Black Mountain, North Carolina
Founded on the site of the famous Black Mountain College
and building on that institution’s interdisciplinary legacy
, Black Mountain School is entering its second year. Eschewing the rigidity often imposed by traditional forms of education, Black Mountain School emphasizes collaboration, experimentation, an ecological emphasis with a DIY attitude—lines between faculty, staff, and student all blur. For its booth at AASF, the school brought a giant community board from its first year, bursting with posters advertising everything from student-led embroidery lessons to a map of the school marked with rabbit sightings. Artists interested in attending can sign up for one of the school’s two-week summer courses for the relatively low price of $800, with financial aid also available. Like many of the experimental programs still in their nascent years, Black Mountain School has been adjusting and learning as much as it has been teaching students, listening to feedback as it navigates the balance of idealism and realism necessary to successfully manage a staff and students.
Kansas City, Missouri
When most people think about intervening in higher education, they think of it from the student’s perspective—the cost of attending, the courses offered, and so on. But also troubling is how little adjunct faculty are paid and the precariousness of their jobs. The Zz School of Print Media was founded by Erin Zona, an adjunct herself, all too aware of the problems endemic in her trade. Located Kansas City, Missouri, the the Zz School pays more money to its teachers per contact hour with students than the Kansas City Art Institute does to its adjuncts. The school offers $80 multi-day letterpress courses, along with a pricier screenprinting classes. But it is also looking beyond the traditional model of education in which students are seen simply as consumers purchasing a skill. Instead, classes emphasize the historical and cultural importance of print and letterpress as media forms (including field trips and research projects), while also highlighting how these seemingly dated techniques can serve students and be employed in their work in unexpected ways.
Spring Sessions is a three-month teaching and residency program located in Jordan, a country that has no MFA programs whatsoever. It is also completely free. The school typically welcomes 15 to 18 participants for a 100-day period that emphasizes collectivity, questioning, and leaving one’s comfort zone. Now entering its fourth year, Spring Sessions is geared primarily towards pedagogy over studio time, featuring workshops and other activities. But it does also offer an interwoven residency where students can put to practice the lessons learned in their courses. It would be wrong to think of Spring Sessions as traditional American MFA program just located outside the United States. Rather, it is “based on creating a space for new experiences within the familiar settings of the city, allowing participants to question their surroundings via artistic practices,” according to the fair catalogue.
Mexico City, Mexico
SOMA was originally founded six years ago in response to a lacking higher education system for artists in Mexico. Though it offers two-year courses and a workload that resembles an that of an MFA, SOMA isn’t accredited, at least partly because the institution values autonomy and experimentation over the stamp of approval from Mexico’s education ministry. The MFA-like program primarily caters to Spanish-speaking students. But SOMA also offers a more international summer program (named SOMA Summer) at a cost of $3,600. The eight-week course slated for this coming summer will focus on notions of authority—a timely subject.
New York City, New York
Expanding what arts education is can mean expanding the definition of art itself. Enter the Art & Law Program—a semester-long course that treats law as an art form in and of itself. The classes consist of three-hour seminars held weekly, featuring litigators and lawyers among the staff along with the artists one would traditionally expect to find. The program looks to treat law as a material, thinking of legal codes in the language of art in order to grapple with their complex and interwoven nature. Students also examine how the law defines property, cultural production, and how it can tangibly challenge or interrupt the kinds of broader artistic critical theories taught in other more traditional MFA programs. Though students are primarily artists, they can expect close readings of legal cases as part of the course load.
Brooklyn, New York
A major theme connecting many of the schools that presented at the Alternative Art School Fair is an emphasis on ecology, nature, and our natural surroundings. Part of this vein, the School of Apocalypse is run right out of Pioneer Works itself and offers an array of courses from reimagining the symbols and iconography of the United States to more theoretical explorations of humanity’s continued existence on this planet. The focus isn’t necessarily as dire as it sounds—“apocalypse” isn’t synonymous with a nuclear war, for example, but rather a jumping-off point for “the fundamental questions” that the apocalypse provokes. As such, it brings together people with diverse educational backgrounds, not just artists. The numerous courses that fall under this broad rubric run the gamut from free to paid, and while the program isn’t accredited, Eugenia Manwelyan, one of the four founders, said that it “really does feel like a second masters.”
Brooklyn, New York
Founded this year with the help of an A Blade of Grass (ABOG) fellowship, the Black School looks to enable black, people of color, and ally students to be radical agents of change. The Black School focuses on students well before they reach MFA level by partnering with public high schools around the city to show how art can be mobilized to critique, challenge, and change broken systems of education. “The purpose of the Black School is to not fit into traditional modes of education,” said founder and ABOG Fellow Joseph Cuillier. The current focus is a nine-week after-school program at the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Bed Stuy, with visiting artists, radical black critical theory, and workshops all empowering students to make social change in their communities.