A dedicated teacher looks back on three decades in the classroom
In December of this year, I will retire from teaching painting, a job I’ve loved for 30 years. Although I am looking forward to a new phase in my life, I will miss this role. I’ve had a good run and feel extraordinarily lucky to have spent the bulk of my adult life in the classroom. Most of all, I will miss my students: their smiling faces, their energy and enthusiasm, the diversity of their lives and concerns, seeing their work grow and flourish. They have challenged and changed me and have opened my eyes. It has been such a privilege to know them.
I am leaving, however, with a heavy heart. The world is not the same place it was when I first started my job, let alone when I started my own art education. For art education—really for all of the arts and humanities—there is a profound crisis of identity brewing and it leaves me wondering what the future holds.
When I first moved to take my teaching position at a small, isolated state university on the Northern California coast, it was for a temporary, one-year appointment. “Be careful,” one of my older colleagues warned, “this place has a way of growing on you.” And he was right; the one-year post was extended for another three years and before I knew it, 30 years had flown by.
I never imagined that I would live in the country. I thought of myself, romantically, as a confirmed city dweller, and I loved being close to all of the exciting cultural amenities that an urban art center offers. But even 30 years ago, San Francisco, with its rising rents, was showing signs of becoming a hostile place for artists, the very people who had helped shape the city’s reputation as a progressive and creative community. Even before the ensuing dot.com boom of the 1990s, the handwriting was on the wall and I realized pretty quickly that my future prospects were limited. So, despite the entreaties of my friends, who cautioned me that by moving I would be sacrificing my professional career as an artist, I took the job and moved north. And I felt really lucky.
And for a time, the dire predictions of my friends were correct. When I first moved upstate, the internet didn’t exist, there was no Instagram, no websites. To document your work and promote yourself meant making slides, a laborious and expensive process that took weeks. To be in a show or put my work in front of a curator, I had to drive for hours. Sometimes, I felt that I was marooned on a desert island. But, oddly enough, it was also nice to be out of the mix for a while.
One thing I often mention to students, is that becoming a teacher made me a better artist. I learned to take the critical eye I used on my students’ work and direct it to my own. And the stability that a steady paycheck brought, after years of stringing together different gigs, was a godsend. But teaching tends to be a largely one-way conversation and often, after so much giving, you are left depleted and exhausted, with no energy left for yourself or your work. If you are one of the thousands who work at a teaching university or a high school and not an elite research institution, then your teaching load, which includes academic “service,” is heavy and there is little support or time for pursuing or marketing your creative endeavors. Added to this load are other life expectations that need attention: motherhood, your relationship with your significant other, aging parents. Your work suffers and you devise ways to find the time to make it—perhaps by getting up very early or staying up very late. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Technology has profoundly changed much of this—mostly mostly for the better. It is now possible to conduct a career as an exhibiting artist no matter where you are, and social media easily connects you to the world. As a teacher, I can access the work of anyone anywhere on the globe and instantly show it to students. This has allowed me to diversify my curriculum in ways I never thought possible. And technology has made things easier in a thousand different ways—learning management systems, Google, digital projectors, streaming, cell phones, Zoom lectures.
So why do I feel such trepidation? Hasn’t the Internet made things easier, more egalitarian? For one, I worry that the cost of education has vastly outstripped the student’s ability to pay. I worry that they are leaving school under such a heavy debt burden that they will never be able to make art. Where once I might have encouraged my best and brightest to go to graduate school, I seldom do anymore because I am worried that they will be stuck, that there will be no jobs for them at the end and they will be left with nothing but a pile of debt. And I worry about all the bright, promising students who, for lack of money and opportunity, will abandon their hope of being an artist, depriving the world of what they might have contributed. Will the art world that is left exist only for those who have the economic and social advantages others don’t? Or has this always been the case?
Beyond these practical, financial matters, there are also the problems I see that go to the very soul of arts education. Educational institutions, in this era of risk management, are no longer conducive to the experimental energy so necessary for young artists. Measurable learning outcomes, designed for assessment, dominate the curriculum. No longer can an instructor meander creatively as John Baldessari did, making things up as you go along. If we are requiring students to understand exactly what they are learning, where is the challenge for them and where is the mystery? Where is the inspiration? If we hold them so close to a strict line, how do we teach young artists the necessity of taking risks, courting failure and working outside their comfort zone? Increasingly, universities market themselves by referring to the employment statistics associated with particular majors. Where does that leave art—or literature, philosophy, and history for that matter? Does an arts education, in the context of a public university, even make sense anymore?
I think of myself at 18: an inexperienced middle-class girl, working to pay her way through college, stumbling upon a painting class and finding enchantment. Somehow, I managed to make the audacious decision to become an artist, even though being a woman made that a fairly dubious proposition. But I had advantages that my students don’t have–namely, my education was extremely affordable, enough so that I could work my way through without incurring debt. And there was little talk in those days of learning to be a “professional” artist because it was pretty evident that almost no one in the art world was making a lot of money and you accepted that. What you were taught was more inspirational than aspirational– you were learning to be a thinker and in doing so, you were committing yourself to a life lived creatively and outside of the norms set by others.
But in this world, is that now a laughable premise, its roots located deeply within white privilege? With the cost of education, the cost of art supplies, the cost of studio rentals, the lack of health insurance – how can a student commit to a life as an artist without some guarantee of income or promise of success? The stakes are now too high, the reality too impossible.
If anything, this global pandemic has taught us that the arts are important and essential to our happiness. Humans have an innate desire to create, to use their hands, their words, their instruments to create something not just because they need to make money but because they simply need to and because they want to share what they did with others, and that sharing brings pleasure to both the maker and the viewer. Somehow in the past 20 years or so, the glamour and money in the art world have perhaps twisted that impulse toward another goal. We are told to be professional, to meet the right people, to follow a certain set of guidelines to ensure success, to attend the right MFA program.
Perhaps my fears will be allayed in what Jerry Saltz refers to as the “new artworld”. Perhaps the pandemic will be a great leveler. There are already signs that there is a new energy in the digital world—exhibitions, blogs, online publications. The Black Lives Matter movement is making changes in cultural institutions that I hope will be lasting. Will expensive art schools survive? I’m not sure. Will galleries survive? Will the art fairs be a thing of the past? Will people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences continue to make art and will it be valued not for its investment value but for its ideas?
I’ll be looking into my students’ eyes this semester from the distance required by my computer screen, and I will think about these things. My sincere hope is that they. too, will be able to live a life of creativity outside of what societal expectations are assumed for them. I hope that they, despite the obstacles in their path, will be able continue creating and enter what the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as “the life of the mind”.