After School Special

New York
03.31.11

Left: Artist Dustin Yellin, curator Vito Schnabel, and artist Terence Koh. Right: The Bruce High Quality Foundation rally for Teach 4 Amerika at Cooper Union. (All photos: Sam Horine/Creative Time)


THE BRUCE HIGH QUALITY FOUNDATION is nothing if not ambitious: Tuesday evening in Manhattan saw the arch collective convene at Cooper Union to launch their Teach 4 Amerika tour, a “five-week, 11-city, coast-to-coast road trip that crosses state lines and institutional boundaries to inspire and enable local art students to define the future of their own educational experience.” Parking their stretch limo—painted yellow to resemble a school bus—outside Cooper’s entrance, the BHQF had already littered the Great Hall with balloons, and one masked member was firing pennants and tie-dyed T-shirts into the audience as I arrived. Onstage, the NYU Pep Band bashed out a selection of inspirational covers, from Rihanna’s “Umbrella” to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Applying their ninjalike PowerPoint skills, the Foundation gave it everything they had in this particular audiovisual manifesto. Though trailed in some quarters as a panel discussion, their Creative Time–supported “Rally for Anarchy in Arts Education” was closer to a state-of-the-art state of the union address, a lone bespectacled orator commandeering a sequence of projected images timed with split-second precision. Opening with a clip from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and the gang standing in for an archetypal class of MFA students—the prickly text and its eclectic visual accompaniment moved on to the story of one artist—the perhaps real, perhaps imaginary “Emma Hastings”—and her struggles with the current system of art education in this country.

As a British expat, your correspondent claims no firsthand experience of the American way of learning, but the fact that recent changes to educational funding back home were controversial enough to spark riots has kept issues around tuition fees and the notion of art-as-profession firmly on my radar. It doesn’t take much to locate some serious inconsistencies in the way that art schools in both places are organized, but what is to be done? Teach 4 Amerika takes aim at multiple targets, from the dubious quotas and pay scales determined by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design to National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman’s get-a-job “Art Works” slogan, but lays no claim to a cure-all.

Left: The Bruce High Quality Foundation rally for Teach 4 Amerika at Cooper Union. Right: Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson with artist Judi Werthein.


Nevertheless, the BHQF message, while couched in irony, remains affectingly idealistic. “We’re not here to protest the market,” they announce, but nonetheless encourage reconsideration of an economic imperative they characterize, gently, as “a bit too strong.” The art world may offer up a range of ways to make money, but as far as Bruce and friends are concerned, “deciding what art is is the job of artists.” “Whether it’s art schools in bars or art schools on Mars,” they argue—speaking from experience in at least one case—it’s time for something new. The demise of programs overstuffed with debt-saddled students for the sole aim of generating institutional revenue is clearly on the agenda. A broader remodeling that draws energy from “the strange and difficult” magic generated by artists when gathered en masse is harder to map out, but such, they insist, is the task at hand.

A packed afterparty at the Wooly looked to be populated mainly by on-the-case Cooper students and stick-thin models (model students?). Project curator Nato Thompson made the rounds, but Terence Koh and co-organizer Vito Schnabel, who arrived together for the talk, were nowhere in evidence. Drink tickets took the form of miniature twenties, but the majority of attendees paid for their pleasure (was there a lesson there too?). From New York, Teach 4 Amerika heads to Philly, then Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Denver, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland. And for those off the beaten track, well, there’s a smartphone app for that. Celebrating Willy Wonka as a pedagogic role model for the age throughout the lecture, the BHQF have thrown down a gauntlet. And as Gene Wilder sang in the movie, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.”

Michael Wilson