politics intact. Maloof facilitates Art for Whom?, which proposes that critical analysis of art must always take into account the social conditions from which the work emerges: there is no such thing as art for art’s sake. The second track is an advisory program that pairs a student with one of five mentors, and includes participation in one course. The program is free of charge to accepted students. In order to pay current and future mentors, Cherry and Maloof fundraise via GoFundMe and Patreon, but they do not take a salary as facilitators.
“We really took into great consideration people’s experiences,” Maloof says. “We read through so many essays and then found our initial cohort. Maybe even that is somewhat alternative. Most institutions don’t change or adapt to the student body and oftentimes replicate the inequity that organizes our entire society.”
Cherry and Maloof know the university is not neutral. The imbalances of access and resources present in the world do not simply dissipate. So, ever mindful of the power dynamic implicit in the classroom, Dark Study refuses to embrace a single intellectual authority. The program is informed instead by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s notion of true study occurring when people understand themselves alongside one another rather than hierarchically.
Cherry and Maloof argue that the online environment enhances this mode of relation. For them, the alternative resides in this elasticity and agility, a program without grades or a master who bestows wisdom upon his students. It is an ambitious and righteous mission, and one that I hope is well received by artists frustrated by the way “school” has been done for so long. But does the assertion of an “alternative” indicate a proximity to a conventional apparatus? Is it possible not to be entangled within the university?
If Dark Study advocates for a necessary distance away from the ivory tower, the collective Dark Matter University (DMU) strives to provide a new model for anti-racist design education and practice, a revisionist effort both within and outside traditional institutions. Its roster of educators comprises architects and designers of color including Ifeoma Ebo, Quilian Riano, Jennifer Low, Tonia Sing Chi, Curry Hackett, Jerome Haferd, and Justin Garrett Moore.
DMU emerged in the summer of 2020, as waves of protests unfolded throughout the US in response to the ongoing state-sanctioned violence against Black people and other people of color. In a recent presentation organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, DMU collective member Lisa Henry cited the Design as Protest collective— another anti-racist coalition—as “critical to the development” of DMU, bringing colleagues into closer communication around matters of “design justice, racial justice, and creating a better built environment for everyone to live in.”
DMU rightfully asserts that interventions aimed at fostering social justice are incomplete without attention to the landscapes and spatial politics of the built environments that structure our lives. Covid-19 has allowed likeminded colleagues from all over to join the collective and collaborate in a more focused way. There are opportunities to participate across three working groups that operate in concert to build DMU: People, which handles network expansion and in-network mentorship efforts; Content, which develops coursework; and Opportunity, which focuses on grant writing and funding efforts.
The most public component of DMU’s mission is the curriculum. The group forges partnerships with universities to offer inter-institutional courses designed and taught by members of the collective. This spring’s offerings include Foundations of Design Justice, a seminar to be presented jointly by Florida A&M University and the University of Utah, as well as the University of Michigan and the University of Buffalo. Another course on Black and Indigenous design methods will be presented by Howard and Yale universities. In each instance, students from both institutions will study together in online classes.
DMU requires a greater investment in navigating university bureaucracy to realize its programs than Dark Study does. This makes its position precarious, as higher education is conservative and rarely, if ever, interested in the destabilization of power structures. Though differing in methodology and scale, Dark Study and DMU insist on addressing the harms perpetuated by the higher education system against Black, Native, and other people of color, as well as disabled, queer, trans, and poor students. The alternatives they offer attempt to alleviate this harm by building a network of mentorship and care and, in the case of DMU, a much-needed hedge inside the university itself.
Philadelphia Contemporary director Nato Thompson’s The Alternative Art School (TAAS) isn’t centered around a critique of art school. Instead, it builds on the connectivity of the global art community that took shape decades before Covid-19 and now exists online, rather than at biennials and in-person conferences. The school’s tagline—“Artists around the world teaching artists around the world”—reads like copy you’d find in a college brochure.
At TAAS, students can learn from notable artists like Tania Bruguera and Mark Dion. The format is less horizontal than what Dark Study aspires to: courses are classified as intensives, master classes, seminars, and studios. Course instructors also conduct office hours. Students can participate in up to three courses, and pay corresponding tuition. In the first quarter of 2021, TAAS offered a course on Black and Indigenous art in Brazil led by Kenneth Bailey, cofounder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention, and artist Tiago Gualberto; a two-week intensive on making art that engages environmental catastrophe with Dion; and a course on art as an agent of social change taught by Bruguera, whose home in Havana is under police surveillance. In the second quarter, starting in May, Thompson himself is leading a course that invites arts administrators to tell students about the complexities of the global art world. Artists Yael Bartana and Daniel Meir will present a moving-image workshop based on their individual practices, and Vashti DuBois and curator Michael Clemmons’s seminar will focus on the history of The Colored Girls Museum, founded by DuBois in Philadelphia. The professional network affiliated with TAAS is surely robust enough to spur the creation of something capable of intriguing students. And Thompson is clearly aware of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other systemic inequities that shape the art world. But the school’s structure doesn’t seem to refute the hierarchies of the art world, and somehow, I am still left asking how alternative this school really is.
Online education isn’t new, but the pandemic has brought some of its advantages to the fore, like the increased scheduling flexibility that comes when people no longer need be physically in place. But digital media in itself doesn’t signal a radical reorientation; indeed, most online degree programs have accelerated the standardization of learning with little sensitivity to students’ diverse needs.
How, then, do we determine if the outcomes of experimental online art courses match their ambitions? Maloof suggests a set of aligned questions. “What is it that we want to accomplish? What are the stakes involved, and can we do something that is truly meaningful for people who need it?” she asks. “I am always thinking big picture like that, relying on my own personal experiences to assure that I make the best decision I can, that we are going to do OK.”
The horizon of art education’s future doesn’t appear to have any single endpoint. For some, futurity is situated in acts of refusal; for others, in an embedded revision. Learners must determine where in that range they choose to plant their stakes. One thing is certain: they will have more choices in the future than they did yesterday.
This article appears under the headline “The New Alternatives” in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 86–89.