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This fall, a cohort of students from around the world will convene, in person and virtually, to learn about the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture—or Festac 77, as the vibrant, legendary event that unfolded over a month in 1977 in Lagos is better known. In the span of ten weeks, they will engage with artists and thinkers who were involved in Festac, including the choreographer and dancer Darlene Blackburn, the poet and publisher Haki R. Madhubuti and the photographer K. Kofi Moyo.

The course, a mix of art history and art-making, will be the inaugural semester of the New Art School Modality, a newly established art institution that aims to not only make art education more accessible but also open up alternative forms of study and exchange. Founded by the art historian Romi Crawford, with $250,000 in seed money from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the school will neither offer credit nor a degree but rather a space uninhibited by typical academic pressures. Its first semester will be free to attend, with material support from the Moleskine Foundation, and the cost to enrol in future courses will be capped at $500. Students may apply for the first program beginning 15 July.

“This is an ancillary opportunity for students who are really, really driven beyond or outside of the credit,” Crawford, who also teaches visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says. “It works for certain types of students who might not have all the money to go to art school that want to pursue whatever niche they want—whether it’s art-making, curatorial, essay writing—through what the faculty are sharing and imparting.”

The school’s faculty is another critical aspect of its identity. Crawford will bring in teachers who have largely worked outside of art schools and cultural institutions, in a move to prioritise collective and intergenerational learning. She takes as her lodestar the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. “Many of those practitioners did not have the luxury of an art-school degree, and yet, they had crit circles, workshops, demonstrations,” she says. “This is tremendously inspiring to me as a model for how one can just have that drive and that pluck to do the work—and to do the work by any means necessary.”

Romi Crawford, art historian and founder of the New Art School Modality

Inviting people who may not have previously been asked into the art-school complex, she adds, is “super reparative”. In this way, the New Art School Modality is in marked contrast to the nearly three-year-old Alternative Art School, the online institution run by curator Nato Thompson whose network of educators includes prominent, pedigreed artists such as Trevor Paglen, Jeremy Deller and Janine Antoni (courses cost between $1,250 and $1,750).

Art schools

San Francisco Art Institute files for bankruptcy

The New Art School Modality arrives at a time when the US education system is at a crisis point. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the economic precarity and inequities of art schools and has led to decreased enrolment. As the cost of tuition continues to rise, leaving millions with student loan debt, schools have become endangered: the School of Architecture at Taliesin, for instance, almost closed for good in 2020; earlier this year, the San Francisco Art Institute filed for bankruptcy.

Crawford says her school is not a direct response to, or a critique of, the shortcomings of the traditional higher-education industry. Rather, it emerges from decades of her own teaching experience and, in particular, her extended research into the Black Arts Movement, whose members she has interviewed and organised exhibitions with.

Moved by this work, in 2021 she founded the Black Arts Movement School Modality (BAMSM), a mobile institution that draws on the experimentation of its eponymous movement. Serving as a sort of beta version of the New Art School Modality, it has allowed Crawford to understand how “deep knowledge structures that come from Black cultural experience” could fundamentally inform an art school.

“There’s more creativity, shockingly, that can be pursued through this route and its limits in terms of resources, people, space,” she says. “I wanted to found an institution with a deeper penetration of arts-related ideas, knowledge, histories, forms and approaches from other cultures. These are often underleveraged at other places.”

A Black Arts Movement School Modality session in Milan

A common misconception is that BAMSM is a school that focuses only on Black art history. But both of Crawford’s schools take a more expansive approach. BAMSM, which has been in session at host sites in Chicago, Milan and Munich, has held courses on such diverse subjects as public monuments and the rainbow. For its spring semester, the New Art School Modality will delve into the East Village art scene of the 1980s. Crawford is also interested in organising courses centred on key figures who have historically been overlooked, such as the AfriCOBRA co-founder Jeff Donaldson.

“It’s hard for people to imagine the total ambition of this … and the thing that’s really hard for us to imagine is a Black woman who’s founding an art school that’s really much broader than [Black arts],” Crawford says. “Yes, there is periodic and inconsistent attention to Black art histories … because that’s one of my places of expertise. And I wouldn’t deny that. But that is not the only pursuit here.”

Like BAMSM, the New Art School Modality will anchor itself at different places each semester. Its first site will be the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; students based elsewhere will be able to attend via Zoom. Crawford hopes to eventually scale up to run about five sessions per semester at different sites. She expects to invite about half of each class, in total comprising 50 or so students, to attend virtually.

The application is designed to invite participants with a range of experiences and, in particular, those who have not typically had access to arts education. “It’s about opening some of this up,” Crawford says, “and imagining that we can make art without all the guardrails.”

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