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…
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.
Dark Study directors Nicole Maloof (left) and Caitlin Cherry (right).
Courtesy Dark Study
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.
An instructor meeting of The Alternative Art School, showing (left to right, top to bottom): Tiago Gualberto, Nato Thompson, Mark Dion, Miguel López, Mel Chin, Mia Yu, Janine Antoni, Vashti DuBois, and Kenneth Bailey.
Courtesy The Alternative Art School
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.
Art Thefts Rock Italian Broadcaster, David Bowie Work to Auction, and More: Morning Links from June 14, 2021
To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter. The Headlines IN WHAT HAS TO BE ONE OF THE MOST PECULIAR ART HEISTS to come to light in recent memory, Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, said that some 120 artworks have been stolen from its offices at various points over the past half-century, including prints by Modigliani, Monet, and…
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IN WHAT HAS TO BE ONE OF THE MOST PECULIAR ART HEISTS to come to light in recent memory, Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, said that some 120 artworks have been stolen from its offices at various points over the past half-century, including prints by Modigliani, Monet, and other noted artists, the AFP reports. Officials apparently became aware of the issue earlier this year, when a painting supposedly by the Italian artist Ottone Rosai fell off the wall and was identified as a copy. Police found the man who swapped it in for the original in the ’70s, and he confessed to selling the vintage piece, but the statute of limitations has run out, the Guardian reports. Authorities think most of the works were taken in the last 25 years by others. Fakes took the place of some while others vanished.
AFTER THREE YEARS OF LEGAL JOUSTING, part of the war over Robert Indiana’s legacy is coming to a close. The estate of the “LOVE” artist and a company that has the rights to reproduce some of his works, Morgan Art Foundation, have officially reached a settlement, the Associated Press reports. The company had claimed that a New York–based publisher was making unauthorized Indiana pieces in the last years of his life, while the estate said the company was not properly paying royalties to the Maine-based artist. Everyone involved rejected the allegations. The settlement, first floated months ago, is not public. The New York Times notes that the publisher, Michael McKenzie, is not a part of the settlement, and has ongoing disputes with the parties. “I can take this apart,” he told the Times of the agreement. The AP also writes that Maine’s attorney general has accused the estate of paying millions in excessive legal fees, a charge it denies. Indiana’s estate is said to be worth at least $80 million; his will called for a museum to be created in his home on the remote island of Vinalhaven.
Artist Dorothea Rockburne is suing her upstairs neighbors (a former Twitter CEO and his wife) in the SoHo building she has long called home for $2 million, alleging that water that leaked from their apartment damaged more than 176 of her works—25 to the point that they cannot be salvaged. Ginia Bellafante reports. [The New York Times]
What should become of the racist mural by artist Rex Whistler in the basement restaurant at Tate Britain in London, which became a subject of heavy public criticism last July? The museum said it will review what to do beginning this summer, with the end of the year as a deadline. Activists say the museum has been too slow to act. [The New York Times]
A news story you do not see every day: The model and photographer Penny Lancaster (who is married to rocker Rod Stewart) is working as a London police officer, and apprehended a man urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture (in a bizarre echo of David Hammons’s performance peeing on a work by the famed sculptor, as captured by Dawoud Bey). [The Sun]
The artist Phyllida Barlow was named a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, artists Edmund de Waal and Martin Parr were made CBEs (Commanders of the Order of the British Empire), and dealer Sadie Coles was given an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire). [The Art Newspaper]
Writer Nicole Rudick surveyed the wide range of art that has been inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). [T: The New York Times Style Magazine]
The U.S. Postal Service has released stamps honoring the Cuban-American artist Emilio Sanchez. [The Miami Herald]
Artist Peter Blake (CBE)—who created the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) album, and so much more—has kindly offered up his recipe for beans on toast. [Wallpaper]
A PAINTING BY DAVID BOWIE THAT WAS PURCHASED at a Goodwill shop three hours north of Toronto for CA$5 (about US$4.10) last year will be offered at auction later this month with an estimate of CA$9,000 (about US$7,400), the Globe and Mail reports. It’s a portrait of a somewhat spooky spectral head. While such astounding thrift-store finds often involve serious detective work on the part of buyers, Rob Cowley (of the Toronto house Cowley Abbott , which is handling the sale) said that the anonymous seller “was taken by the painting itself at first. Then she saw the printed label on the back that identified it as a work by David Bowie.” Good eye! [The Globe and Mail]
Thank you for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.
7,000-Year-Old Stamped Seal Found in Prehistoric Levant Village
A stamped seal in the ancient village of Tel Tsaf dating to the 5th millennium B.C.E. has been unearthed, according to a study in the journal Levant by archaeologists Michael Freikman and David Ben-Shlomo, of the University of Ariel and Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, respectively. Of the nearly 150 seals that…
A stamped seal in the ancient village of Tel Tsaf dating to the 5th millennium B.C.E. has been unearthed, according to a study in the journal Levant by archaeologists Michael Freikman and David Ben-Shlomo, of the University of Ariel and Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, respectively.
Of the nearly 150 seals that have been uncovered at the Tel Tsaf site, this one is the only stamped one. Additionally, it is the oldest stamped seal ever recovered in Israel.
In the 5th millennium B.C.E., Tel Tsaf wealthy inhabitants had the means to purchase goods from Mesopotamia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Caucasus. The study suggests that the stamped seal could be a sign of the region’s rich trade system, and that it was related to administrative practices. A seal would have been used to identify an individual, so it may have been used to authenticate documents.
The stamped seal’s dark grey clay bears two distinct designs: a geometric impression with nearly a dozen horizontal lines crossing a long vertical one, and another with parallel zigzag lines. An impression of rope on the underside indicates it was “applied to some hard and flat surface bound with rope before being impressed by two or three different seals,” the researchers write. Since it was found in a storage room, they believe it may have been “intentionally kept as a record of previous trade, or as proof of completion of a transaction.”
Previous discoveries made at Tel Tsaf include pottery, beads, shells, animal bones, and flints, as well as a clay figure resembling a dog. There have also been a number of uncovered burials, including one of a woman who was interred with a rare metal awl, obsidian beads, and an ornate belt made of 1,668 ostrich eggshell beads. Additionally, archaeologists have found small pieces of reshaped pottery, which they believe functioned “as mnemonic devices or tokens used to track the amounts and types of stored goods,” according to the Levant paper.
Based on the immense storage facilities archaeologists have discovered, the people who lived there had a surplus of grain, which may have been sold in exchange for certain goods. Seals like the newly found one may have been used on containers brought in and out of the village to mark them as shipments for transporting that grain. With written language not yet invented, this would have been an important form of communication, commerce, and property demarcation, especially for the hub of a local trading network.