They’re not a novelty- Courses have always been there as an artist’s additional support, complementing "official" studies, so to speak. From my perspective, though, when the Coursera platform - pioneered by Stanford University academics - appeared, everyone who wished had access to the world's best universities’ free online classes, courses, and subjects, and the “seed”, the idea, was planted in today’s zeitgeist. Coursera aroused interest and provided the possibility for people to choose what they really wanted to learn. YouTube tutorials, open source communities, forums and online courses obviously preceded Coursera’s existence, and had even gained some ground which had previously exclusively belonged to universities.
Art Universities in crisis not as a business, but as an educational system.
The university education system in Latin America is in crisis, in almost all disciplines, but in this article we’ll focus on art education. Luis Camnitzer, the Uruguayan critic and theoretician, quite recently reviewed this crisis in his essay/conversation Art Education as a Fraud, in which addressed the issue specifically in the United States. It’s no secret that Latin American education programs resemble the Americans’ in many ways, so their appraisals apply widely in our case.
A point in Camnitzer’s essay attracted my attention, where he calculated the number of students entering and leaving universities, and considered only those who’d managed to infiltrate the gallery circuit and those who’d managed to teach as a living. Camnitzer’s study was a little limited, in my opinion- I’m convinced that within the professional art system, there are several fields within which professionals can succeed besides producing and selling artwork or teaching.
In the 35 years I taught at university level in the US, I probably had contact with about 5000 students. Of those, I calculate that 10%, about 500, were hoping to achieve success through the gallery circuit. Maybe a score of them have done it. This means that 480 ended up with the hope of living from teaching. I don’t know how many managed to get a teaching position. But I figured that if 5000 students were needed to secure my salary and then welcome my retirement, then those 480 students need a student base of 240,000 to survive. And if we followed the calculation to the next generations, we’d quickly reach infinity.
Delving deeper into one of the bigger problems of Latin American art education system, it’s evident that a significant percentage of artists who aspired for success in galleries failed and are then recruited by universities that offer art majors, proposing them an alternative that unfortunately carries a great deal of frustration. I don’t have a problem with teachers who decided to go in that direction since their beginnings, but this isn’t the case most of the time. The problem here is divided in two aspects; because on one hand these frustrated artists transmit their insecurities to their students, teaching them success models they don’t know, and on the other hand they are interfering with the reputation of those few teachers who do teach by true vocation.
Additionally, Latin American universities pay their teachers extremely low salaries. It’s therefore rare that a successful artist or a professional would decide to sacrifice the time that could be spent on their own projects to commit to a university education program. Those who decide to do so are true heroes; they are the typical three or four teachers all graduates from every generation (of each university) end up remembering, those who marked their careers and lives forever. It’s rare for these teachers to last very long in the system because it’s unfair to be paid so little for such good work, while universities fill their pockets with students’ money. It’s impossible to generalize, of course, but we can conclude that teachers who set out for the academic life since their beginnings are the minority.
Today it’s common for universities to offer educational models that include lots of professional practices, selling the idea that students will graduate better prepared. I consider this a scam. It’s good marketing for a bad idea, a win-win for the company that hires the students and for the university which saves a lot in terms of unskilled teacher salaries. The fact is that in this scenario, the artist, designer or architect ends up paying the high price. It’s a very effective strategy for the university, while the companies with whom they make agreements with get cheap labor and errand-runners, supposedly while the students are learning how to run the business.
I do want to mention that I think it’s important for students to have contact with these companies, people and institutions that work successfully in the field while they’re studying. How could one be against that? What I don’t agree with is that these "practices" are too often simple jobs that don’t generate recognition, don’t teach the student anything and pay poorly. Understandably, for someone who didn’t have the privilege of studying in a university, they’d probably have to start from the bottom and earn their place in a particular company and experience is gained on the fly in this case. However, if a person is paying large sums of money to pay a private university, the least it should do is a more fair and favorable agreement for the student. It sounds utopian, but it would be interesting if the university (with the several million it pockets for each enrollment) would allocate a certain amount for paying a salary to experts so they mentor, advise and help students develop a project of their own before graduation, and create some sort of authorship. This way, the advantage of paying for studies would be reflected. With this romantic idea, the current model would be reversed, and it wouldn’t be the student who works for the company, but the person / company (hired by the university) that would dedicate some of their time and expertise to the students so that they graduate with a real advantage. This would make the effort to pay for education something substantial.
Alternative education projects.
There’s a website called Masterclass where the best from different fields are invited to give online courses. Christina Aguilera teaches singing; Gordon Ramsey teaches cooking, the Screenplay writing class is given by Shonda Rhymes; Steve Martin teaches comedy; Frank Gehry teaches architecture. It’s what every student has always dreamed of: learning from those they truly admire. Indeed, this is exactly what universities were supposed to do from their onset, am I right? That was the idea! Gradually, though, they transformed into just lucrative businesses. On the other hand, online courses, which were previously used only as support and were kind of informal, currently propose an interesting system that make it possible for some of the people we most admire in the art world to teach, to make time and stick to a model that allows them to commit to transmit their knowledge to the following generations. Of course, now there is so much demand, and as with everything else, you would have to learn how to choose the good courses among the bad ones.
It might be difficult to convince a highly recognized artist to commit him or herself to a university program (usually at least a year), but it’s possible for him or her to do it for a week or two, up to even six months, in order to give a course or a tutorial. Another advantage of online and not-online courses is that students can choose the subjects they are truly interested in. Graduated students often agree that only a few subjects were relevant to them while they were studying their careers. Some subjects seemed to be only a requirement. In the end, if a diploma doesn’t make the artist and the university offers plenty of bad courses to fill in around a good few, it’s courses that propose a real and fair educational system now.
Art and education:
I couldn’t agree more with what Maria Acaso said in an interview for Artishock: "I think there’s an effervescence in terms of education in general. I think it's become a recurring idea that we have to abandon the previous paradigm and reach a new one. It’s been said fourteen thousand times, it’s nothing new. We’re starting to see that this paradigm shift, which affects education in general, has to be applied to arts education.” The effervescence Acaso speaks of is what has motivated many people in the art world to construct new forums and spaces that can provide knowledge and education. In my case, with the creation of LARSCHOOL in Monterrey, we offer courses in "neglected" areas - so to speak - by academic art programs. Some of our workshops and courses cover practical topics like portfolio, writing, financial education for artists, etc. Others are more oriented to theory: philosophy and history, gender research, aesthetic or historical studies.
We seem to be undergoing a transformation that is due mostly to debates initiated in forums about art education, as well as other types of platforms; from articles and columns in the media or through dialogue. A good example for this could be El Tablero (“Board”), a great project created by two institutions: NC-Arte in Bogota and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), in which they have invited a great number of distinguished professionals such as Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, José Roca, Andrea Giunta, Monica Hoff, among others, to give their opinions on the subject. Beyond each of their visions, what’s most interesting about this project is hearing different opinions in which interpretations can oscillate between art as a tool of education (or pedagogical curating, as some call it) or the education of art as a set of tools for the artist.
On a rather important note,
We owe this to art fairs generating significant curiosity among the public, as well as cultural corridors - such is the case of the Corredor Cultural Roma Condesa in Mexico City - or similar events in other cities. Gallery Weekend is a good one and just recently, Contemporary Art Fair ARTBO, launched ARTBO FDS (weekend), and they became interesting initiatives drawing a large public. There’s a new museum opening every day, and for long established museums, visitor records are becoming higher. Specialized websites and media innovate on dynamic and entertaining ways to see art without sacrificing any level of content - Art21 with artists’ short documentaries is a good example. All these cases deal with language and aspire to be more accessible to public perception. Many factors influenced people who are engaged in other disciplines or interests to become enthusiastic about the subject and demand for forums to learn more about art.
I extend a series of links to projects that I personally find incredibly valuable and over time will complement with interviews to their creators alongside LARMAGAZINE’s writing team.