Art Papers  

more from the
July/August 2014 issue:

The Data Self
by Dan Weiskopf

Rob Horning

by Dan Weiskopf

Mechanical Turk

by Will Becker

It Was the Best of Times,
It Was the Worst of Times:
Art Education Reaches an Apex
in the American South

Text / Lilly Lampe

At the center of an ever-expanding art system of museums, commercial galleries, studio and curatorial collectives, nonprofit spaces, and kunsthalle is the educational institution. Art schools produce thousands of art professionals every year, yet there are signs of a growing tension between for-profit schools and nonprofit, liberal arts institutions. Recent shifts in Atlanta, GA— an educational hub in the Southeast for both public and private institutions—may signal a need for global reform.

Jill Frank, Water, 2004, 2008, C-print (courtesy of the artist)

In 2013 Cooper Union, a private college in Manhattan, announced that, for the first time in its history, it would begin charging tuition. This move was highly controversial: the college, which was founded in 1859 under Peter Cooper's guiding belief that an education "equal to the best ... should be open and free for all," was held by many to be the prime example of democratic arts education.1 The decision to value yearly tuition at $39,600 and charge students half that amount reflects greater concerns.2 High tuition has become the norm in American education. Student loan debt has in the past three years surpassed credit card debt and reached the one trillion dollar mark.3 This staggering figure has led many to question the worth of university education. The arts and humanities in particular have been called upon to justify themselves. In some cases the programs have simply been cut.

Atlanta had two art programs disappear in the last ten years, making it a particularly besieged area for arts education. In 2005 a merger was announced between the Atlanta College of Art (ACA) and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Emory University announced the closing of its Visual Arts Department in the fall of 2012. In both cases, the news came as a shock to affected faculty and students.

Jill Frank, Romance (Secret Sniper), 2013, C-print (courtesy of the artist)

Founded in 1905, ACA was the oldest art college in the Southeast. By 2005 it had an enrollment of around 330 students and prided itself on small classes, and on such notable alumni as artists Kara Walker and Radcliffe Bailey. SCAD, founded in 1978 had an enrollment of 7,500—now closer to 10,000—and touted predominantly career-based training in design areas.4 SCAD had demonstrated rapid growth since its founding, as well as an interest in acquiring large swathes of real estate for its campuses. The two schools seemed diametrically opposed in mission.

According to an article in Creative Loafing, an Atlanta alternative weekly paper, their union was anything but friendly. SCAD had been on the American Association of University Professor's (AAUP) censure list since 1993 for violations of academic freedom and faculty dismissal without due process; after the merger became final, ACA faculty with five-year renewable contracts were invited to return as SCAD employees with a one-year version, and could be dismissed at any time.5 ACA lost its accreditation with the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, whose members include the School of Visual Arts in New York, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.6

Memories of ACA's absorption were stirred when Emory announced it would shutter its Visual Arts Department, as well as the departments of educational studies, journalism, and physical education. The administration also suspended admission to several graduate programs, including Spanish studies and the Institute of Liberal Arts, Emory's flagship interdisciplinary PhD program. Like the decision to close ACA, the news came as a surprise: visual arts had become a separate department in 2004, and the university had invested money in a new building shortly thereafter.7 At the time of the announcement, the dean of Emory's Laney Graduate School, Lisa Tedesco, released a letter stating Emory would be focusing on new areas, including China studies, digital studies and new media, and neuroscience.8

Some of the redistribution choices seem a contemporary repackaging of old ideas, as with the substitution of digital studies for journalism. Others, such as de-emphasizing Spanish in favor of Chinese, indicate new trends in student—and national—interest. No such disciplinary substitutions were offered for the Visual Arts Department. At the end of spring semester 2014, it closed its doors permanently. Two visual arts faculty members will move to art history as nontenured senior lecturers, and the building will be repurposed for film studies.9 Emory's only tenured visual arts faculty member will move to film studies; the rest have retired or sought placement elsewhere.

For Constance Thalken, associate professor of photography at nearby Georgia State University (GSU), the changes are disconcerting. "When ACA closed, that caused a great deal of alarm in the community," she recalled. "The student-faculty ratio was small ... and the students received committed instruction. It was wrenching for everyone involved as well as the larger community to know that this institution with a vital, important history could be closed so quickly. And [it] is the same with the Visual Arts Department at Emory."10

Even at its peak, the Visual Arts Department did not offer a BFA, only a joint BA with art history and a minor. Still, the faculty put in the effort to foster opportunities for Emory students; one result was an informal partnership with GSU. "We've had very strong students come from Emory who had taken all the photo classes offered at their university," Thalken said. She continued: "These students would work through all of our classes as well, and many went on to strong MFA programs .... To know that Emory University, which is very comfortable financially, didn't consider the visual arts integral to the education of young minds is distressing to the community. This is another example of the unequal consideration of the visual arts."

Atlanta art educators are not the only ones to have noted the events at Emory. "The closing of the Emory department was the most underreported event in art education," said Bill Gaskins, a visiting associate professor in Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.11 Gaskins and Kirsten Buick, associate professor in art and art history at the University of New Mexico, are organizing a public think tank titled "After Emory: Redefining Art and Art History in the American University" to discuss the issue. "I think there's been a great deal of denial and avoidance of this problem in visual arts departments," Gaskins said, predicting grim results if art departments cannot adapt: "Emory will not be the last university to close its arts department."

This sentiment is echoed by John R. Decker, assistant professor of art history and graduate director of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at GSU. "The arts are coming under fire because of economic realities," Decker said, "and I think every art institution is asking [itself]: why would anyone want to study here?"12 Decker is confident in the strength of GSU's program and its growth opportunities, but is frank about the obstacles it faces as part of a public university system.13 "Georgia is a special case all on its own because arts funding is so dire here," he noted, citing recent statistics that rank Georgia 49th out of the 50 United States for arts funding, with huge disparities even within the public system. "UGA [The University of Georgia at Athens] is the flagship school, and [it] gets the lion's share of funding. Kennesaw State University has recently managed to wrangle some funding for a new art museum, and unfortunately money that goes to one place isn't going elsewhere. As a public institution, we're bound by the resources the state gives us. Getting faculty is a resource issue beyond our control. In terms of students, we have support enough to grow our program moderately and modestly, but in terms of faculty salary, we're at the lower end, and that's true of most public schools in the Southeast."

Jill Frank, Sistine Chapel, 2007, C-print (courtesy of the artist)

As colleges and universities contend with bureaucratic and financial impediments to growth, one area presenting an opportunity for change is curriculum. Decker stated GSU's School of Art and Design is undergoing a graduate program review and could implement changes as early as 2015. "A watchword we've had for changing the graduate program is 'interdisciplinary,'" Decker said. "A lot of programs talk about being interdisciplinary—few make it happen. We're part of a university, and [we] are trying to create a program that uses all the university's strengths. We've realized our faculty [members] come from some of the best programs in the country, and [we] are asking them to reflect on their experiences."

One of these faculty members is Associate Professor Stewart Ziff, who studied at Parsons and the School of the Visual Arts (SVA) and taught at both schools for many years. Ziff believes the change will be structural. "The traditional art school breakdown into painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, ceramics ... none of those hegemonies make sense anymore, and they haven't for a long time," he said.14 "Places like Parsons, SVA, USC [University of Southern California] were early to the game in terms of recognizing a shift away from traditional studio practices. There's nothing wrong with being invested in tradition, but that can't come at the expense of more contemporary practices." For Ziff, expense as such is still a concern. "Art programs that are at the cutting edge offer courses in computer programming, fabrication, but you have to make a commitment to the presence of technology in the studio," he said. "Places that are behind the curve aren't making the economic investment."

Others believe a change must occur in institutional thinking as well. "People are still preaching high formalism," Gaskins said, "and identifying [artists who are] black, Latino, LGBTQ, and so on as dealing with identity politics and not anything else. And those people [limiting fine art to high formalism] are arguing for a space that gets smaller with each academic year." Artist and educator Judy Chicago's recently published Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education [reviewed in this issue on page 53] explores the ways in which the educational system impedes the progress of women. According to Chicago, "Institutional Time is about the state of university art education based on what I've witnessed and heard over the past several decades. In the 90s I started getting letters from young women who weren't being supported in their art education, who weren't learning anything about the feminist art movement."15 In the book, Chicago argues that any restructuring of curriculum must "fully integrate the artistic achievements of women along with others who have been marginalized by the modernist agenda that emphasizes a linear art history of predominantly white men."16

Jill Frank, Romance (Love Scene), 2010, C-print (courtesy of the artist)

Inequality in arts education is not limited to gender and racial disparity; given the high cost of fine arts programs, access is frequently a question of class. "When you have a pedagogy that brings people into serial poverty," Gaskins said, "you can wrap any philosophical language around it that you choose, but at the end of the day you have people who are borrowing money to be poor." Gaskins also pointed to a culture of "the performance of solvency" in the midst of this poverty—a "fake it till you make it" approach that ignores entrenched issues rather than attempting to solve them.

According to the 2013 College Art Association Directory of Graduate Programs in the Visual Arts, an MFA at Columbia University costs more than $50,000 per year.17 One year at the Maryland College of Art is almost $40,000; a year in-state at GSU is a little more than $5,000, while out-of-state students pay more than $15,000.18 The numbers can swing wildly, and though almost all art schools claim to offer fellowships, assistantships, and some aid and tuition remission, the actual amounts available are unclear. "There's no clearing house that offers that information," Decker said. "We don't know exactly how we measure up for graduate stipends, but ... many students we talked to were surprised that we gave a tuition waver and a graduate stipend all three years." Decker was careful to note that such support is not guaranteed. "It's state law that for a student to receive a tuition waiver they must have a minimum stipend of $6,000, and because arts funding is so low, that's often the maximum."

A year at SCAD, in comparison, can cost more than $47,000, and application numbers at the school continue to rise.19 Part of the attraction may be the curriculum's heavy career focus. Areas of study include animation, advertising, furniture design, and fashion marketing, as well as traditional fine arts majors such as photography and sculpture.20 Faculty at traditional programs can see the appeal. According to Gaskins, "issues which have seemed plebeian for studio arts faculty—such as how graduates sustain themselves after graduation, how financial and entrepreneurial literacy make their way into curricula—these are going to be fundamental tools for sustainability, and survival, in colleges and universities in the United States."

Those who pushed ACA's merger with SCAD praised the latter's rapid growth, towering annual budget of $143 million —in contrast with ACA's budget of $11.5 million—and its career-focused curriculum. Detractors looked askance at that same expansion and spending model. SCAD cofounder and president Paula S. Wallace receives almost $2 million a year for her services.21 At Yale—home to the country's most prestigious MFA—President Richard C. Levin was the highest-paid president of an Ivy League university in 2009, with a salary of $1.63 million.22 Emory's president, James W. Wagner, was paid $1.17 million in 2010, whereas GSU's president, Mark P. Becker, earned $491,000 during the same period.23

A large portion of Wallace's salary derives from SCAD's for-profit arm, SCAD Group Inc., however, indicating a self-perpetuating profit model.24 In 2008 SCAD Group contributed $111 million to the college's expenses of $261 million. 25 The profitability of the model is reflected in the school's resources: SCAD maintains campuses in Hong Kong and Lacoste, France, and new technology, including multiple 3-D printers.26 Many institutions, particularly public ones, cannot compete. Others—like Emory, a private research university where expenses vary wildly between departments, and salaries top The Chronicle of Higher Education's charts only in such areas as health affairs—have decided not to try.27

Jill Frank, Bong (Pool Guy), 2014, C-print (courtesy of the artist)

Faced with an ever-widening gap in budget, nonprofit institutions such as GSU must be creative in coming up with ways to attract students. "We're asking ourselves, 'How do we give our students the tools to succeed while maintaining our identity as a liberal arts degree-conferring public institution?'" Decker said. "We want to resist the temptation to follow the for-profit model, and we want to ask questions about social impact. But if you're at an art school, at some point you have to take a look at SCAD and ask, 'what are they doing that makes sense?'"

The subtext of Decker's statement—that SCAD, despite criticism, remains a major competitor—further emphasizes the vocational pressures of art education, in which the gap between theoretical and practical approaches seems to be growing. There is no overriding agency that compiles and analyzes data on art schools, and there is no standard for what an art school today should teach or what resources it should provide. Chicago ruefully summarized the problem: "There's no standard curriculum. If you happen to have a good teacher, great. If not, good luck!"28

For many prospective students, their decision will be contingent on a host of factors, both tangible and abstract. Cost and physical resources—studio space, access to technology and materials—can be quantified; networking opportunities, quality of instruction, and star power of faculty cannot. According to Lane Relyea, associate professor and chair of Northwestern University's Art Theory and Practice Department, the rising costs of these programs are part of greater trends. "Certain schools have thickened their administrative levels," said Relyea, author of a recent book titled Your Everyday Art World, which assesses the impact of new, global networks on contemporary art. "Part of these tuition increases goes towards all these administrators who are being hired to produce publicity so the school can keep its ranking in [the U.S. News & World Report list of top schools]."

Relyea also cited changing attitudes toward teaching as a factor bolstering the MFA market—while driving down adjunct pay. "In New York in the 80s, if you taught you kept it a secret," he explained. "It was an embarrassment; you were supposed to show in galleries and live off your work. Now, star artists teach, and star MFA departments take out full-page color ads in Artforum. All this drives up costs. If you're competing for Rirkrit Tiravanija, you have to pay him more, and then you have to adjust so that he isn't making twice as much as other faculty. This distorts tenure lines and [reduces] the number of people departments can hire, so they're relying on adjuncts. And there are just too many MFAs not to keep adjunct salaries low. It's like bubble capitalism, and now the art world has its version of it."29

Despite these warnings, would-be artists continue to apply and enroll in expensive programs over state schools with smaller fees. Ziff, despite working at GSU, sees the appeal: "With state universities, the faculty is working full time, teaching a set number of classes with required university involvement. This is a very different model than what you see at say, Yale," he noted. "You've got star faculty [members] who have careers that support them, coming in to teach when their motivation isn't money. With that kind of energy, you've got an elevated baseline." Ziff also cited the networking opportunities created by some programs' proximity to art scenes in big cities, and the high competition for acceptance leading to a more accomplished peer group. As Ziff admitted, however, "it's clearly a class structure .... It's really hard to get a good art education if you don't have the money to go to a top-notch place."

This narrative of economic exclusivity seems ubiquitous in the United States, as Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers, both socially engaged artists and faculty at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, have noted. "You can't pay MFA debt off as an artist," Lacy said, "so you can pretty much predict that in 10 years the art world will not have working class people in it."30

Bowers concurred: "I graduated in 1992 from CalArts, and even then [I] was one of the only working class students. Culture used to be purchased by the wealthy. Now it's being purchased and produced by the wealthy."

"In the 60s," Lacy said, "there was funding in California for everyone, and at art schools, that led to an explosion of minorities and females. In 15 years, the representation of culture will be controlled by the people doing the looking."

Jill Frank, Romance (Love Scene), 2010, C-print (images courtesy of the artist)

In response to the rising exclusivity of art education, some are taking matters into their own hands. In the US, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an artist collective founded by former Cooper Union students in 2001, founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in 2009 as an experimental attempt to offer a free art education.31 Although classes have not consistently been offered since BHQFU's founding, many have found the idea attractive. A similar model has taken off in the UK, with free postgraduate programs such as Open School East, a nonaccredited artistic and professional development program, and the School of the Damned, which offers instruction on traditional MA curricula, but with an emphasis on critical discourse, and a considerably different business plan.32 According to a Guardian article, major art institutions such as the Tate and Serpentine Galleries are jumping on the education bandwagon as well.33 The article quotes Alistair Hudson, deputy director of an alternative school at Grizedale Arts, a registered charity in Coniston, England, saying, "A lot of students are trained in how to be a 'professional artist.' They're quite good at talking, but limited in terms of their skill set and how they can function outside of the London art bubble."

This sentiment is echoed by detractors of the MFA system on this side of the pond. In an interview with GalleristNY, one otherwise anonymous "Bruce" said, "That you would have a professional degree to do something that's not professional seems like a scam."34 The qualifications of the profession and relative professionalism—or lack thereof—in the arts are all being questioned. According to Relyea, the questions go deeper. "You have all these anthologies about the 'educational turn' and this idea that the kunsthalle are modeling themselves after schools."35 Relyea sees the turn toward education-as-social-engagement to be part of greater trends: "Once it gets [to] the Manifesta [European Biennial of Contemporary Art] level—when it gets that kind of funding and gets that glamorous—it's both symptom and reactionary. I don't think it's all that bad, but ... it's not enough to just rely on a kind of boilerplate argument about the inherent progressiveness of teaching and seminar-leading. You need people to be more self-critical." Encouraging such self-criticism might go a long way, not only in art school curricula, but in these institutions' very internal structures. At schools including GSU, a new emphasis is being placed on evolving pedagogy to keep up with the times and envisioning futures for students after the degree. While they face many obstacles, with proper reform, public institutions may stand to give private and for-profit schools a run for their money.

Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Accompanying this article are images by Jill Frank, selected from various projects spanning the past ten years. Frank received her BA from Bard College and her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Frank's work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. She is currently part of the photography faculty at Georgia State University.

1. Edwin Doak Mead, ed., The Old South Leaflets (Boston, MA, Old South Meeting House, 1903), 465.
2. Cooper Union, "Tuition and Fees,"
3. "Student Loan Debt Exceeds One Trillion Dollars, National Public Radio, April 24, 2012,
4. Felicia Feaster, "The Business of Art: Is ACA/SCAD Merger a Foregone Conclusion?" Creative Loafing Atlanta, August 17, 2005,
5. American Association of University Professors, "Academic Freedom and Tenure: Savannah College of Art and Design," AAUP Reports & Publications,
See also Scott Heller, "Faculty and Student Unrest Flares at Savannah Art College," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 1992,
6. Sara Lipka, "Atlanta Art College's Students and Professors Protest Plan to Merge with Savannah Competitor," The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 22, 2005,
7. Lilly Lampe and Amanda Parmer, "Emory University Eradicates its Visual Arts Department, Portending an Ominous Trend in University Education," October 2012,
8. Lisa Tedesco, "Letter to the Laney Graduate School Community," September 14, 2012,
9. Sonam Vashi, "Visual Arts Closes with Two Classes," The Emory Wheel, April 15, 2014,
10. Constance Thalken in an interview with the author.
11. Bill Gaskins interview with the author, March 16, 2014.
12. John R. Decker interview with the author, March 25, 2014.
13. National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, "State Arts Agency Legislative Appropriations Review Fiscal Year 2013," June 29, 2012,
14. Stewart Ziff interview with the author, March 18, 2014.
15. Judy Chicago interview with the author, April 2, 2014.
16. Judy Chicago, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2014), 238.
17. Mary Gladue and Betty Leigh Hutcheson, eds., The CAA Directory of Graduate Programs in the Visual Arts (New York: College Art Association, 2013), 45.
18. Gladue, 74, 107.
19. Paul Fain, "An Art College President's Compensation Reached Nearly $2 Million in 2008," The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 29, 2010,
20. Savannah College of Art and Design, "Programs,"
21. Fain.
22. Janet Lorin, "Yale's Levin Highest-Paid Ivy League Chief at $1.63 Million," Bloomberg Businessweek, December 6, 2011,
23. Jacques Couret, "Emory President James Wagner. No. 22 on Highest-Paid List," Atlanta Business Chronicle, December 10, 2012,
UC Berkeley News center, "President and Provost Salary Data: 2009-10 Executives' Compensation at Public Institutions,"
24. Fain.
25. Fain.
26. Savannah College of Art and Design, "Libraries and Learning Resources,"
27. Tamar Lewin, "Presidents not always the highest paid at U.S. universities," The New York Times, February 23, 2009.
28. Judy Chicago interview with the author, April 2, 2014.
29. Lane Relyea interview with the author, March, 31, 2014.
30. Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers in an interview with the author at the Drawing Center, New York, March 20, 2014,
31. Dan Duray, "A Quality Education: The Bruce High Quality Foundation University is in Session," GalleristNY, March 27, 2013,
32. Open School East, "About,"
The School of the Damned, "Manifesto,"
Sara Nunes Fernandes, "Letter to the Guardian," The School of the Damned, October 2013,
33. David Batty, "Alternative Art Schools: A Threat to Universities?" The Guardian, October 21, 2013,
34. Duray.
35. The phenomenon of which Relyea speaks is evident all over the world, as seen in Amanda H. Hellman's piece on Dakar in ART PAPERS, May/June 2014,

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