How to Start an Art School

CalArts, imagined. The school, established in 1961, was Walt Disney's vision for "different artistic disciplines sharing space under one roof."

Why would you even want to?

We want to be makers, not bureaucrats or lecturers. But after a dozen years of making, maybe you care about the continuity of knowledge and experience; you want to give of yourself, and maybe make space for others to find their voices, as you did.  Artists founded art schools for these same reasons.

There are plenty of examples out there, from fly-by-night, for-profit scoundrels, to august, ivy-draped centuries-old institutions. Why not just join one of them rather than go through the trouble of starting something new?

Unfortunately, the current model for art school sucks.

Let us count the ways, easily summed in dollars.

In Southern California, the cost of an MFA ranges from $31,000 at UCLA, a public university, to just under $79,000 at Art Center, a private school. This does not include accommodation, food, materials, books, etc. It only includes tuition.

I owe around $50,000 for my MFA degree in writing from CalArts. This is an albatross around my neck. I tell everyone who asks not to do it, not to go into debt, but I didn’t really have an alternative to take, myself, and too few to give others now. It’s time we had more.

For many decades, our entire community in Southern California was formed and sustained through art schools. The costs of education in the last forty years went from free at public schools to extortionary across the board. CalArts, a vanguard model for many years, now has its faculty unionizing to fight against the creeping corporatization of the school, though one does not expect this to lower the tuition and fees of over $90,000 for a two-year MFA. The University of Southern California, which had one of the best art programs in the country, appointed a dean to dismantle it and move the institution towards a feeder school for “creative industries” under a rubric set by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. USC tenured professor Frances Stark, with an upcoming retrospective at the Hammer Museum, quit in protest from the changes. The destruction of the USC graduate art program is devastating, even more tragic as for some years it offered full-tuition for most of its students. The era of art schools in Los Angeles is fading. I talk about where I live specifically but this is happening all over.

Maybe the whole university-industrial complex in the US is busted. When I read that Elizabeth Holmes, the 30-year-old female billionaire who revolutionized blood-testing, decided to drop out of Stanford and take her school money to successfully develop her idea, it gave me pause. Or that billionaire entrepreneur and libertarian objectivist Peter Thiel is encouraging brilliant students to drop out and take his grants instead; I think deeply about the system we’ve wrought.

Our current system, a medieval guild-cum-unitary corporation accompanied by debt culture, needs to end for artists. My government in California built one of the best university systems in the world only to have its funding chipped away, along with the promise of free universal higher-education. Barring a dramatic shift in government policy, it’s time to change this ourselves.

For the past six years, I’ve been teaching at the Mountain School of Arts, an artist-run school based in Los Angeles. All the faculty, staff, and lecturers, including myself, work for free, and none of the students pay to attend. Sometimes we are even able to find gratis accommodations for the students. Everyone participating – speakers, teachers, and students – does so as an act of openness and generosity. Perhaps I am lucky enough to afford this generosity, though not everyone can. And while this experience has allowed me to give back, its attendant sense of precarity is getting to me. I long for a third option that is stable and sustainable.

We need to pass on knowledge and give space to create, without hobbling graduates with massive debt.

So let’s stop that and do something else.

Though there have been many attempts by artists to deal with the current debacle in education — most of them admirable, from New York Arts Practicum and The Public School in the US to SOMA in Mexico or Islington Mill Art Academy in Britain — the most serious and sustainable alternative model in the US is the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP). Founded by Ron Clark in 1965, the Whitney ISP offers inexpensive education from some of our brightest artists, scholars, critics, and curators. Its full price is $1,800 a year, an amount even I could have pulled together working a part-time job (though even this can also be subsidized based on need). They also do something that we at Mountain School can’t do, help organize for student visas. Sustained by modest tuition and the usual fundraising, the Whitney ISP falls in between the purely volunteer-run school and the excruciating debt machines.

There is one functional long-lasting alternative now, but there should be many, each defined by the spirit of the artists that teach there, and the needs of its community. Though I’m suspicious of how museums fit into power in the US (through their sticky relationships to the wealthy, mainly), museums are educational institutions and would only be fulfilling their missions to harbor other ISPs.

One can love or hate the specific philosophical program at the Whitney ISP with its emphasis on conceptual rigor, but it offers a sustainable alternative to the current hot mess of bankrupting and bankrupted graduate education. There is one and there should be many, each different but committed and in the spirit of generosity that should inform all education.

I propose that we as a community accept the ISP model as equal to an MFA degree and move as quickly as possible from using a system that no longer serves us.

There are a million ways to do this. The simplest is to find a space and start giving classes. The more complex way that the Whitney ISP pioneered was to find a sponsoring institution, a group of serious artists, and start organizing. The solution needs to be tailored to and by both teachers and students.

We need to stop giving time, money, and credibility to institutions that no longer serve us. We can do this.

And while abandoning the MFA entirely looks attractive, at times, I’ve seen how much a concerted two years of making and thinking can have on a young artist’s work. I’m not yet ready to entirely give up on the experiment. But I’m close.

I hope we can find a new debtless way to educate artists in the US, in my city most of all, and I’ll do all a disorganized poet can do to create a sustainable alternative to the current system. It’s up to us that the next generation not be indentured servants to bankers, revenue to education-corporations, and products to feed to the culture industry.

How to start an art school?

We make space to dream, create, and later move on to give the same opportunity, freely, to others. Starting an art school begins here.

So let’s get to it.



  • A good idea, if only one of many. A bit problematic for those artists who need to make a living. (Nice that Andrew Berardini can afford to teach for free, given that he apparently owes $50k for his MFA; not many artists can do that.)

    But another good idea, for American artists at least, is to come to Canada for their studies. Some Canadian schools, such as the University of Victoria, do not charge extra to foreign students at the graduate level; tuition is under 6k, and grads are funded well in excess of their tuition. Do the math: that’s better than free tuition.

  • Oh, full disclosure: I teach at UVic, (where some of the best artists around have graduated).

  • When I recently went back to Vancouver to show videos and display to the bemused locals an art fossil from the 1980s (aeons departed, beware the pterodactyls flapping by) I was truly amazed that the whole concept of “art school” was still taken seriously.

    Apart from the fact that (in my own experience as a renegade and late-comer) an “art education” poisons the wellspring of creativity, there is the whole deal of careerism vs. creativity in a time of sharpening contradictions and impending collapse (a la Dmitry Orlov & Wm. Kunstler).

    There’s got to be a better alternative. A guild / apprenticeship arrangement to learn the tools while sparing the spirit, open competitive grants to allow budding artists to set their own course – and of course the full disclosure by any institution that career-is-not-art, even if you are able to push yourself in that direction (how many of the current hot – bankable – artists are art school graduates? Be curious to know).

    Exposure to new ideas and infection through witnessing the parade of art does not happen in any school – not any more. I would never have been able to enjoy gazing upon the works of Mark Tansey or Wayne White or a host of others if it had not been for this here WWW.

    Anyway I’m a mail artist from the 1970s / 1980s so my view is prejudiced and jaundiced. Motto: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I snap open my stamp pad.”

  • Dre says:


    Is an alternative in NY

  • Robin B Liebes says:

    Interesting idea, I am the daughter of the late Artist and former art instructor Clayton Bailey. My father passed away and I am exploring ideas for his legacy to live on and would interested in discussing all your ideas in more detail. Thanks Robin Liebes

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