The Alternative Art School Fair at Pioneer Works

As the cost of education rises and a degree in higher education becomes almost expected, many people across the globe are looking at ways to expand their knowledge without going into debt and tailoring their education to their specific needs. Over the past several months, Temporary Art Review has been asking questions about alternative pedagogy and finding examples of all kinds of new models of education. Last week, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, almost 50 organizations or “schools” gathered at the Alternative Art School Fair, a new program developed as part of the education initiative at Pioneer Works. The fair was organized by Catherine Despont, Alexandre Gurita and Dylan Gauthier in an effort to begin to tackle issues from many angles, raise more questions and find support from one another. The goal of the weekend was to connect the various schools, organizations and individuals, discuss the role of alternative education – especially in the arts – and inspire and instruct others to start “schools” on their own. The collective vocabulary was stretched and challenged over the weekend, with conversations on what exactly “school,” “community,” and “success” really mean. Both days started with a keynote lecture or panel, followed by a series of small and more intimate panels and conversations, happening at the same time, as well as a large hall lined with tables set up for each organization to display their materials and invite fair goers in for more information and informal conversation. The fair was well attended with some attendees as young as high school age, as well as parents with kids, several well known alternative education heroes, and a few folks who just happened upon the event.

Many of the presenters spoke of their frustration with the traditional education system that we have in place; the cost, the limitations, the subjects deemed as important, the inherent discrepancy in opportunities for people of different backgrounds. The dissatisfaction or inability to even partake in a traditional education was often what led these presenters to begin a program of their own, and this collective frustration was clear in the way many of the programs have thought carefully about how to structure their “schools” as antithetical to traditional education. One of the earliest examples in the country of alternative art education is Black Mountain College (BMC), which ran from 1933-1957 and was home to many well known artists and musicians including Dorothea Rockburne, who sat on the keynote panel entitled Imagining A School: Building Space for Creative Liberation, along with Carol Becker, Luis Camnitzer and Victoria Sobel. Rockburne showed images from her time as a student at BMC, spoke of the complete freedom she experienced and left the audience with a message that “education should be ongoing.” Similarly, Victoria Sobel, who has made a name for herself recently through her work as a co-founder of Free Cooper Union, talked about this idea of “non-stop-ness” – never ceasing to create or find ways to learn. The panel also discussed the questions to pose to ourselves in thinking about creating or participating in alternative models of education: What is it that I need to know so that I can do what I want to do in the world? How do I become the center of my own education? How do you run a program tailored to individual needs? Is there a significant importance between accredited and non-accredited “schools’?

Many of the “schools” at the fair have responded to these questions and created programs to suit their needs. Black Mountain School, for example, is directly inspired by BMC and was re-established on the same land of the original college, and with the similar goals, structures and acknowledgement of the experimental nature of their program. The school has made their work study program both an integral part of the tuition as well as a philosophical ideal, getting students to understand the benefits of team projects and hard work. There were many other presenters discussing the break down traditional education models and the benefits of turning something on it’s head. Some spoke of ending the conventional hierarchical system, instead choosing a horizontal structure with a focus on the exchange of knowledge. Many others cited their intentions of inclusiveness, fairness, and equality in starting their programs and both the challenges and rewards that can come along with open doors.

There are some critical differences between the “schools” at the fair, and those distinctions helped to raise important questions about this fundamental idea and definition of “school” itself. Some programs are directly connected to traditional art schools, and can offer courses for credit such as Oxbow, which is affiliated with The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nomad/9, which is hosted through the University of Hartford and Transart Institute, accredited by Plymouth University in the UK.  These schools are all dealing specifically with the question of cost and what education should be worth; none of them are free but all of them offer scholarships and financial aid. These programs prove that it is possible to work within the boundaries of a traditional education, still receive a respected and recognized degree, but also have the ability to tailor an education to one’s specific needs. The question then becomes one of success; when students have more freedom, are they as thinking as deeply, challenged in a productive way, and working as hard as one might in a typical MFA program? For many the answer would be yes – often students in these programs are getting more out of their education, though of course, there could be an argument for the other side.

There were also many programs represented at the fair that had no accreditation but are still offering courses just as rigorous and interesting as those in a university, such as the Southland Institute, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Archeworks (which does offer a certification program), and the School for Poetic Computation. Each of these programs have emphasized either on their website or in their panel discussions the idea that the classes should be accessible at a reasonable cost to students, but also fair in the compensation for the instructors. Their instructors are often people who have either previously or still simultaneously teach at accredited universities. Taeyoon Choi, one of the co-founders at of the School for Poetic Computation, explained in the panel on Hybrid Practice that his program was founded by a group of people all working at universities in New York City who were unhappy with the cost and structure of those environments and started this “school” to be able to teach what they wanted to teach. He also described some of their philosophies; the decision to have a “light weight” structure, co-existing with traditional academia but not replacing it, and the way they think about money: Choi describes the transparency of their finances as “radical openness and generosity” and states “we use money as a social contract and a shared responsibility”. Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, talked with enthusiasm during the round table, The Social Arts College, about his program’s ability to create a space for critical reflection, ask questions that have complicated answers and make a case for the importance of the study of humanities. However, he was also upfront about the fact that he and his team must pay attention to the market and create classes that respond to the needs of the current climate.

In addition, there were many programs represented at the fair that are even more alternative; offering workshops, community projects, events and other pedagogical experiments as interests arise and as they see fit. The School of the Future held classes in a public park in Brooklyn for kids and neighbors; the School of the Apocalypse runs programming on “the connection between creative practice and the notion of survival,” and Grizedale Arts operates on volunteers teaching classes on their individual interests. Francesca Ulivi and Niamh Riordan of Grizedale Arts explained to a small group gathered at their table the school’s philosophy on incorporating art into everyday life, so school and learning don’t feel like a task to accomplish but instead a way of living and growing. There were also several organizations dealing with a specific but critical part of any education: books, including Booklyn (focused on artists books), Inventory Press, and Arthur Fournier Fine and Rare which all happen to be based in New York City. There were presenters that exist entirely online: Common Field, a hub for connecting arts organization and artists with one another and the Union of Initiative for Educational Assembly, which uses early childhood educational models to work with people of all ages.

The organizers of the fair chose their presenters well and encouraged meaningful discussion through the panels and round tables. Many participants were making important connections, seeing opportunities to work with one another, and finding encouragement in that they are not alone in their quests for alternative education in the arts and beyond. This was the first year of the fair and the publication of the corresponding book and the organizers hope to continue what has begun, although maybe in some other capacity or as a response to a specific issue. Catherine, Alexandre and Dylan have the eye for gauging what is needed for folks from these “schools” and organizations and responding to those needs. In talking about the future of the fair and the idea of any and all of these programs flourishing and ending, and starting again, Catherine Despont emphasizes the cyclical nature of learning and growing and that “there is a richness from the end of something, the end is still creative.” Many of the presenters and participants hope that the end of this weekend will lead to many future collaborations and classes, big questions and small dents in the institutionalized and traditional education models. As concern about massive student debt grows and a college degree becomes the norm, we all must consider alternative education, which is often much more useful, direct, and engaging than the typical education models we have today. These presenters feel that need for themselves and see it for others and are working to fill that gap by creating smart, fair, and genuinely fun “schools” to try to model what it looks like to take back control of one’s own education and find joy and satisfaction in act of learning.

More information on the Alternative Art School Fair, its organizers and the book can be found at:

Photos courtesy of Pioneer Works.

There are no comments

Add yours