Artist Eliza Swann moved to Los Angeles in 2013, after the spirit of a raven told her, head west. Swann had been in the Colorado mountains, when she began jotting down notes, trying to remember everything the bird’s spirit said. It also told her to found what would become The Golden Dome School, a non-hierarchical institute for studying the relationship between metaphysics, art, and ecology. This did not come as a complete surprise: during graduate school, she had been told again and again that her intuition and spirituality did not fit into a serious art practice, and she had been looking for a space to bring art and spirituality together. Within a few months, she was assembling a faculty, mostly out of friends and acquaintances who thought widely about the issues she wanted to explore – art-making as psychic living, the spiritual dimensions of natural sciences, and, relatedly, humankind’s responsibility to the earth. “I think it was tongue-in-cheek at the beginning,” Swann told me, of the title “school.” She certainly appropriated trappings of the educational model as a way, in her words, to begin “tackling the exclusion and hierarchy” embedded in higher education and in the way that institutions selectively distribute specialized knowledge. But the school was never meant to have any kind of accreditation, or to replace formal institutions. The first residency, held in summer 2014 at the fittingly-named Raven’s Crossing retreat in the Redwood Forest, did not go smoothly. There was infighting amongst the faculty, and Swann worried The Golden Dome might not work. But a friend told her, “You’ve got to do it again,” and so she sought out teachers with experience supporting non-hierarchical models. Five years later, the school still hosts biannual week-long residencies, as well as afternoon-long workshops and a correspondence course.
Artists have a long history of learning to educate themselves, and imagining new models for doing so – Black Mountain College, never properly accredited, is revered. This history feels especially relevant right now, when debates around the unaffordability of art schools are increasingly heated. In May, at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, students staged a sit-in, refusing to leave a classroom in the Fine Art and Illustration building until administrators agreed to house all the homeless students currently enrolled (on average, ArtCenter has 40 homeless students per term, and a 2018 survey found that, nationwide, 18% of two-year college students and 14% at four-year schools face homelessness). Certainly, these issues extend far beyond art education: earlier this year at the liberal arts college Sarah Lawrence, students demanded free laundry, a move meant to highlight how unaffordable the daily cost of living at elite schools can be for low-income students. In art, however, the debate has its own textures and possibilities, because art schools offer among the most expensive private educations in the country while art students have among the lowest earning potentials, and because artists’ work often extends to rethinking and critiquing problematic institutional structures. What would it take for the artworld to adjust its expectations and hierarchies and to value learning models that do not result in crippling debt?
My education began with an alternative. In the first grade, my mother pulled me from the Lutheran school where I’d attended kindergarten. During my father’s first two years in seminary, we had met some homeschooling families, and so we joined their ranks. I learned at home for the next nine years, with significant freedom: I could do my reading in a fort outside, or wrapped in a blanket on a deck chair. There were aspects of my education that, in retrospect, I recognize as problematic: our homeschooling was of the Christian rather than progressive persuasion, and Creationists wrote my science textbooks. But my parents treated my education as important, and as mine to direct, and when I enrolled in public high school in the tenth grade, I did so because I wanted to make sure I measured up. As for college, I applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, my dream for largely impulsive reasons (Chicago was the biggest city I knew, and the Art Institute the most impressive museum). But SAIC offered no need-based aid, and I instead went to schools that did: two years at DePaul University, and then two years at Grinnell College, a school with a large endowment. I graduated with $5,000 in debt, which I mostly tried not to think about at the time, but now know was thankfully manageable, especially for someone determined to work in art.
On the morning of March 11, 2019, students from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) tried to resist the high cost of education, and the resulting burden of debt. To do so, they battled rush-hour traffic and drove thirty-five miles from their campus in suburban Valencia to the massive Hauser & Wirth gallery complex in downtown Los Angeles, where the meeting took place because the gallery’s co-founder Iwan Wirth sits on the school board. Graduates and undergraduates assembled with signs that read “Don’t Profit off our Backs” and “Stop Oppressing Students.” But protests couldn’t keep the board from hiking tuition from $48,660 to $50,850 per year. “$50,850 is a threat to our diversity,” proclaimed multiple student-made signs, and some students wore their list of demands pinned to their clothing, which included the line: “We are the institute’s largest funders and it is imperative that we have a seat at the table.”
For art students intent on attending reputable schools, options for avoiding high costs remain limited – and they appear to be shrinking. The promise of a debt-free education attracted students to Cooper Union for decades, and it was the loss of that assurance – even if it only ever benefitted a lucky few – that made the school’s 2013 decision to charge fees so devastating. The absence of tuition had made admission to the school extremely competitive, but a 7% acceptance rate in 2013 doubled in the first year that Cooper Union charged, and, since then, has only increased. The school should have been able to remain free. Its founder, industrialist Peter Cooper, left it a hefty endowment as well as the land underneath what would become the Chrysler Building. Thanks to fierce negotiations by Cooper and his descendants, the school essentially receives tens-of-millions in property tax from that building’s owners annually. But in 2011, newly-appointed president Jamshed Bharucha – freshly arrived from larger, research-oriented Tufts University – revealed the school’s dire situation. Cooper Union, now running a $12-million annual deficit, had invested too much of its endowment in risky hedge funds hit hard by the recession. It had also spent $166 million on a new, space-age-style building, designed by starchitect Thom Mayne’s firm Morphosis (last year, faulty pipes caused floods inside the fancy new structure, while the school’s original 1850s building stood strong). Additionally, top administrators had begun to command hefty salaries: president George Campbell, who oversaw the bad investments, took in over $600,000 annually, three times the salary of his predecessor. From the start, administrators and trustees tried to spin the mismanagement, peddling a reexamined vision. During a convocation in 2013, board member Mark Epstein announced the decision to charge, couching it in euphemisms: “The time has come to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive,” he said. (The New York Times reported that students wept.) The day Bharucha told a packed auditorium full of students, faculty, and alums that Cooper might need to introduce tuition, he said he’d examined the original deed and charter, and believed that Peter Cooper’s true intentions had long been misunderstood. Cooper had not meant to offer education free of charge, but rather to make education easier to obtain more generally. According to journalist Sam Holleran, when Bharucha said this, audience members gasped.
Students and alumni were angry. Peter Cooper had written in the charter that classes should be “free to all who shall attend the same,” and dictated the “support and maintenance of a free reading-room, of galleries of art, and of scientific collections” – what else could “free” have meant? Victoria Sobel, a third-year student at Cooper Union, had taken a leave of absence to join the Occupy encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park in Fall 2011. She brought the occupation with her when she returned to Cooper Union the following year, taking up residence in the Peter Cooper Suite with fellow students in December 2012. They were still occupying when she graduated in spring 2013. That summer, she also joined a task force of faculty, alumni, and students to create an alternative plan to avoid charging students. But the day they submitted their proposal to the board in December 2013, a group of administrators submitted a counter proposal – the board, it seemed, had already made their decision. Next, a group of current students, a prospective student, and alumni sued the school, seeking to stop it from charging, and to remove certain trustees from the board for failing to uphold Peter Cooper’s charter. New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman intervened and spent a year on an independent investigation that found gross financial mismanagement and also mandated the Cooper Union devise a plan to return to free tuition. Unfortunately, Schneiderman resigned in 2018, after four women accused him not just of harassment, but of assault. Sobel sees this as one more systemic blow to a battle for a more transparent, democratic art education at Cooper. “He was going so hard at Cooper,” she told me. “He was hoping, ‘I’m going to make an example, this is going to be great’. And then all of a sudden he’s just not there.”
For three years Sobel and her collaborators, fellow artist and alum Casey Gollan and faculty member Walid Raad taught an evening class at Cooper on the history, transitions and financial management of the school. The administration discontinued the class this fall, due to a variety of bureaucratic reasons (faculty turnover among them). Sobel, who will continue to teach a version of the class informally, boiled the problem down to consensus and consent. There is no consensus on whether learning about one’s own institution should be part of a critically-engaged college education. Further, she noted that schools use hyperbolic and predatory advertising campaigns to attract applicants. But what do students need to know to understand and consent to the kind of debt they take on, and the kind of structures they implicitly accept when they enroll?
The graduate school I attended promised the resources and freedom to “build a career as a culturally effective professional artist.” I applied to MFA programs during George W. Bush’s second term as president, and seriously considered going to Goddard College, a strange, spiritual, and progressive option with three locations around the States. The student ambassador I spoke with recounted a long cross-country, self-searching hike. The school posted news of students arrested at protests on its homepage. Goddard was also affordable and flexible, offering a low-residency MFA program that convened twice a year. Yet its eccentricities worried me (if I did something “alternative” now, would I be somehow crippling my career prospects, such as the ability to acquire a reputable teaching job?). Peers and professors advised me to attend a more established program. In my memory, the issue of cost barely came up – at that point, the idea of “good debt” remained more prevalent than it is now, though recent statistics state that the 1.5 trillion national student debt in the US “will make the country better off in the long run,” as school remains a smart investment. Ultimately, I graduated from Claremont during the Great Recession, with $60,000 in debt, and quickly realized the teaching jobs I had imagined did not necessarily exist, even in small, more rural towns. I also wanted to be in Los Angeles, and to write about art there, which meant that I, like so many others in similar situations, made very little money for a long time, and my initial debt grew.
My partner, a CalArts graduate, recently attended a focus group with other alumni, because CalArts had hired two consulting firms to study issues like alumni engagement. At this meeting, there was a general consensus: the best way to encourage alumni to participate would be to lower tuition significantly. The value of an education becomes blurred by the burden of interest, and students still paying off their degrees years later aren’t the ones who will pay for a ticket or give a donation.
At the 2019 annual gala, held at CalArts-affiliated downtown art space RedCat, alumnus Peter Docter received the annual recognition award. Docter, who became Pixar’s chief creative officer in June 2018 after former CCO John Lasseter was accused of sexual misconduct, reportedly made $5 million between 2017-18. After Docter’s award ceremony, Alia Ali and Andrew Siedenburg – two CalArts MFA students who co-organized the #CalArtsWithout protest campaign – took the podium. Potential future honorees, Ali said, “will not have the opportunity to graduate or receive this award because of the cost of attendance.” They then passed out pledge cards, asking for donations for a new scholarship fund.
Ali and Siednburg did not anticipate spending the last three months of their first year protesting. “Perhaps the debate chose us,” they told me in a co-written email. They had studied institutional critique at a school known for embracing critical conceptualists – Allan Kaprow and Michael Asher were both on faculty – and realized that their school was as ripe for criticism as any museum.
The history of CalArts is one of big dreams and missteps. The school began in 1921 as the brainchild of a woman named Nelbert Chouinard, who at first ran the Chouinard Art Institute out of her home in the Westlake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. In 1929 it moved to a stately building on Grand View Street, which Mexican icon David Alfaro Siqueiros generously anointed with murals in 1932. In the 1950s, now-famous young artists began to migrate to Los Angeles and attend Chouinard: Noah Purifoy, Allen Ruppersberg, Terry Allen, Mary Corse, Ed Ruscha, and Joe Goode were among its students. But the Chouinard they knew would barely survive them, thanks in large part to Walt Disney. Disney’s involvement with the Institute began early in the 1920s, when Nelbert Chouinard agreed to train Disney’s animators free of charge. As his success grew, Disney continued to source animators from the school, and in the mid-1950s – after an administrator embezzled funds from the school – Disney became Nelbert’s silent partner, with the understanding that the Chouinard Institute would retain her name. This agreement persisted until two years before Disney’s death in 1966, when the Disney company released a video called The Story of CalArts, announcing the merger of Chouinard and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. It framed CalArts as a dream-like experiment, an “acropolis crowning the hills above Hollywood.” In fact, the new campus, which broke ground before Nelbert’s 1969 death, would be thirty miles from Los Angeles, in the suburb of Valencia.
Artist Bob Hernandez, a member of the last class to graduate from Chouinard, recalled that he and his classmates were asked to repaint the interim campus building in Burbank, and given paint and brushes by administrators. “We destroyed the school,” he remembered. “Paint was flying from rooftops and balconies, […] but what could they do to us, expel us from this school that was weeks from terminating?” As a parting act of protest, his class wore Mickey Mouse ears in place of caps to graduation.
Early on, however, the art department at CalArts in Valencia did function as something of an innovative adventure. The first provost, Herbert Blau, took Black Mountain College as his model, hiring artist-teachers with experimental methodologies. John Baldessari and Michael Asher taught their revered “post studio” classes, where critiques could last for hours. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro brought their Feminist Art Project to the school; Simone Forti, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, and others came to live and work as visiting artists. But from the start, financial support was inconsistent. Jack Goldstein recalled being offered full funding to join the MFA program in CalArts’s first year, while Tom Wudl, who also joined that first class, recalled dropping out after receiving no funding at all.
Given that Walt Disney left the school nearly half of his estate, smart money management could have easily led to generous student support. But by the time its third president, Steven Lavine, took over in 1988, CalArts was operating at a $1.8 million deficit, and drawing from its endowment to balance the budget. Faculty had not received raises to keep up with inflation. Lavine, in his own words, “built a plan on more fundraising and increasing the size of the student body.” In other words, students were recruited to pay for the school’s mismanagement of the resources meant to support their education. While CalArt’s administration has been a willing participant in the crisis-making for years, Lavine’s successor, Ravi Rajan, recently told Hyperallergic, “This is the higher education crisis we’re hearing about.” Still, it seems the students will have to solve the problem. Luckily, they are already working on it. Most who graduate with MFAs or other supposedly terminal degrees quickly realize they are not done learning. If their education has given them tools, these are not necessarily the tools needed to support what they believe in. I met Eliza Swann, the founder of The Golden Dome School, at a feminist consciousness-raising session. Artist and writer Meg Whiteford had wanted to explore consciousness-raising in the 21st century, and so she hosted a group of us in her rented garage. We were all in the midst of some life transition, all looking to process our own experiences in a way that felt critically engaged, and in service to some bigger goal. Swann had just moved to Los Angeles, and spoke about the school she was starting in a searchingly ambitious manner. Now, she speaks of it differently, still searchingly, but with experience shaping the search. It took time for her to learn to lead classes in non-hierarchal ways and avoid the “cult of personality” that often accompanies the “teacher” role (recently, when a filmmaker abandoned a documentary project on the school, saying she lacked the charisma expected of a spiritual leader, Swann took it as a compliment). Now, she is attempting to transition the school to a non-profit model in order to apply for grants to offset the residency fees. She’s also looking for land for the school to purchase, so that it can grow roots. Having a home will free up time and energy to focus on teaching and learning, rather than hustling.
Artist Sarita Dougherty’s school has a lower overhead and even looser structure. Dougherty and her friend, artist David Whitaker, developed their DIY PhD program five years ago. They loosely modeled it after a PhD in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, created their own school calendars, found their own advisors to work with them on a volunteer basis, and held classes. “I was in labor during one of our classes,” recalled Dougherty when I spoke with her in May. She developed her own research project, focused on what she calls living cosmologies, and she will complete the program next year. “I wanted a valid form of theory that incorporates our bodies and our whole lives,” she said. Last year, she helped launch a new cohort with a series of workshops at the Women’s Center for Creative Work (a non-profit co-founded by artists Sarah Williams and Kate Johnson, which has agreed to publish Doughtery’s dissertation as an artist’s book), helping new PhD candidates design their own programs. “Keeping overhead low,” she noted, was key to her program’s success. She does not receive any outside funding for the program, but part of her interest in doing a DIY PhD was to “reimagine my life as outside late-stage capitalism.” She shares her curriculum with those who make small donations to her Patreon, so that others can adapt her model. She added, “It’s taken some courage.”
Like Dougherty and Swann, others have appropriated the educational model to explore collaboration and question hierarchy in recent years: The Mountain School of Arts and the School of Echoes in Los Angeles, and the Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York. These are simultaneously artists’ experiments and thoughtful platforms for advanced learning, as well as compelling forays into the genre of institutional critique. Still, the established artworld struggles to embrace such projects. When Look Before You Leap: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 opened in Los Angeles, I was surprised to see how heavily the exhibition, organized by curators Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson, privileged products over process. Impressive artworks made long after students like Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Voulkos left Black Mountain featured prominently, the proven success of these already-known artists endorsing the school and thus reinforcing our same-old value systems. In fact, Black Mountain was free because students and faculty all worked to maintain the grounds and all attended administrative meetings; its experimental energy flowed from its egalitarian organizational structure. Had the exhibition celebrated this freedom over individual achievement, it could have served as a kind of affirming guide for those already working to build similar such models, because they feel a pressing need to do so. But perhaps institutional validation will prove unnecessary as more artists and students question the value of their accredited educations and seek out their own alternatives, learning to support each other’s learning in order to better support each other’s lives.