It Starts From Working With Artists: A Conversation with David A. Ross by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

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Image: David A. Ross and members of MFA AP13 at the studio of Mike and Doug Starn

The Art Practice program was founded in 2010 under the direction of David A. Ross, former director of The Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Boston ICA. This summer AP graduated its first class of participants. In lieu of this milestone, AP Faculty member Thyrza Nichols Goodeve sat down with Ross in his West 16th office to talk about the origins, progress and vision of the program. In particular, how did he go about conceiving of an MFA in the context of the 21st century when art and education are no longer the experience of the few. The MFA in particular has become a ubiquitous, near required degree. As you will see, Ross, with so much experience in the art world from the late 70s to the present, took on the task of developing a low residency MFA as a creative challenge.

TNG: When did you begin to think about starting an MFA art practice program?

DR: The idea of the MFA Art Practice Program began with a conversation I had over a period of months with David Rhodes, President of SVA. I had done some lectures here and was teaching for Suzanne Anker in the BFA program. She had an idea that David and I should meet because in all my years as the Director at the Whitney Museum I never met David Rhodes. I only knew of the Rhodes family and SVA as that school where every artist you knew worked at some point. It was not like a typical art school or a typical department in a larger university— it was a lot funkier, less rigid. But at that point I hadn’t thought about SVA much. I had taught over the years in various art schools around the country usually as the “celebrity” museum director—which meant that I would come in, do my lectures, but I didn’t have to attend faculty meetings. I wasn’t interested in tenure. I was outside of all of those circles.

TNG: Were you teaching before you were a museum director?

DR: I started teaching in 1975 at the University of California, San Diego and Irvine, working with graduate students, which was ironic because I was only 26 years old and hadn’t gone to graduate school myself. At UCSD I was really an outsider but David and Eleanor Antin and that gang brought me down to San Diego where Allen Sekula and Martha Rosler were just finishing grad school. Eleanor Antin was doing a lot of video so I already knew her.

 TNG: What exactly were you teaching?

DR: I taught the (still very young) history of video and the history of performance art and it was great fun. Just driving down from Long Beach to San Diego once a week to teach my seminar trying to stay awake on the Pacific Highway— it was like being in a Tom Waits’ song. Late in the 70s I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute while I was Chief Curator at what is now called The Berkeley Art Museum. UC Berkeley never asked me to teach. It was and remains a great art history program, but at the time they were quite conservative in regard to new media. It was one of the best art history programs in the country, but like many such programs around the country, they didn’t consider video as a legitimate art form at that point.

But I recognized something while teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. I began to feel that tenure was not necessarily always the best thing for an art department. Not that these artists did not deserve (and at time need) the protection of academic or creative freedom that tenure confers but often, the tenured artists were no longer active players. And even though the academy no longer had the kind of control over the development of art as it had in the 19th and early 20th century, at a time when artists were striving to find a way to make their work more relevant, the university seemed an escape rather than a site for contest.

TNG: But at the same time, there is something to be said for experience, historical perspective, and the wisdom of age. What you are saying about the limits of older artists as instructors can be destructive and play into structures of ageism. How do you protect the artist, or better, do you see the role of the teaching institute as a way to support artists who’s work is not necessarily marketable, i.e., it seems it is very important to protect artists in an economy that privileges youth, flash, trend and so forth. I think SVA is great this way precisely because everyone is an adjunct and so people teach what they know, what they are good at, and what students want which is another way of keeping instructors from getting stale.

DR: Yes, I’ve always felt that one of the great strengths of this school is that even though there’s always been this historical divide between the design side, the applied-arts side, and the fine arts, David Rhodes felt very much like I felt that moving forward, in the 21st century, SVA has got to be more like the world where those divides are less and less important. And part of that is preparing artists for what they want and need to do, what their talent is, not simply for establishing their place in the marketplace. In other words, within SVA we have artists who are filmmakers, painters who are musicians, graphic designers who do graphic design as sculpture and performance artists make paintings. Those former distinctions serve the needs of another kind of institutional structure that is no longer the dominant reality but the rear mirror reflection of a structure of the cultural world that mirrored traditional academic structures.

I had these same problems with most of the art museums I worked in. Those distinctions made less sense as time moved on. You’d have a curator of drawing and painting. Now why? Well, yes drawings and all work on paper demands a very different kind of conservation than painting and not every one who draws makes paintings, this is all true. But some of them make films. Some of them make sculpture and drawings—so what is the division about? Seems to me that these types of essentially false categories have forced practitioners to declare, “I’m a photographer, or something of that sort” And in the end, what does that mean?

So the kinds of questions I remain interested in stem from the concerns that arise when artists ask themselves, “what is my job as an artist?” So, for instance, having Vito Acconci come and speak about how his practice has developed becomes enormously instructive to artists facing the pressure of their own decision-making.

And since I was given the opportunity to create a structure to explore these kinds of issues or give others the space to explore them, I thought it would be interesting to develop a graduate program that worked against a silo mentality and revolved around a truly interdisciplinary approach.

TNG: All of the students who came to our information session said they were interested in coming here because we are one of the only programs that doesn’t demand they declare themselves as a specific kind of practitioner. 

DR: Yes.  I really don’t understand how a 17 year old— or a 37 year old for that matter— should have to make that kind of declaration. To define oneself by a medium today is way too restrictive because, for one thing, we live in an era where Conceptual Art has changed the rules for everyone. The idea is at the center. Now that doesn’t mean all art has to be philosophical in its intent, but no artist can escape that aspect of art in the 21st century. You can’t go back and say, Oh that paradigm shift didn’t take place.

TNG: What do you do when you have artists who are unskilled?

DR: That depends on how you define unskilled. What kind of skills are we talking about? Certain skills are really useful for an artist— but what about the skill to be able to negotiate? Or what about the skill to be able to forage? What about the ability to think clearly, and express yourself in writing? Those are also interesting skills. It may not be the same skill as being able to draw like Tiepolo or Ingres. But Ingres already exists. Now— a century and a half past the invention of photography— there are lots of ways of bringing the world of imagery and imagination into play in a work of art. So, what’s more interesting to me is conceptual and intellectual ambition. In a way, that was what was so interesting about teaching at UC San Diego in he 70’s, traditional notions of talent had little to do with who got into or succeeded in that school

It was there that I became interested in a program where talent wasn’t the issue because, in a way, everyone has some relevant talent. To me the question is, is your concept interesting? Is what you want to do going to advance the body of knowledge in some way? Is it going to engage the world in a way that refreshes our understanding of the world? Throughout history, great artists have done just that.

I think about those neurology experiments where they held subjects eyeballs completely still with these instruments they use for eye operations, so your eye would remain exactly still – so there’s no muscle movement. What they found is if your eye was held immobile like that, within about 30 seconds your vision went black because in order to protect the retina it simply shuts down. So your eye is always moving teeny bits just to keep refreshing parts of your retina with the image. If your eye stopped you’d go blind. For me that was an interesting metaphor for how you have to keep your vision moving on other levels not just on this micro level. So the question becomes, how can you apply this to art practice because blindness is the biggest problem in art. I don’t mean people losing their sight but people losing their vision.

TNG: That’s amazing. What I like about your perspective on art and what I share with you is trying not to have preconceived ideas about what “talent” is. It shifts with each generation. And the problem with some schools is they get stuck in a rut based on their own criteria of success or how they define “talent” at that moment. And then, depending on the school, everything comes out looking like Jessica Stockholder or there is a Yale or Columbia feel to the work circa specific historical moments. The challenge is how to keep the conversation going.

DR: It’s not that I don’t have my own tastes, my own likes and dislikes, and schools should have a point of view, but why would I impose mine? Even within the kind of connoisseurship one has to practice as a museum director— particularly in building a museum’s permanent collection— even there you have to weigh the value of your own taste against what’s needed in order to construct a broader context describing that moment.

Kurt Varnedoe really went a huge distance to solve problems of the pre-Varnedoe, Bill Rubin era. Rubin had a very rigid idea of history of art, a brilliantly defended canon, and you didn’t dare go up against that if you worked at the Modern because that was the only history allowed to be expressed. He saw that his work was to establish and protect that canon because that’s how he defined the role of the museum.

But I saw the job as allowing the canon to shift or change over time by acquiring a broad range of work confident that history would sort things out. I do not believe that art history can be sorted out in real time.

It seems to me that art schools have similar structural problems where they are blinded by people with great intelligence, great taste, and great power with often corresponding high levels of arrogance and little tolerance for difference. And of all things I think I’m not, I hope I’m not arrogant in that way. In fact, I think of myself as appropriately and usefully insecure. My insecurity, which is not something I’m embarrassed by, comes from the fact that I believe deeply that one can never know enough, and that change is both inevitable and deeply desirable.

TNG: It’s humility. You talked about this a lot in other interviews I read with you, that what a museum director needs most of all is humility because how can you second guess the opinions of someone else’s choices from an historical context that precedes you, based on currents of the times.

DR: Even worse, when my colleagues sell off works they didn’t believe in. Who the hell are you? You may be right but other people may equally be right.  Art is not a zero sum game.

TNG: You must think about this with the situation in Detroit right now.

DR: I think the sad situation in Detroit represents another level of museological problem, as it has to do with the civic value of an art museum and the collections that are preserved and cared for as part of the common wealth.  But we are also seeing the nasty underbelly of time in which discussion about the dollar value of great (or simply famous) works of art has supplanted consideration of the equally important but far less easily quantifiable values that art brings to a community. But I really dislike when a museum will sell works from one era, for instance a Hopper, to fund a contemporary art acquisition program. Though not unethical, I still think its kind of cheating.

TNG: It seems unusual for a museum director to have the perspective you do.

DR: Ha! It is, which is probably one reason why I’m not a museum director anymore. Museum boards want that kind of arrogance in the people who are running their museum. They want to know that their leader has firmly held beliefs and they can confidently march behind.

It was particularly useful for me to engage with people like the cultural critic and literary scholar Homi Bhabha when I was still at the Boston ICA. He made the point that the art museum is a site for the contest of values and ideas. That made sense to me. We are not simply an institution that collects, preserves, educates, which was the traditional definition of a museum of art. So I did come to believe the museum’s role was to contest not just preserve.. 

Now, I realize that the art school is not the same as an art museum but the art school too is a site for the contest of values and ideas. And it’s a site in which artists can be supported in engaging in that kind of contestation. Engaging in the conversation. That’s what we want our participants to feel they can do. And the conversation isn’t just internal within the school. In fact, this conversation is how I define the art world. The art world is a conversation between people working in the same moment, working with shared yet distinct histories. 

TNG: It’s always changing.

DR: Yes, and I wanted to be part of a program that could somehow deliver that.

TNG: So, having been a curator, you didn’t think of putting together a curatorial program?

DR: No, I’m not as interested in that, I’m now more interested in working with artists.

TNG: You’ve always been very clear about this, about your love of working with artists.

DR: Exactly. That hasn’t changed. Just about everything I know comes from working with and learning from artists. Artists have always been my teachers. In fact, the best curatorial work I’ve done was the direct result of working with artists. For me, it all starts there, with that sensibility. I wanted to learn things from artists and share them with others. Figure things out— like a journalist. Journalists share information that then helps form the conversation. A journalist tries to uncover truths, and then puts them out there to foster a critically necessary conversation. I realized being in the art world as a teacher and curator it is very much the same.

I will be working with Steven Madoff in his new Curatorial Practice program that begins next year. But my heart is here in my engagement with artists who have been struggling to redefine how they participate in the conversation, and perhaps why. Our program is not designed to simply provide MFA degrees for people who need them to get or keep teaching jobs. 

TNG: There are several high school teachers already participating in the program.

DR: Yes, and I’m glad they are here. Teaching art to children is a saintly act and being a high school art teacher in particular because the art teacher is the only person that people with different forms of intelligence can relate to. They are often a literal life-line for kids who are lost in the traditional education factory. So I honor them and privilege what they do enormously.

Also how can we be in a post-Beuysian moment and not think of the relation between teaching and art. Or, thinking about John Baldessarri as well—thinking about teaching art or art therapy. Have you seen the work that ChanSchatz (AP Faculty and Mentors) are doing? It’s in children’s hospitals so as to engage this huge population of ill and dying and recovering children with a serious art experience. It’s not just about let’s draw on pieces of paper and make cows and tell us about your anxiety but it is work designed to engage them in a very different form of ritual. It’s beautiful. I would never have thought of that.

TNG: What are the criticisms of the program?

DR: The ones I’ve heard and this is not unusual for me—are that we’re demanding too much from participants. We’ve over-programmed them. And yes, we are backing off a little bit, but not too much. I’ve always been aware from a consumer’s point of view that this is an expensive program, and we damn well better deliver value to participants. Real value. But, as in most “fine arts” graduate programs, success will not be measured by whether we can guarantee them post-graduate employment. All we can promise, and hopefully deliver, is that graduates feel they can meaningfully participate in that conversation – in one way or another. 

TNG: But contemporary art these days, since the 80s, or really the 60s—I don’t know, is so informed by all these bodies of work and conversations, as you put it, that it just seems like reading is very much a part of art practice now as much as developing your practice, which could be reading. I think of Moyra Davey’s The Problem of Reading or artists like Pablo Helguera. You can’t be naïve as an artist and not have some familiarity with what people are reading because you’re participating in a world where shows are curated through so many ideas, philosophies and models drawn from research. Yes, of course you can paint or sculpt or take photographs without knowing any of this but chances are it won’t hurt to know what all the yakking is also about.

DR: And you don’t have to buy into it. You may find that that what people are reading is exactly what you can push off against. But you need to know what it is you are pushing against.

I inform all applicants that the program requires 20 or 30 hours a week in fall and spring and,  if English isn’t their primary language, it will be more. I try to make it clear that if they can’t find the time or the balance in their lives, they are not going to change significantly. This is not a program for hand-holding and cuddling. We don’t have enough staff for that but even if we did it would be the wrong thing. This has to be about self-starting and understanding the complexity of what it means to be a professional artist. I guess I believe that graduate education— especially for artists— is kind of wasted on people who haven’t spent a serious amount of time already developing their own practice and coming to grips with whatever their particular demons may be.

TNG: Because, difficult as it is, one is cushioned in graduate school. And if you come in too young…

DR: Well art school is just an extension of the institutionalized life that people have from age 5 to whenever they leave school. People are literally institutionalized! There’s someone looking after them, someone prodding them to perform and conform daily for those formative years of their life.

Well, if you want to become an artist, you have to break away from that and at some point, deinstitutionalize yourself. Then, when you come back to grad school it’s not about simply re-institutionalizing yourself. It’s about using the institution as a tool, using its resources and using the advice and support of more experienced artists. 

You have to say to yourself, I’m going to do this now. I’m going to separate this amount of time and this amount of energy, this amount of money in order to move my practice to a place where I need to get it. And it was precisely from thinking about questions like this within the life of a practicing artist, that I decided we could experiment with this idea of low-residency. The kind of people who are drawn to this kind of program are for the most part those who have their lives established in terms of family and jobs and who are not necessarily living in NYC.

TNG: And low-residency has developed within the context of digital technology. How did the possibilities of technology come into your conception of the program?

DR: Of course, central to the idea of low-residency was the idea of using online technologies. Personally I have always been interested in what happens when you cross-pollinate any new technology with poetry. And I loved the idea that we were going to be able to do something that didn’t yet have a model. 

TNG: Could you be more specific? There were other online courses available when the program started.

DR: Well, in the four years before I began working on the design of the Art Practice MFA, Steven Madoff and I and several other people worked to produce a symposium when I was working with the Anaphiel Foundation. That work led to the publication of Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven. Again, as a museum professional and someone who taught but never was deeply involved in thinking about art education sui generis, this symposium gave me many opportunities to listen to some really brilliant people like John Baldessarri. He was also a member of this foundation. And John, whose always been a great friend and mentor, kept pushing one idea— if you can create a graduate art program where there is not much hierarchy, where there’s not much distance between the so-called faculty and so-called students, then something original and useful might happen. It’s the “truest truth,” as he put it, of what he could take from all his years of teaching because it was when there was the closest parity, the furthest removed from hierarchy, that the teaching and learning goes both ways. So we wanted to put that into the mix.

So, back to my initial conversation with David Rhodes, we had this new technology, we had this new notion of low-residency, we had the idea of a program for artists who’ve been out of school for 5, 15, 20 years, and then we had this notion of interdisciplinarity. No single element was more important than another. Again, we tried not to impose any unnecessary hierarchy.  And so David Rhodes and I— I give him an enormous amount of credit, we worked every week for months— he helped me a great deal, as did a number of people who are now working in the program. We worked to create a template, a design, a structure for it. But we had no idea whether people would be interested in it. There were obviously other low-residency programs and so I visited them. The one at Bard is a remarkably good program. The one at MICA is also a really remarkable program.

TNG: Do they offer the same kind of online course we do? 

DR: None of them do precisely what we do. I jokingly always say that our program is about creative disorientation because every one of the people who enter our program have been working a certain way for a certain time and therefore have just been reasserting certain things that make them comfortable. People tend to find the things that reify what they are already invested in.

TNG: So then what would “success” be?

DR: I don’t think it would be anything easily quantifiable. I think it is so specific to each individual that comes out of the program. Somebody could become a better teacher, somebody could decide to stop making art for 10 years, and go work in refugee rights or someone could return to the practice they had before but now feel completely confident that they are actually content with the direction they have already chosen. I don’t want people looking the same.

One of the things I loved about being at the Whitney Museum was the Whitney Independent Study Program because it has functioned at such a high level for so many years and helped so many artists, writers, and curators. Other institutions have tried to do things like the ISP but the ISP is the ISP because of Ron Clark and because of the way Ron views the term independent. I asked him, “Do you mean independent from the Whitney or independent study?” And he said “Independent from the Whitney.” And I said, “Okay, I get it.” So within a museum, the ISP was independent from everything about the museum but the funding source. But what I loved about the program was the artists who came through it.

But to be very frank, what I didn’t like about the program was there was a certain ideological direction that one had to subscribe to in order to have a fully useful experience. Not to say that everyone subscribed to this for there were always people who were rebels, but Ron’s role was to enforce this kind of intellectual and ideological perspective, which was quite profound. I don’t want you to think I am criticizing Ron’s ISP. But I do feel that that an intellectual uniformity was too heavily imposed as a frame. The ISP continues to be a wonderful and unique program and odds are that it is not going anywhere. Ultimately what the ISP has done is so significant that my critique is irrelevant– except when it came to building a situation here at SVA. I don’t believe the SVA Art Practice program should imitate what is already taking place.

TNG: Ron literally said to me once when I was teaching with him, “art has to have an argument.”

DR: I don’t disagree with him. I’m very interested in notions of argument, intention and what propels a work of art. I hope we have built a lively and open community of artists sharing ideas and collaborating in their collective and individual progress.