Keeping it strictly old school
LA teaching is still top for next generation of artists
By Charlotte Burns and Helen Stoilas. Focus, Issue 242, January 2013
Published online: 16 January 2013
Los Angeles’ art schools are the stuff of legend. Since the 1960s, students have flocked to the city to study under the likes of Allan Kaprow, Chris Burden, John Baldessari and Paul McCarthy. The system of artists teaching artists has made the city into a mecca for creative talent, although the local art market has struggled to establish itself as a major hub, and the city’s museums have yet to attract the visitors and patronage enjoyed by other centres such as New York or London. Such is the schools’ wealth and reputation that the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LA MoCA), recently embarked on discussions to create a partnership with the University of Southern California (USC), which is in the middle of an aggressive $6bn fundraising drive.
“LA is first and foremost a city where the schools dominate,” says Paul Schimmel, the former chief curator at LA MoCA. “The best and the brightest apply to LA because the schools have unprecedented success—if you get in, then you’re one step closer.”
“The MFA programmes attract a lot of talented young artists, but also established artists, fostering an intergenerational conversation. It is very Californian—the casual absence of hierarchy,” says Mieke Marple, the co-director of the Night Gallery.
The not-so-secret ingredient to the success of LA’s art schools is that the teachers are working artists themselves. “When you had people like Robert Irwin and Ed Moses teaching at UC Irvine in the 1960s, it demonstrated to the other schools that bringing in strong personalities creates a fulcrum around which you can build a programme,” says the director of the LA Louver gallery, Peter Goulds, who came to the West Coast as a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) visiting lecturer in 1972.
Most teaching artists were then struggling, so the school salary was “the fundamental resource which gave artists the means to become the artists they became,” Schimmel says. “For many of the artists we think of as celebrities today, teaching was essential.”
Students learn a lot from working with practising artists. “People who are teaching in the schools are very much showing, there’s that aspect of non-direct teaching. The students see what it’s like to be under the pressure of a deadline, the various kinds of production issues,” says Thomas Lawson, the dean of CalArts.
The artist Paul Sietsema exemplifies the system. Now a visiting lecturer at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts, he studied at UCLA under Chris Burden, Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy. “They were all showing an awful lot and they were still in a formative stage in their careers, which I think is very important for people who are learning,” he says. “For me, part of it was just seeing someone do it.”
But what was once a relatively small art school community is now big business. “One of the dangers of some art programmes is that they’re now treated more like professional finishing schools,” Sietsema says. A big concern, says Schimmel, is “dealers and collectors coming into graduate studios and recruiting [artists] like football coaches. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.”
Perhaps in reaction, the schools are gearing themselves towards different kinds of teaching. “I’m very sceptical of the personality-driven model,” Lawson says. He says that the most successful schools push for the development of individual voices: “The implication behind the question of who is the great teacher is who is going to be creating a bunch of little clones.”
Smaller programmes and collaborative faculties are favoured. USC has emerged as one of the leaders in the past few years, overtaking CalArts and UCLA, which previously led the pack. “I feel as though I had several ‘mentors’. It was not the kind of experience where one person takes you under their wing and shows you the ropes,” says Sean Townley, a recent USC graduate (see p18). “I like USC because of how intense it is, and how small it is,” Sietsema says.
The cycle continues. “The older guard is retiring but many mid-career artists who don’t have such huge names but are top artists are taking their places,” says the art adviser Lisa Schiff. CalArts is searching to fill two teaching positions this year, which will result in “some significant changes”, Lawson says. The Mountain School of Arts is on the move after the closure of the bar where it held classes. While Los Angeles might be evolving, says the critic Andrew Berardini, “the schools still are still where most legends begin.”
To read more from the Los Angeles focus in our January issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or subscribe to our digital or print editions.
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