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ART DEPARTMENT 101

by Charlie Finch
 
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As the College Art Association gathers in New York this week (for what one West Coast artist described to me as "98,000 applicants competing for four jobs"), let me share with you a tale told to me on Saturday by a well known mid-career feminist installation artist visiting me for the day.

Five years ago, this provocateuse moved to the heart of America to take a four-year contract job as a visiting professor of studio art, teaching both undergrads and MFA candidates at a distinguished university whose respected art faculty at one time included two of the greatest painters of the 20th century. "Immediately," she told me, "I ran into trouble. The head of the painting program was a transplanted, middle-aged white painter, who had been living in New York, had major gallery representation and had been in the Whitney Biennial. He was sleeping with his female students and took an immediate dislike to me."

My artist friend, an experienced studio teacher, beloved by her students, made the big mistake of showing her kids  photos of an installation she had done at a SoHo Gallery, equating her old boyfriends with certain food products, and the aforementioned colleague immediately blackballed her from his circle of male faculty admirers as "a danger to her students." She had one advocate, an even more celebrated ex-New York feminist artist, who was living in a local mansion with her female lover, and had carved out a career in the hinterlands on the progressive lecture circuit.

Yet, my interlocutor felt that there was an understanding between the two veteran art faculty members not to tread on each other's turf. Soon, my artist friend, whose new work deals with the significant class issues faced by America's collapsed industrial base, had a well-received local gallery show, marred by one bad critical notice, questioning her esthetic competence, which her chauvinist colleague circled and placed in her mailbox, while also badmouthing her career to colleagues.

I asked her if she was eligible for a tenure-track job and this artist replied, "Yes, there was a tenure-track job opening, which I immediately applied for. There was no formal review process and, soon, my rival male colleague arranged for a young female artist friend of his, with no previous teaching experience, to get it." I asked her, "Was there any oversight from a provost or dean, higher up in the university pecking order?" "No," the artist answered emphatically, "the art department was an island unto itself."

Still based in the city of this tale, with solid gallery representation there, my artist friend has left her teaching job and is in New York for the CAA this week. Yesterday, as I was interviewing her, she received a call asking her to interview for a teaching job at another prestigious university. My friend was overjoyed at this one opportunity.

I am relating the above tale, in anonymous form, not because it could be "sour grapes," or "to protect the guilty," but, because, over the years, I have heard similar stories of prejudice and harassment from mostly female artists, who depend on teaching to live, from every major art department in America. It is plain to me that those who often give lip service to the most radical ideas in their art, or in CAA presentations, continue to either promulgate (or endure) the worst kind of sexism, spite, cronyism and influence-peddling at these art schools, in which effective teaching and hard work are valued for nothing.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).



 


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