A free art school conceived as a rebuke to runaway student debt, Bruce High Quality Foundation University has had to negotiate a position between institutionalization and anarchy.
A MONTH AFTER the inauguration of Donald Trump, I found myself in a cold and dimly lit loft in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood—the home of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, a free art school. Fifteen or so students were discussing “Porgy,” a 1988 text by Adrian Piper, in which the legendary conceptualist argues that, in order to retain intellectual integrity, artists should make their income by means other than the sale of art.1
The essay evokes concerns that still preoccupy many art students. “I’m between jobs right now,” one said to begin the discussion. “This piece for me captures the basic struggle of how to find free time to make art at all.” “Of course Piper can live without selling her work!” a young woman added. “She’s a tenured professor!” Another woman quickly agreed that the text was “annoying” for this very reason. After all, tenured teaching gigs are in short supply today.
When I was coming up as a writer and musician in the San Francisco punk community, the question that haunted all artistic production was whether or not you were selling out. But today, virtually no once-dark corner of any underground, subculture, or avant-garde has avoided exposure and co-optation by the mainstream. Questions of what is inside or outside the system have become far murkier as young artists are increasingly expected to sell themselves on social media and earn graduate degrees in MFA programs. Perhaps the question of selling out has always really been an existential one about the purpose of art. Is art to be made for the sake of community, friendship, and conversation with other artists? Or is making art just another way to make a living?
This question is at the heart of BHQFU, an ambitious institution that has been operating for nearly a decade in various locations around New York City. It appeared at the height of the MFA bubble, and continues to operate as applications to and enrollment in those programs has precipitously declined.2 Launched in 2009, BHQFU provocatively promised on its website “an MFA-quality education” free of charge, in an environment where “students are teachers are administrators are staff.” The deadpan premise contained a kernel of satire, needling the art world’s crisis over growing professionalization and financialization.
BHQFU IS A PROJECT of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, which was formed in 2001 by a group of eight anonymous artists who met as students at Cooper Union in New York and upon graduation realized, as one of them put it in an early interview, that in the era of an ever-expanding art market and the professionalization of art-making, “all we really had in the world was our work and each other.”3 At the outset, BHQFU resembled its founders’ other actions, bitingly witty pranks poking fun at the excesses of the art world. BHQF first made headlines in 2005 with The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing but the Thing Itself, a gonzo intervention in a high-budget public art piece mounted by the Whitney Museum. Inspired by a drawing by the late Robert Smithson, the museum produced a miniature floating model of Central Park that was towed by a tugboat around Manhattan. BHQF rented a speedboat and mounted on its bow a scale model of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates—a series of portals drapped in orange fabric installed in Central Park earlier that year—and chased Smithson’s island. Subsequent projects include an exhibition of early works from what they claimed would be a decades-long effort to reproduce the entire collection of seventeen thousand antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in children’s modeling clay,4 and the Brucennial (2008–14), an erratically recurrent, unjuried, open-call exhibition presenting young unknowns alongside famous veterans.
Given the satirical nature of the collective’s work, observers could not help but wonder whether BHQFU was truly a sincere effort to found a school. Popping up in various loaned storefronts and residencies in the fall of 2009, BHQFU at first appeared indistinguishable from the group’s usual spoofs. This perception was hardly dispelled by Teach 4 Amerika (2011), a five-week tour of college campuses sponsored by Creative Time. The school’s founders drove around the United States in a stretch limo painted school-bus yellow to discuss the dire state of arts education. But in fall 2012 the school made a serious move toward sustainability, opening its first permanent space, a loft on Avenue A in the East Village.
On the surface, the new iteration of BHQFU seemed traditional enough. It offered lectures, seminars, and group critiques. But these mixed high and low culture in an anything-goes, BYOB atmosphere. One former teacher fondly remembers instituting a two-beer maximum at his classes. An exemplary class might be “Chopped, Except That It’s Art Chopped,” modeled on one of the Food Network’s competitive cooking shows. Boxes of “ingredients” were handed out to a rotating cast of students, who were judged by how effectively they could use the items to create a new artwork on the spot.
Seth Cameron, president of BHQFU and the only original member of the Bruce collective still on the school’s board, told me that he believes “learning becomes possible when received ideas become unfamiliar and when ‘knowledge’ becomes questions,” a state he believes is reachable when unlikely ideas and people are put into collision with each other.5 This theory was put into practice to great effect in the loft on Avenue A. The place combined the atmospheres of a dive bar and a think tank in an almost fully gentrified downtown neighborhood where countless cherished institutions—from Max Fish to the Brecht Forum—had recently closed. Established art stars mingled with student activists. In the most expensive city in the country, the loft provided a space where you could show up at almost any time of day, any day of the week, and be allowed to simply hang out without spending a dime.
While the school often lacked funds to pay honoraria to guest speakers, the buzz around BHQFU gave the school enough social capital to encourage the participation of many accomplished artists and academics. Sean J. Patrick Carney, now the school’s outreach coordinator, recalled scraping together fifty dollars from his own pocket to pay philosopher Simon Critchley for a guest lecture. Critchley not only accepted but happily joined students at a bar around the corner where the classroom discussions continued deep into the night.6
The school’s scrappy DIY aesthetics obscured the fact that in a short time the members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation had become art world insiders. While it was launched as an intervention into big money’s influence on art, BHQFU is funded by sales of high-priced art. BHQF has been generously rewarded by the art world for its trenchant institutional critique; some of the group’s Play-Doh “antiquities” sold for six figures. Cameron told me sales of the collective’s art, along with the auction of donated works by friends of the school, including David Salle and Francisco Clemente, paid the bills.
The school’s efforts to blur the line between inside and outside provided one ongoing source of frustration: speaking off the record, students groused that the ostensibly freewheeling school simply recycled the top-down structure of traditional MFA programs. Indeed, the wide-open curriculum belied the school’s transition away from its early utopian rhetoric toward a conventional administrative structure. Concurrent with the move to Avenue A in 2012, BHQFU restructured the once all-volunteer organization to include paid staff and teachers, 501(c)(3) status, and centralized decision-making. The structure was a problem in other ways; some found the school’s programming to be overdetermined, offering the appearance of laid-back, hands-on education rather than true participation. For them, the school succeeded not because of the curriculum but almost in spite of it. BHQFU’s true achievement was facilitating a space where different kinds of people could come together without having to spend money. Impromptu experiments and one-off courses blossomed in the gaps between scheduled classes, and the students created a kind of unscripted community. In the end, however, there was no way for them to move into positions of authority within the school.
Cameron agrees that to some extent the move away from total volunteerism did undermine the original spirit of the school. But he said that, ironically, the departure from a free-form school was, in part, a strategy to provide an answer to such questions. “We specifically went this route because we didn’t want our community to be guinea pigs in a social sculpture,” he wrote in an email. “Some degree of institutionalization, we felt, would set up the appropriate distance from our own practice to give the community its autonomy.”7
Joe Riley was one of several activists with Free Cooper Union who taught classes at BHQFU while also occupying the dean’s office at Cooper Union to protest plans to phase out tuition-free education there. Riley’s complaints about BHQFU will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time talking about the school: its community was a conglomeration of preexisting friend groups; classes were either overcrowded or poorly attended; the policies on payment for teachers and guest speakers were uneven and opaque. “On one hand, BHQFU was ad hoc and sometimes experimental,” he said. “On the other, it was re-creating existing hierarchies.”8 Yet while Riley found his official participation with BHQFU oddly deflating, he fondly remembers the so-called Night School—an unofficial collaboration between Free Cooper Union and BHQFU students, who gathered informally at the Avenue A loft on a nightly basis to organize, plan actions, learn, and just hang out.
The Avenue A site closed after the fall 2015 semester, and the school reopened shortly thereafter in Sunset Park. The move accompanied a reorganization of the school as a yearlong residency program called the MFU, an undecipherable acronym that mashes up the school’s name with MFA. Five residents chosen from an open application process were each given a free studio in exchange for teaching a course during BHQFU’s spring 2017 semester. They worked with Jarrett Earnest, the school’s faculty liaison, to develop the curriculum based on their own interests.
WHEN I VISITED the school’s classes over several weeks last March, I found them reliably interesting. Kentaro Ikegami’s course, “Inside the Artist’s Studio,” where the aforementioned discussion of Adrian Piper’s essay took place, featured guest artists who talked about pivotal moments in the early foundation of their work and careers. In the wake of Trump’s election, Andrew Ross’s seminar, “Post-Fact Studio,” seemed particularly timely, promising to consider “the influence of dystopian fictions on reality.” Artist Daniel Bejar visited the class one week to discuss how he games Google searches to make images of himself acting out fictional scenarios appear as fact alongside actually true information. In Jesse Chun’s “ESL: Transcultural Poetics,” guest artists and class readings offered perspectives on art from people of color, promising to examine “the interplay of image and text, poetry, and multilingual narratives.”
The classes seemed a more sober and traditional bunch than what BHQFU used to offer. Only “Skill Yourself,” taught by Nina Behrle, with its hands-on workshops and drunken bravado, recalled the spirit of Avenue A. Over the course of the semester, students learned DIY techniques ranging from making and casting with molds to building synthesizers. When I arrived for my first visit to her class, Behrle—looking uncannily like a Trader Joe’s employee in a floral-print shirt and baseball cap—immediately offered me a beer. Later, when the students abandoned their chairs and stood around Behrle as she demonstrated how to stretch a silkscreen, more than half of them were drinking beer or smoking cigarettes.
Still, there was something depressingly self-conscious about the wackiness of Behrle’s class. Turning the classroom into a crowded and smelly bar seemed to me not quite a means for community building. The participants I met said they would like more opportunities to interact with other students. But the fabled informal community of Avenue A seemed almost impossible to re-create deep in South Brooklyn. Students live too far away to simply drop by anytime, and the commutes are so long that few choose to linger after class. The industrial setting of Sunset Park is also limiting. If Simon Critchley were to return, he would now have to choose between a Dunkin’ Donuts and an adult video store as the location for his post-class salon. Chun helpfully maintained a Facebook group page where students could post readings and comments for each other throughout the week, but it was hardly an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction.
Yet there are more reasons for the reduced sense of community than just the new location. As the MFA programs that BHQFU once set itself up against begin to decline, BHQFU seems to have become more institutionalized. Chun arranged her classroom chairs in a circle, encouraging students to direct their conversation at one another, but for the most part in the classes I attended students faced forward, with individual students addressing the teacher, who then relayed an interpretation to the class. The subjects discussed in the various courses were all interesting and the guest artists top-notch, but without the intangible community once promised by BHQFU, the school in this iteration seemed more like a well-curated university lecture series than an alternative arts education.
BHQFU began with a promise to deliver “an MFA-quality education.” But things fell flat when they actually attempted to deliver on that promise. For most of the students I talked to, the question of MFA-quality education was a moot point. They either already had an MFA or knew they could never afford one. Perhaps the school painted itself into a corner by focusing so much on the construct of the MFA program—by making an insider’s critique—rather than on ways to build an alternative community outside the current arts system.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the school would have been like had it prioritized helping students teach and learn from each other rather than inviting them to sit for lectures by celebrity guests. Of course, any distinction between inside and outside probably collapsed before the school even existed. The 2010 Brucennial opened on the same night as the Whitney Biennial, which featured BHQF’s work. Yet there’s the rub: the students, seeing no opportunity outside the existing art system, also sought to make it there. The professionalized art era has created an all-encompassing environment that obscures the difference between networking and community.
BHQFU IS PERHAPS the highest-profile example of a growing alternative arts education movement. In the summer of 2016, young artists in North Carolina launched a school on the site of the original Black Mountain College. In November of the same year, Brooklyn’s nonprofit Pioneer Works hosted the Alternative Art School Fair, with presentations by more than fifty educational initiatives from around the world. For participants like Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Black School in Brooklyn, an alternative arts education offers not just the promise of experimentation with new forms of art-making but an opportunity to test ideas for the reorganization of society.
BHQFU’s future is uncertain. After the end of the spring 2017 semester, the school suspended the MFU program. Instead of holding classes this fall, the BHQFU’s brain trust will meet with former teachers and students, as well as artists and theorists, to discuss other possible models.
And so BHQFU is still a work in progress. It is an idea that contains a mass of contradictions pushed to the crisis point. It was started by an anonymous art collective whose members were dedicated to destroying art stardom but then became art world insiders. It was a critique of institutions that became an institution of critique. Yet it often felt like the only game in town for those seeking noncommercial community in New York’s art world in the last decade. An ever-evolving experiment that has somehow managed to keep the doors open, BHQFU remains somewhere between the idea of the thing and the thing itself.
ERICA DAWN LYLE is the editor of SCAM magazine and the author of Streetopia (2015).