A Parable in Pittsburgh

On April 5, 2011, in Blog, by BHQF

We rolled up to a rolling campus teaming with teams playing soccer and engineering students attempting cricket and lone gunmen noodling acoustic guitars in fair weather, banners for professional conferences and posters for our best friends’ bands’ gigs at the Brillo Box. This is Carnegie Mellon. Black and yellow, black and yellow. Jon meets us in the parking lot with his daughter. She digs the limo.

Time ticks so we set to unloading and blowing up balloons, meeting Machete, our new favorite Pittsburghian Afro-beat salsa band, cocking the t-shirt cannon, and running sound check.  Lights go down. Rallying ensues. Our new friend Rob Blackson who we met in Philadelphia recommended we add a Q&A after the rally since the twenty-year-old artists in the room can’t come out for drinks with us afterwards (grumblings of the like we’d also heard in New York, but seriously – what twenty-year-old college student can’t get into a bar?) so we decide to go for it at Carnegie Mellon. Lights up.

To begin with we get a bit of the usual: how does BHQF work? How does the school function? Are things different after the Whitney Biennial? (A little yes, a little no.) And then the waiter comes with the meat and potatoes. Do you really believe it’s advisable for art students to forgo formal education? What is BHQFU doing to bring art into the wider community? Can N.A.S.A.D. be all that bad if it’s made up of arts educators?

This last question precipitates a defense from a member of the art school faculty. Who do we think are making curricular decisions? As it turns out the faculty are artists. Artists with experience. Artists who very well may be making good decisions about what types of classes ought to be taught and required and who may very well be tirelessly devoted to their students’ interests.

To which a student countered – but why couldn’t the students collaborate in making those decisions? I’m required to take an art history survey, but several of my friends and I would really like to focus on a particular area.

Professor: So why not make the class yourself?

We agree. Why not? In fact, that’s more or less what we’re arguing for. People that want to learn about art, who think making better work might be supported by a collaborative critical environment, ought to organize learning situations for themselves.

The pushback we’ve gotten on occasion from professors seems to assume we’re calling for an out and out revolt of the twenty-year-olds. But that’s not the case. We don’t think a group of twenty-year-old students would be served well by divorcing themselves from the wisdom of their forbears. Quite the contrary. We just don’t see why a generational difference should constitute a hierarchy. The best teachers we’ve met think they have something to learn from their students. And we’ve heard that the best way to learn is to teach. So if we really believe these time-honored clichés have any tooth to them, why don’t we scrap the power dynamic for something a bit more fluid?

Meat and Potatoes and Waffles

Pittsburgh was a steel town, but then they built 446 bridges and now there is no more steel left. Now it is all bridges. Straddling the snot-nosed East coast and the laborious Midwest, it’s fondly and self-effacingly known as the Paris of Appalachia, the City of Champions, the City of, well, Bridges. And plumbing along with its healthcare and robotics industries is its 750 million dollar bastion of intellectualism, Carnegie Mellon University.

Carnegie Mellon University is an empire all its own, the kind of institution that, by hook or by crook, finds its fingers spread wide amongst the pots of Pittsburgh. And nestled neatly within its magisterial paws is the School of Fine Art. Jon Rubin, who we had the pleasure to spend some time with here, runs something like a department within the School of Art called Contextual Practices.

Speaking of bridges, Jon’s idea is that the resources of the University might be directed outward into the city – that a pragmatic way of de-ossifying the way we learn as artists might be to re-route some funding and expertise from the big boys like CMU into more transient socio-educational situations.

Case in point: The Waffle Shop.

Jon took some money from CMU and used it to open The Waffle Shop a couple years ago. You can check out how it works here. What interests us is that it’s used as the classroom for Jon’s class, but affords him the freedom to build an educational moment with the reigns from on high loosened up a bit. We imagine this circumstance can only help encourage students to make their own world – for themselves and for their work.

Now The Waffle Shop is not a complete break from the institution, but it does provide a great example of how we might start to imagine such a transition. What started solely with funding from CMU has found ways to “diversify revenue streams,” from grants and donations to rentals and waffles.

And why not? Try as we might, we haven’t found the magic bean that grows a perfectly pure solution to the funding problems of arts education. It’s probably going to cost something, which means the money has to come from somewhere, which means we’re going to have be resourceful. Luckily, artists are good at being resourceful. After all, making art is an indefensible travesty in the face of a productive society. We have to have our wits about us if we intend to keep trucking anyway.

A lot of our conversations in Pittsburgh centered on this question of funding. If we want to create lots of ways to learn, we’re going to need lots of ways to pay for it. We heard about a place called Unsmoke Artspace that has been creating cheap studio space for artists in Braddock, PA with some help from Levi’s. Back in Philly we met people running programs off a combination of member dues and grants. Our own school back in New York currently combines some non-profit funding sources with sales from art works.

We don’t mean to suggest there is no baggage that comes along with funding. If Haliburton offered to house our art school, we might think twice. The point is simply that we need to keep our options open, to weigh the costs of capitalism against the gains of what we’re doing: creating alternative modes of art education that keep costs to students down, break down some tired old hierarchies, support curricular agility, and keep the focus on supporting a critical conversation among artists as the best way to learn.

 

 

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