University Project

The University Project is an initiative of Critical Correspondence that aims to shed light on the shifting relationship between academia and working artists. More and more Universities are interested in bringing working artists on to their faculty, and many Universities now offer low-residency MFA programs to assist working artists in obtaining higher degrees. What are the ideas and who are the people behind this change in institutional thinking? In an effort to understand the issues and challenges underpinning these new models we are conducting various interviews with educators, administrators and teaching artists across the country over the course of the next few months. We are also printing some background articles from various publications that provide a framework for our discussion.

The University Project is the first in a series of ‘research projects” in which we will accrue and amass various materials and approaches to a broad and relevant topic. Please feel free to participate and comment to keep the conversation alive.

From Guest Editor, Maura Donohue:

I remember sitting in the audience—a student about to graduate from Smith College—listening to Donald Byrd and fellow Tufts University grad, composer Mio Morales, explaining that his work, titled “Drastic Cuts,” was referencing the reduction of funding for the arts he saw happening in America.[4] Soon after my entrance into the community as part of the spring ‘95 Fresh Tracks program at DTW, I watched Ralph Lemon disband his company. I was told that things looked bleak. But, like many young artists coming in with nothing, I had nothing to lose. It didn’t seem like bad odds. I’d hit the fringes and thrive, avoid the pitfalls of the 80s and champion thrift and ingenuity. Flash forward ten years: I’m doing a residency in Hong Kong with two children in tow.[5] Their father has to carry them (the four-month old strapped to the front and the two-year old packed on the back) to the Academy of Performing Arts so that I can nurse in between classes and rehearsals. Great anecdotes, exhausting times—I knew I could no longer parse projects and pennies together with my experimental theater husband while trying to feed two kids.

I ran for academia. It’s a familiar story. We get older; the romantic notions of the starving artist diminish.  We seek stability and a way to stay in the field we love.[6] I went back for the MFA, managed to get full-time, tenure-track work here in NYC. For me, it all feels—to borrow a Hebrew word—Bashert, destiny revealed. I see my path ahead built through seemingly unrelated efforts from the years behind. Apparently academia is a good place for over achieving rebellious nerds.[7] As it turns out, it can be a really good place for many artists. You know—the working artist, the practicing professional, the independent artist, the people whose work we like to be in and to see around town—those capital “A” Artists. It’s also a pretty good place for well-known ex-dancers of the well-known “big dance companies”. And, it’s a good place for many more artists who work hard to educate on the campus and still manage to make work in the other real world that exists beyond NYC.[8]

It’s nice to get paid. It’s nice to get paid regularly, with benefits, and to have access to studios and computers and video cameras and maybe sometimes a theater and technical support.[9] It can be very not-nice if one is dealing with unsupportive administration, cantankerous peers, ignorant masses of know-it-all-but-seen-nothing undergraduates, having to go to work at a regular time, sitting in meetings, scrambling for money and justifying why the arts matter. But let’s face it: we need college. What’s our history without Bennington College in the 1930s with Martha, Hanya, Doris and Charles—without Martha, no Merce; without Cunningham, no Cage; without Cage, no Robert Ellis Dunn; without Dunn, no Judson Church; no Judson Church, no Grand Union. Without all of that, where would we be? Still twirling exotic fabrics and shiny tassels in the name of art?

The field is changing, the country is changing, the world is changing dramatically. Perhaps now it’s easier to be a poor artist, after the glamour of high finance has worn thin. Maybe it’s worse. If our presenting organizations don’t weather this crisis, how many important works and artists will we lose?[10] Or maybe the next seminal works need the new landscape in order for the field to grow. New York City teaches a kind of social Darwinism with fierce intent. There is attrition and contraction all around. Artists working in the service or temp industry feel it, artists working at arts organizations feel it, artists trying to make art feel it. But, when I speak to the heads of these college programs and to some of the highly respected artists now imbedded in academia, I hear overwhelming optimism. Everyone has plans: many are rethinking their curriculums, their hiring, their expectations and alliances. As an entire generation of founding faculty retire, a new guard is chipping away at the staunch mountain of academia. There is an abundance of hope in the following interviews with many ideas of how to serve students, artists, and the field, many plans for keeping pace and creating systems with mutually beneficial returns.

I’m very grateful for a couple heated, fleeting debates during DTW Artist Committee meetings. They sparked my desire to continue moving the conversation further. For me, it’s all about the conversation, which is why I’m also so deeply grateful that Critical Correspondence embarked on The University Project and let me jump in and bang at the threshold spaces of art world/school world and real world/campus world. Borders are being crossed, categories cracked—it’s no longer an either/or option. Every conversation I’ve had for this project so far has taught me a multitude about the generosity of spirit, ingenuity of planning, and wealth of possibility that lives inside the pairings of academia and art-makers.

There aren’t any formulas or easy answers, but my hope is that college and university departments can read these interviews and develop an arsenal of information that they can return to their Chairs, Deans, Provosts and Presidents to show how other schools make it work. I hope this project offers the same thing for artists. That those entering academic situations will arrive armed with more information about what is possible for them, or that those pondering the MFA can think about where they will be best served. I hope too that artistic and academic institutions can find something in here to help them build stronger alliances in a challenging landscape. But, most of all, I hope that we are adding more voices to the conversation already in progress.

Thank you to everyone who has (and who will) take the time to talk.

3:17 pm
October 7, 2013

What is your response to the increase of artists returning to the academy, receiving their MFA; perhaps only to find a more concentrated, competitive job market in the academy?

Jan Erkert
6:18 am
January 13, 2014

Thank you for the University Project conversations!

As the Head of the Dance Department at University of Illinois we are immersed in many changes that will further connect professional and campus worlds. This involves questioning every aspect of the current systems – curriculum, faculty searches and hiring, traditional use of time, auditioning and recruitment, use of space. NDEO and NASD have been fertile ground for these discussions. I am excited that Movement Research is entering the conversation. I look forward to hearing the myriad of solutions and processes taking place.

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