There was a piece on Hyperallergic last month that seemed to be continuing an ongoing conversation about the fact that most university based arts programs seem to be oriented toward training students to enter a narrowly defined career path. Where theater programs seem focused on Broadway and music programs on orchestras, Sharon Louden suggests visual arts programs identify gallery shows as the goal.
I hadn’t really thought about visual arts programs promoting unrealistic expectations about an ideal career path given the myriad media suggest so many options to pursue, but it makes sense that one might exist.
Louden says that for most visual artists, gallery sales are not a stable source of income. Many artists have become adept at diversifying their income streams and gallery sales isn’t at the top of the list of revenue sources most pursue. She argues that by subscribing to an emerging centralized MFA Fair, artist training programs are sending a message that gallery sales should be the central ambition of graduates.
Louden’s second objection really caught my eye because she says art schools are doubly profiting from their students by advancing participation in the MFA Fair.
We are all likely aware of the incredibly high cost of enrolling in MFA programs around the country. If universities end up paying for booths and/or taking a percentage of money from recent MFA artists, shouldn’t that be considered a form of double-dipping? Students who often have to take out huge student loans to pay for their education are now going to provide work to their alma mater so it can take a commission from sales of that work?
If a training program is profiting off the labor of students, Louden asks, doesn’t have a greater incentive to cultivate students’ whose work is more marketable and suppress those who push boundaries and take chances? As she says, time in a training program is the period when artists should have the most permission, (if not insistent prodding), from their mentors to diverge from the commercial motive.
How does the institution-turned-gallery decide who gets to show? Will they only accept artists who make conservative work that’s most likely to sell? What happens to the artist who makes work that is not easily accepted in the gallery paradigm? And most darkly, what happens when a former student sues a university for not including them in this fair?
Finally, she asks, if the metric of number of students selling work at an MFA Art Fair becomes a recruiting tool in the same manner as US World Report university rankings, does this not create pressure for non-participant training programs to join or suffer from the inability to guarantee “employment” upon graduation granted by the imprimatur of having a small percentage of students sell works?
Don’t forget there is a growing general societal pressure that university students pursue majors with proven career paths. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that training programs will look to accentuate the successes of graduates by arranging high profile opportunities.