New York Arts Practicum is a summer arts institute where participants experientially learn to bridge their lives as art students into lives as artists in the world. The program is structured around apprenticeships with mentor artists, a critique seminar where participants produce work without access to their institutional facilities, and site visits to artist workspaces, galleries, and museums. The intensive eight-week program offers participants a structured environment to experience the challenges of life as an artist and demystifies the many ways one can be an artist today.
Mentees work in their mentor’s studio two to three days per week learning through apprenticeship. By working with an artist on a day-to-day basis, participants gain insight into the working lives of artists and learn models for negotiating a creative life outside of school. Descriptions of the apprenticeships for this summer are here: http://www.artspracticum.org/practicum-descriptions/
Tuesday evening’s critique seminar develops strategies for creating work without institutional studio facilities. When students graduate from school they immediately lose access to their means of production, and no one discusses strategies for working through this; critique seminar is structured around solving this problem as it applies to participants and their work. Mentors serve as guest critics and lead seminars on their work, or related topics. Last year several seminar leaders shared intimate views into their in-progress work with a focus on process. Others created specific events, such as David Horvitz’s “Life Drawing” session, where the participants drew the police officers guarding Zuccotti Park.
On Fridays participants convene for site visits to artist studios, galleries, and museums. Some highlights from last year include: Brody Condon stressing the importance of finding, supporting and being supported by a community of peers; a trip to Kickstarter to discuss fundraising, grant writing, and how to communicate your work to different audiences; and a day trip to Dia:Beacon, with a swim in a secret waterfall and a barbeque with Kristin Lucas and Joe McKay, two mentor artists who live in Beacon, NY.
All meetings take place in the workspace of the artist we are meeting with. These have included studios, apartments, and offices. It is an eye-opening experience for the participants to see how many of these artists work out of their apartments. More broadly, the participants are able to see the many ways that these artists find a way through the world. They see how many different ways one can be an artist in the world, both in terms of a creative practice and practical concerns, such as money and jobs.
Inspired by Machine Project, Trade School, Pickpocket Almanack, and Carpe Diem, I started the program for two reasons: I wanted to harness the power of experiential learning I saw happening when students apprenticed in my studio, and I wanted to find a way to help students bridge the gap between life in school and life as an artist in the world.
In the summer after my second year teaching at CUNY, I brought one of my standout students into my studio to assist me. We built some websites together, and he grew enormously in the process, both in terms of his technical and artistic experience, but also his maturity as a person and a maker. It really became clear how effective this apprenticeship was when he returned to the classroom that fall: he had progressed by leaps and bounds beyond his peers. And as he raised the level of his work, his peers upped their game to strive to match his.
Prior to starting the program, I worked informally with approximately 20 such students. About half of them are my own CUNY students, while others are undergraduate and graduate students from other schools. I found that if I match a task or project to an apprentice’s experience and skill set, I can produce a learning experience that far surpasses any they can achieve in a classroom. With the New York Arts Practicum, I wanted to see if I could take this individual experience and build a curriculum around it.
The other motivation for creating the program was to address the difficulty making the transition out of school into the world. I have watched undergraduate and graduate school peers, my students, and my former mentees struggle to find a path. I only made it through by a combination of chance and my ability to quickly pick up HTML at a time when that would get you a job. I wanted to find a way to structure that transition so it was less of a drop off a cliff and more of a series of leaps.
Part of that structure is discussing why they are doing what they are doing. It is a truism that only one student in any art school class will continue making work five years after graduation, but I don’t think it has to be this way. We don’t prepare students for this transition at all. And we engender unrealistic hyper-professionalized self-expectations that they can only fail to achieve. We valorize the 1% of the ultra-successful few who magically were “picked up” by a gallery and lifted into success. The bankrupt myth of the American Dream is so pervasive that it indoctrinates art school graduates into believing they could be the one to “make it” and become the next Damian Hirst. We don’t spend enough time talking about finding intrinsic rewards and motivations.
Internship has become a bit of a dirty word, and I don’t like to use it. What I have been doing in my studio, and what we do in the practicum, is something different, something focused on growth and mentorship. I use the word apprenticeship to signal this as a period of work whose purpose is learning through applied work. Of course, this is the stated premise of most internships, but unfortunately most fall far from that mark.
Words go a long way towards constructing reality. In the program we use the words apprenticeship, mentor, mentee, and participant. We don’t use intern, and more importantly, we don’t use student. One of the main goals of the program is to enable the participants to move past the infantilization of studenthood, and into a state of self-directed life-long learning, driven by love.
There is a tuition of $2900, offset by need-based financial aid. Early on I had extensive conversations about how the program would take shape, including whether or not to charge tuition. One advisor advocated making it free. If it were free, he argued, I could get really great mentor artists involved, there would be a huge demand amongst applicants, and it would become very popular very quickly. Furthermore, not charging would clearly indicate that it was an art project. Another advisor who has a firm belief in barter and mutual aid, strongly advocated that I needed to charge tuition. She pointed out that in her experience, unpaid collaborators tend to move on to other projects within a year or two, especially those that help pay their rent. Payment is a form of showing respect for your collaborators’ labor, as well as a way of ensuring the longevity of the project. This was especially important, as one of my major goals was to prove this experiment could work, which requires a few years of fine-tuning.
One thing that is important to note regarding tuition is that tuition covers the costs of running the critique seminar, site visits, and managing the program. It is important to understand participants are not “paying for an internship,” nor are the mentors compensated for the time participants spend working in their studios; it is an exchange of time and labor under mutual respect.
I am regularly asked what school houses the program; those that know I teach at CUNY ask if the program is run out of CUNY. I say it is a para-institutional program, as it is not housed in any institution, but I (and many of the mentors) have institutional affiliations that lend credibility and resources to the program. I am torn between an allegiance to the belief that education should be something a society provides collectively through state-funded schools and the fact that there is almost no way this experiment could happen under the aegis of CUNY. There is too much red tape regulating union and labor law, curriculum review, and bureaucratic oversight. I am torn about this: as a member of the PSC-CUNY union: I benefit from the strength of this oversight, but the resulting regimented labor and curricular structure prevents experimentation.
Additionally, several grant experts have advised me that there is scant funding for this kind of program: most education related grants focus on public programming or K-12 arts enrichment. So in order to do this experiment, I have to do it independently. I worry that this puts the program into the domain of charter schools and other neoliberal disruptions; I hope that the ethics and outcome redeem it.
I thought accreditation would be really important, but it wasn’t. I thought I had a way of getting the program accredited by piggybacking on a relationship between Carpe Diem Education and Portland State University, but it turned out to be impossible. I almost didn’t run the program because of the lack of accreditation, but decided to take a risk anyway. What I learned was that accreditation wasn’t important for a couple of interrelated reasons: over the course of the first two years of the New York Arts Practicum, about two thirds of the participants join the program immediately after graduating from an undergraduate or graduate program, thus they don’t need academic credit. For the other third, the majority of them are coming from four-year art schools and liberal arts colleges; for these schools, students typically graduate in eight contiguous semesters, and an extra four or eight credits will not help them graduate earlier, and more importantly will not save them any money, as tuition at these schools is typically charged on a semester basis (not credit basis). One or two participants each year have been able to secure credit through independent studies, but for the most part, credit was not important because it runs during the summer. If this program were to run during the semester, it would be a different story.
Because credit is not at play, participants complete the program out of their own desire to learn and grow, not in order to fulfill a set of requirements. There are no grades. For most of the participants, it is the first time they are making something without the pressure or discipline of a grading system. They seem to grow from the experience of finding an intrinsic motivation to make something, rather than the extrinsic motivation of a grade. For me, as a teacher, it is a relief to not have to make the constant mental grade calculations that teaching at CUNY requires of me. Whether I like it or not, no matter how hard I try, when I am in a conventional, graded classroom, the grade is always present. Without it present, I feel freer as a teacher, and the participants grow more.
It saddens me to see so many young artists who have been called to a creative life unable to find a way to have lifelong creative practice. Young artists have been indoctrinated into thinking that the only way to be an artist is to go big. The program’s mentors have all found successful ways of balancing life and art, building a life around their practice and synergizing their vocations with their avocation. The balances illustrated by the dozen mentors and dozen visiting artists provide a starting point for the participants to imagine how to navigate lives anchored by creative practice. While some of these artists found their way through trial and error, and others had a mentor who helped them, all of them want to share.
One of our first meetings this summer was with Pablo Helguera, who found time to meet with us after a full day of work as the Director of Adult and Academic Programs at MoMA, and before heading home to his family. One of the participants asked Pablo if he had any advice for young artists. Pablo said “I once asked a teacher of mine in art school: How do I know I am meant to be an artist? To which he replied: when you wake up in the morning, pay attention to your impulses. If you say “I need to get groceries, do this or that errand, call so and so, etc and then maybe tonight I will make some art – then you are not an artist. If instead you wake up and say “I have to make art” then you are an artist” He also added that “If there is anything else in the world you can do, you should do it.” Making art is a calling. Some people are called to it, but not all are willing or able to make the sacrifices needed to follow through with it.
The eight weeks of the program help the participants figure out whether or not they are willing and able to make the sacrifices in order to follow that path. Some of them learn that they are not artists and find a path towards animation, design, web programming, or another creative field. While a professor or mentor who knew them well might have been able to tell them this, they have to learn this experientially for it to be truly meaningful. For these participants, it is a blessing to learn this before they commit two or three years, and up to one hundred thousand dollars in debt to get an MFA.
And for those who grasp the sacrifices and challenges of this path and wake up every morning ready to take them on before breakfast, they come out of these eight weeks with a clear understanding of just how hard it is to be an artist, and they are equipped with a handful of models for how to balance and merge their drive to create and their need to survive.
 David Byrne, Columbia University MFA Commencement Speech, May 22nd 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4KGchVv3GY