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Art School Unconfidential: What the city’s burgeoning MFA programs mean for the future of artists in Chicago

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Matthew Metzger, "Re-release: Discourse." Acrylic and Oil on Panel.

Matthew Metzger, "Re-release: Discourse." Acrylic and Oil on Panel.

By Rachel Furnari

I’m a romantic about everything else in my life, but not about art school,” says Erin Chlaghmo, who begins her MFA program in Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) this fall.  Romanticism, though, may be exactly what’s required to assume the burden of debt that comes with a degree that can cost upwards of $40,000 a year for a two- or three-year program. Chlaghmo is one of an increasing number of artists to pursue their graduate degrees in studio-arts without the guarantee of a lucrative career (or even a living wage) to pay off their student loans. Most students have a surprising and unmitigated enthusiasm for their graduate work despite being aware of the low odds for successfully working full-time as an artist—of being chosen out of the 300-plus yearly graduates for a show with one of a few commercial galleries in Chicago—and the attendant financial risks that have been exacerbated by the current economic environment.

In interviews with students from five local studio-art MFA programs—Columbia College, Northwestern, SAIC, the University of Chicago (U of C) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC)—descriptions of access to faculty, visiting artists, financial aid, professional development programs and limited material resources reveal how these artists make use of their programs to create art; to think, to network, to teach and, most importantly, to have a stake in an ongoing, critical conversation about contemporary art—though the quality of this conversation was definitely up for debate. While these schools have their differences, their students and graduates make up an undeniable segment of the contemporary art scene in Chicago and in a real way represent its future. Their institutional alignments, then, are crucial in determining how and in what direction the Chicago scene develops. By identifying those alignments it may be possible to better understand how the energy and creativity of these students might be expended in order to transform contemporary art in Chicago. Can the arts community undo the institutional biases in order to acknowledge the means by which art schools shape the Chicago art environment for practitioners, curators, dealers, audiences and critics?

Niki Grangruth

Niki Grangruth

Once you’ve taken their varied sizes, resources and institutional missions into account, it’s difficult to compare these five schools. Oppositions, like the one described by Pedro Velez in his 2002 Artnet article “Chicago’s New Rivalry” between SAIC’s “craft”-centered program and UIC’s “conceptualism,” have recently lost their urgency and traction. There are implied values in such differences—about the care and rigor of material production and the complexity or importance of an artwork’s conceptual foundation. But these differences have been obscured by new problems, often emerging from the economic disparities between the schools. Paraphrasing professor Julia Fish, 2009 UIC MFA graduate Jesse McLean responded to a comment about the school’s purported conceptualism simply: “We’re a conceptual program, but we make stuff.” The emphasis on conflicting kinds of art-making could also be attributed to the institutions’ finances, rather than a programmatic attitude—UIC may seem less craft-based, but, as a state school, its facilities are necessarily smaller and lack some of the more specialized technologies at SAIC, such as an on-site foundry and designed object studios with advanced plastic extrusion machines. And limited resources might not always be a bad thing; students contrasted the ease of signing out a digital camera from UIC (which has twenty-five-to-thirty-five MFA students) to the same process at SAIC (which has more than 600), where there might be five other people on the equipment waiting list.

Ideological divisions between the schools, such as that between theory and practice, have additionally eroded in the last five years with a new generation of high-profile faculty members at UIC and Columbia and in the lesser-known programs at the University of Chicago and Northwestern. Well-known artists working in interdisciplinary or new media modes, such as Tania Bruguera, Jeanne Dunning, Michael Rakowitz, Steve Reinke and Catherine Sullivan, have raised the profile of U of C and Northwestern MFAs. Although these schools were once thought of as primarily theory-driven with intense and frequent critiques taking place outside the more commercial and aspirational culture of SAIC and Columbia, practice is not ignored. U of C student Matthew Metzger explains that “every step of your practice gets evaluated, so if you reach a point in the evaluation where you need to evaluate your materials because they are blocking your theoretical development, then [professors] address the materials.”

José A. Velazco, "At My Grandfather's Kitchen Table." Inkjet print.

José A. Velazco, "At My Grandfather's Kitchen Table." Inkjet print.

Tyler Myers, who is completing his first year of the MFA at Northwestern, was drawn to the school’s reputation for critical investigation. He chose Northwestern as a place to “think harder,” yet the main advantage he cites about its tiny studio-art program is its interdisciplinarity. This describes both the lack of formal, media-based concentrations (e.g. painting, sculpture, etc.) and students’ ability to take classes in any department. Another MFA student at Northwestern, Casey Lurie, has recently involved himself with the engineering department for a project entitled “Apple Structure 1,” a large, outdoor construction composed of apples and quarter-inch dowel rods. The structure’s apple joints will “begin to breakdown and eventually collapse from the effects of weather, animals, insects and decay.” The engineering department helped Lurie to model the decay and perform preliminary stress tests to determine the structure’s likely lifespan.

This academic and technological interdisciplinarity, which comes with access to research universities such as Northwestern, U of C and UIC, as opposed to the liberal arts curriculum of the art schools, could be a vital part of integrating a studio-art MFA with other forms of work and knowledge production. In an environment of increasing artistic collaboration, it may be time to ask what kinds of collaborations are available to artists outside of the humanities. The research-university system that enabled Lurie to collaborate with the engineering department currently requires a great deal of initiative on the part of the MFA student. Yet these universities might present the best opportunity for them to happen, through cross-listed faculty, interdepartmental discussion and radically more comprehensive funding such as is offered at Northwestern, which includes a full-ride and a stipend as well as special project grants.

The professionalizing that goes on in both types of MFA programs, however, is still seen to take place at the individual level, in the relationships that are forged with faculty and staff rather than in coursework or career offices. Metzger is quick to qualify this method and its potential disadvantages. “[Faculty] hooking you up with a job doesn’t matter at all if you don’t know what you’re doing as an artist.”

However, students praised the effort faculty were willing to make on their behalf, especially in programs where the faculty is motivated by the scarcity of opportunities and employment to actively make connections between students and their own professional networks. Nevertheless, a question remains for many about the viability of a studio-art MFA: “You’re going to teach or what?”

Casey Lurie, "Apple Structure 1"

Casey Lurie, "Apple Structure 1"

Jesse McLean asked this rhetorical question with a shrug. The students, with rare exceptions, have not taken on their graduate work in hopes of becoming more employable (though that is the most obvious outcome of a studio-art MFA, which allows the degree holder to teach at the college level). MFA student Eliza Myrie figures that the “money monster” will catch up to her in its own time. Students from all programs expressed a vehement commitment to their studio practices that puts further pressure on the question of how nontraditional and interdisciplinary studio-arts programs can contribute to the Chicago contemporary-art scene as a whole.

"Apple Structure" detail

"Apple Structure" detail

Even at SAIC which, of the five discussed here, is the school with the most traditional departmental segregation, students do not treat these designations as absolutes. Jessica Taylor, officially a Printmedia MFA, included a three-dimensional installation component in her recent thesis exhibition. With her combination of two- and three-dimensional objects, Taylor capitalizes on the relationship between printmaking “multiples” and the proliferation of affordable faux luxury goods, such as laminate flooring, plastic stone tiling and artificial plants. Of this crossover, Taylor says, “Similarly to how I see printmaking democratizing art, the objects I work with are an attempt at the democratization of luxury, and I don’t feel a need to make qualitative distinctions between an object that I print and a commercially manufactured item.” This integration of sculptural and printmaking techniques doesn’t appear to follow the traditional boundaries of media specificity that the SAIC departments would seem to demarcate.

Regrettably, the disciplinary boundaries that students most often identified was not within their own schools, but between the various MFA programs themselves. Despite the existence of shared visiting-artist programs and multi-institutional listservs, the students are not familiar with their counterparts at other schools (though they seem to know one another’s faculty quite well). This leads to a kind of affable but despotic art scene with aesthetic alliances forged in graduate school that often unduly influence where an artist will show after graduation, his or her institutional and political affiliations and the critical reception of their work.

This is sometimes exacerbated by the MFA thesis exhibition, a spring ritual in which every graduating MFA student exhibits their best work, singularly or as a group. Depending on the conditions and context of this exhibition, there can be a tendency to artificially group certain artists or practices together based on institutional associations as opposed to a nuanced examination of their visual and conceptual affinities. SAIC use of the new Sullivan Galleries in the former Carson, Pirie, Scott building as a venue for their massive MFA show gives it a very public face and the feeling of an art bazaar. Thematic sections force comparisons and alignments that aren’t always supported by the visual information. Northwestern students have the advantage of a professional space in the Block Museum, thus benefiting from everyday museum traffic. UIC MFA shows are held in Gallery 400, another centrally located place, but, unlike the SAIC crowd, the UIC grads get to exhibit in small groups of three or four, creating an intimacy that is a far cry from the art-fair design of SAIC’s show. Columbia MFAs in Book and Paper Arts and Photography, both small programs, use the school’s galleries and are caught up in Manifest, a large daylong, school-wide festival that features the work of many of its more than 14,000 students. The University of Chicago, on the other hand, allows its six-to-eight graduating students to have individual or paired MFA shows at a gallery, DOVA [Department of Visual Arts] Temporary, owned by the university, in Hyde Park, a location that offers few opportunities for general exposure and further segregates U of C from the larger art scene.

Despite the resulting, sometimes rigid, institutional associations that the students acquire in these shows, most express an overall sense of collectivity in their perception of contemporary art in Chicago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into a desire to stay in Chicago—though this preference seemed to have a slight institutional bias. Students at UIC and Columbia were more likely to see Chicago as a workable location than those at SAIC and the University of Chicago.

Jessica Taylor

Jessica Taylor

But it is impossible to completely generalize the students’ perceptions of Chicago and its contemporary-art scene in this way. Familiar complaints are made about its “little sister syndrome” with New York City, its shortage of serious collectors, its insularity, latency and provincialism. And don’t forget the weather. At its best these shortcomings produce a good place “to make mistakes,” as Erik Wenzel, of U of C, offers. Although these grievances have an air of inevitability, students like Wenzel aren’t idly griping when they ask about the sustainability of the currently thriving apartment-gallery model or wonder about the logic of a dominant anti-institutional, anti-commercial genre of art-making when there are not many significant institutions or markets to be resisting. What are the aesthetics of resistance when the putative mainstream is a temporary fiction made up of an endlessly renewable slate of one-offs and cookouts? Is this a radical condition of possibility or an enervating cycle of optimism and disappointment?

detail of Jessica Taylor installation

detail of Jessica Taylor installation

The arguments in support of Chicago’s art scene and the possibility of remaining here post- graduation are equally familiar. After naming the flexibility and success of the DIY scene, the main incentive is real estate. The coastal cities just can’t compete with a 750-square-foot studio in Humboldt Park for $400 a month. Or the ease of curating a show in a brand-new gallery space and not in your best friend’s tattoo parlor. But the most hopeful aspect may be those MFAs who see contemporary art’s globalization and its accompanying forms of local and national expansion as a good reason to stay in Chicago. The new Chicago artist is all about mobility. Students reported on faculty who preach the benefits of living in an affordable city while maintaining networks outside of it. Of course remaining in Chicago is always dependent on some version of what UIC grad José Velazco called the “Golden Fleece”: a tenured job at a school you like, in a city you love.

There has been plenty written about the pros and cons of mobility as an organizing factor in contemporary art, but in Chicago it seems to address one of the most fundamental problems affecting artists at the beginning of their careers. That is, what or who is a Chicago artist? If characteristics could be identified, would anyone want to be known as one? Already contemporary artists often refuse the existing Imagist genealogy and the newer, “Midwest Gothic” nomenclature. Now that various communication technologies and global art-fairs have enabled geographically expansive careers, is there a possibility of being a Chicago artist without being a “Chicago artist,” with all the limits and baggage of the term?

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