2.16 / Review

Teach 4 Amerika

By Patricia Maloney May 3, 2011

On April 27, the pranksterish collaborative the Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF) arrived at my alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), in a limousine painted to resemble a yellow school bus for their tenth stop on a five-week, eleven-city tour across the United States.1 At each destination of Teach 4 Amerika, which is sponsored by the New York–based nonprofit public-art program Creative Time, BHQF has challenged art students to reconsider the terms, methods, and purpose of their educations. They posit that the proliferation of BFA and MFA degree programs in this country—over nine hundred at last count—has led neither to a corresponding increase in contemporary art’s reception in the broader culture nor to an expanded market in which more artists can sustain themselves by sales of their work. Instead, according to BHQF, it supports a self-perpetuating, peripheral industry around art and contributes to the increasing professionalization of the contemporary art world.

All these conditions—the glut of academic programs, artists’ narrowing access to the art market as their numbers rapidly increase, the progressive isolation of contemporary art within a sphere of similarly educated participants—have been pressing topics of conversation for several years and urgent ones since the 2008 economic collapse. They’ve also been the impetus for the rise of alternative pedagogical models by which artists self-direct their research and curricula. So the precept behind Teach 4 Amerika—that aspiring artists should eschew formalized art education in favor of such alternative models in order to reclaim their artistic agency—has much traction and would have resonated more strongly in the rally if it hadn’t been grounded in the outmoded premise of the artist as an autodidactic bohemian.

Teach 4 Amerika, 2011; poster. Courtesy of the Bruce High Quality Foundation and Creative Time, New York.

Students entered the lecture hall to the brassy, booming sounds of the San Francisco Gay/Lesbian Freedom Band  and to a room full of red, blue, and yellow balloons. As they settled in their seats, one member of the collaborative, wearing a rubber Nixon mask, danced at the front of the room while shooting into the crowd tie-dyed T-shirts and royal-blue felt pennants declaring the event a “rally for anarchy in arts education.” The other members of the group sat in the front row, taking photographs, eating pizza, or drinking Maker’s Mark. When the supply of T-shirts was nearly depleted and the room almost full, a BHQF artist named Seth delivered a PowerPoint presentation.2 Interspersed between clips and stills from the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, other bits of popular culture, images of Obama, statistics on arts education and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design were images of a young woman, who, as the child of white, middle-class, divorced professionals and a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, presents BHQF’s archetype for an art-school undergraduate.3

As Seth unpacked her story with deadpan humor, he interwove a set of statistics based on current market conditions that refuted the potential for an art student to graduate with any reasonable expectation of a career as an artist. From this, he suggested that the academicization of art does no more than produce underemployed adjunct professors and perpetuate a professionalized culture that feeds into a system of self-reflexive activity. While no one would argue against the near-futility represented by the ratio of BFA- and MFA-adorned artists to galleries, the presentation, in also decrying the National Endowment for the Art’s recent initiative to promote the idea that art infuses life into local economies, suggests that most relationships between art and money are sullied.

Teach 4 Amerika, 2011; excerpt from rally in Pittsburgh, April 2, 2011. Courtesy of the Bruce High Quality Foundation and Creative Time, New York.

Instead, BHQF spins out an aspirational and, at times, contradictory proposal for a new kind of art education—one organized around individual artistic concerns that foregrounds, once again, the critical self-discovery in which an artist engages. They conduct such a program in New York at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. From this model, artists can counter the alienation between contemporary art production and its reception by a general public by operating with a network of peers to produce programs and activate spaces for showing work. In this model, art ceases to be perceived as another engine of the economy and is restored as a vocation, embedded with all the ideals of the Enlightenment, beginning with individual liberty. The entire presentation was delivered with a healthy dose of irony, and any investment in this aspiration was undermined by a film clip of one of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest breaking out of the asylum and running across a bucolic meadow in the early dawn light.

But the irony and willingness of BHQF to admit their own complicity in—and benefits derived from—the current market-driven machine did little to untangle their presentation’s contradictions or dampen the skepticism with which it was met. As I noted in the Q & A session that followed, just how do the self-directed activities and spaces that this peer-oriented model would produce differ from the alternative spaces, art magazines, apartment galleries, etc., that graduates from academic programs currently produce? Few members of the audience seemed to find credibility with the stance that the current educational system accomplishes no more than bending artists to the will of an industry it is simultaneously creating or with the idea that this industry is a closed loop that precludes the participation of anyone who is not similarly educated. But the flimsiest element of the proposal was its basic premise: the idea that because economic opportunities may be limited, artists should eschew them altogether in favor of autodidatic introspection. The disconnects that Teach 4 Amerika highlights between art as the pinnacle of cultural production and the limited popular engagement with contemporary art, or between the high cost of art education and the lack of economic agency for individual artists are severe enough to warrant the level of scrutiny a nationwide tour proposes. But, despite the pennants, the marching band, and the call for anarchy, the ritual of the art school lecture remained intact: a presentation followed by a Q & A. The conversation was the most heated part of the evening, and while many of the comments called for BHQF to acknowledge their agency within this system, there were no outcries denouncing the institution that most readily enables these conversations to occur. The lecture over, students departed in murmured conversation, some stopping to talk to Seth while others went out for cigarettes, and someone started breaking the balloons, in an effort to straighten up. 



Teach 4 Amerika took place at the San Francisco Art Institute on April 27, 2011. An invitation-only discussion took place the following evening at Southern Exposure, San Francisco.



1. The Teach for Amerika tour began from New York on March 29, 2011. It included stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Portland, in addition to San Francisco.
2. The Bruce High Quality Foundation has always claimed anonymity for its participants; here, that condition was greatly relaxed, as none of the artists were masked except for Nixon, and Seth identified himself.
3. In the presentation, BHQF notes that 70 percent of art students are female.

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