Alt MFA Answer some research questions in 2019!

Research Questions and Answers by AltMFA in 2019

Researchers always email us and ask us lots of questions, so we thought we'd put this out there online, as somewhere to point people towards. So have a gander!

In February 2019 we were asked these questions:
(Answers by AltMFA member Nick Brown)

How often did you meet and what is the duration of the course?
The group has weekly meetings (Monday evenings, approx. 2 hours) but sometimes there are periods of more intense activity for exhibitions or lulls when other commitments intervene. The duration is deliberately open ended and participants attend for as long or as little as they like.

What is the content of the course and how is it delivered, I.E. student led, guest tutors etc
It’s a non-hierarchical, self-organised model focused on peer learning so the course content is entirely student led. We’ve often had invited guests in to lead a session such as a talk or workshop and have occasionally had funding to make this into a more structured programme but the ambition is definitely not for this to replace learning from each other.

What is the disciplinary make up of the course?
It’s an art school so having some form of creative practice is the uniting factor. Members come and go so there has been a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and day jobs. For example, recent sessions have drawn on members experience working in fields including architecture, philosophy, education and cultural studies.

Is there an administrative portion of the school and how was that labour shared?
There’s a significant admin workload and the way it’s shared (or often not shared) has on more than one occasion been a problem with individuals ending up getting lumped with much more than their fair share leading to feeling pressured/stressed and potential burn out.  There’s been some productive discussion about addressing this and we’re taking active steps to address this through some fairly simple adjustments of procedure, having backup/shadowing arrangements for roles for specific projects and also through trying to cultivate a greater awareness of group dynamics, invisible and affective labour and issues associated with ‘the tyranny of structurelessness.’

What is the funding model like and how do you think that has effected the content of the program?
AltMFA has generally operated without money/funding and been based around learning from each other and without a permanent or fixed venue. As a group we’ve previously successfully applied for funding to pay for a yearlong programme of external speakers alongside our regular meetings. The choice of speakers was agreed and organised democratically within the group. It was a really worthwhile experience and my feeling is we’ll continue to apply for opportunities in future but only those that allow us to retain the open ended structure and not, for example, require a business model at odds with the collective politics of the group. Incidentally, receiving funding dramatically increased the admin workload.

How do you accept new students and how is the decisions made about this?
Anyone can turn up and is automatically a member for as long or as brief as they choose. There is no application procedure and no gatekeeping function. My view is that deliberately claiming the title (and implicitly/cheekily equivalent status) of an Masters Fine Art (MFA) programme while deliberately rejecting application procedure, course duration, fixed cohort, assessment, fees and anything much by way of formal structure is a large part of the point and a small way of embodying a politics in opposition. As far as I’m aware, this has always worked effectively and the ethos of the group has drawn together a community of interest.

As with a lot of self-organised groups, I do think there is a danger of replicating some of the less desirable aspects of institutional structures and there’s no doubt many barriers to participation (childcare, the cost of living in London, lack of free time, lack of access support) and a degree of social reproduction going on.

Off the back of the last question, have you found it difficult to learn and collate experience as students come and go?
My own feeling is that the constant coming and going is a strength of the group that gives it much of its character. At every session there are newer members and people who have been involved for longer and hopefully this leads to productive dialogue and exchange of experience. Some of the people who founded the group or were involved early still occasionally attend or get in touch so there is continuity as well as change.

How do you attempt to engage with the public or larger conversation the circle around alternative schools and courses?
Other members have been very active in organising collectively with other alternative art schools including having an annual public ‘summit’ with several alternative schools. AltMFA has also been represented at events and panels in and outside of institutions in the UK and internationally. I’m personally interested in trying to help foster some more connection between people engaged with alternative art schools and other groups, collectives and projects which are motivated by or challenge a variety of exclusions and erasures from art education but wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as falling within the ‘alternative art school’ model.

What I am most interested though is what the formal nature of the school/program makes possible and what it make difficult to sustain. So thinking about the formal structure of the program and its idiosyncrasies what do you think has been made possible by these structures?
Having a cohort of other practitioners to learn from and to exchange ideas with is a core of AltMFA. Borrowing structural aspects of art school programmes such as group crits, workshops, presentations and guest lectures allows us to get some of the most positive aspects of going to art school without the fees. That said, it clearly can’t replicate the facilities, resources and contact time associated with a university course. Attending AltMFA doesn’t give someone a formal qualification with which to enter the jobs market.
There has been some tentative eagerness to engage from other institutional structures in the art world, such as New Contemporaries accepting submissions from ‘graduates’ of alternative art schools. Hopefully the open ended nature of AltMFA might be useful to start to subvert the many situations in the art world where having a degree is seen as a prerequisite and the assumptions behind that requirement. Having a school or group also makes it easier to reach out to other people such as artists or writers we admire.

What has been made difficult that you would have hoped for?
Internally, admin and equitable work sharing can be a problem but working through these issues and perhaps becoming more aware of them in various contexts is a good thing.

How important do you think the social element of AltMFA is to the program?
Personally, I find the social element rewarding and enjoy meeting a bunch of interesting people. There’s generally a mix of previous levels of art education experience within the group, with some having no formal background in art to a few with existing MAs or even PhDs, which can be a really rewarding dynamic.

How has it felt different to other educative environments, whether formal or informal?
For me personally, the lose structure but constant activity has been really useful. I’d taken a break for several years from having an artistic practice due to time constraints of work and getting more involved with various cultural and political organising. Engaging with AltMFA has allowed me to dip my toe in as there will often be an exhibition, publication, residency or event to contribute to in some minor way and start to rethink the direction(s) in which I might want to take a renewed practice.

I’ve also been thinking about the longevity of these kind of endeavours, how do you think you have managed to keep the urgency and the momentum going?
AltMFA has been going for almost a decade and I’ve been involved off and on for about three years. There have definitely been periods of inactivity but there is a huge amount of energy at the moment as new people have got involved. I feel the cycle of people coming and going adds to the character of the group.

Could you also maybe talk about any alternative pedagogical methods if you have carried them out and how effective have you found them?
There’s been a lot of learning through doing and some unconventional ways of exploring ideas, such as a movement workshop that was something completely new to me. Some sessions are open discussion, occasionally we do something explicitly framed by critical pedagogy. Other sessions are fairly straightforward ‘banker model’ talks. My experience is that the mix works well and some session types appeal more to different people within the group.

More broadly what do you think have been the most successful aspects of the school and do you have an account of what made them so successful?
The collective action of creating a space for creative peer learning feels important (if insufficient) in the climate of huge student fees, public sector cuts and the increasingly neoliberal management and remit of universities. It has been good to connect with likeminded people as well as exploring different perspectives within the group. There’s a lot of goodwill for these sorts of initiatives and other people have been generous with their time, spaces and resources. I think a lot of the success is due to the ethos of the people who originally founded it and their willingness to have it continually transformed by whoever chooses to get involved.


Questions from Elena Fesenko August 2019

Student of University of Vienna, department of Art History

Answered by Sadie Edginton

Who are the founders of AltMFA program? (Professional background)
Louise Ashcroft and Lucie Garland founded AltMFA it in 2010

What is the duration of the course?
You can join for one day or just keep coming back for ever. It isn't a 'course' as such. We have members that have been in it for 9 years to one day. It's almost like a cross between a network, a collective and an alternative educational project. You can come when you are available, you do not have to come all the time. In the past things were planned on Mondays nearly every week, but recently that structure doesn't seem to be sustainable for the current group.

Does AltMFA provide any kind of diploma or academic degree?

Who conducts the selection of participants?
There is no selection process, people just come along to a session. We have some sessions which are shared by email to people who have enquired about AltMFA, but the core group communicate via a google group email system. When we have sessions with speakers or events we advertise them more openly on social media and email around to interested people.

Does AltMFA have any entrance exams?

Who can be a participant?
Anyone, although it tends to be focussed around artists with a contemporary art, visual/ sound/ performance/ live art output, we have long term members who are writers, librarians, musicians, street artists, or who used to do or study art and so on. Some members have art BA's and MA's and some have not been to art school, some studied art but are now too busy, or have lost touch with their artistic practice. I would say most have been through some kind of art related education in the past though, and some have been inspired to do formal masters after joining or alongside being actively part of AltMFA. As the two are so different, but can compliment each other well.

Is it necessary to have any professional art education (BFA, alternative art school) for participation?
No, see above.

How many participants are accepted?
There isn't a fixed acceptance rate or amount of members. The group just naturally plateaus out. We have about 40 in the mail group, but around 8 – 12 people come each week, other than when we have special sessions or events when we might advertise more widely and have around 20 – 25 people attending depending on the venue and the content. Its nice to have intimate events which are different to the lecture.

Does AltMFA have any age limits for participation?

How does AltMFA set the schedule up?
It is voluntarily and self organised, so any organisation happens on top of peoples full-time jobs, studying and other commitments, so it is entirely on members to make things happen. Recently we have tried to create a spreadsheet of dates, venues that we use and people add there planned event to this. Although it is mostly a small group of people who do most of the organising, this isn't sustainable so that a new model is always being looked for. Admin and labour are quite big issues for us. Perhaps a model where everyone who joins is allocated a date to organise a session could work. We are always finding this a problem that people seem to think it is more of a formal course, when it is actually quite an informal self-organised network.

What is the form of classes: workshops, lectures, guided tours, studio visits, exhibitions?
We have sessions on Monday from 6:30pm to 9pm. During the term time there is the option of doing something every Monday if enough people want to attend. We usually have a long break during the summer. In this session time, the format can be anything, we have had experimental formats, dance sessions, walks, talks, lectures, theory, sonic meditations, reading groups, social sessions in pubs, BBQ's in members gardens, dinners, picnics in central London parks, visited studios, museums, galleries, crits, the Thames beach, and weekend trips as well as annual week-long residencies in Guest Projects, Hackney and two week long trips to the Lake District to Merz Barn. We regularly book out activist spaces and free spaces that we have come to develop a relationship with.

Does AltMFA provide any assignments for the members of the program?
No, although sometimes we have reading related to sessions.

Who are the speakers/guests of the course?
We invite artists and experts on anything we are interested in to be speakers, as well as AltMFA members leading reading groups and talks on their research or projects or leading experimental sessions, such as a 'silent session'. In the last year we had a session on radical permaculture, we did a series of reading groups on cultural studies and Stuart Hall, Fanon, we had a group show for Artlicks in an old tube station office, we had talks by artists who had written books, a PHD candidate from Belfast about her Critical Pedagogy research, and many more examples.

Does AltMFA have any final paper/final exhibition or any final examination for participants?
No it is very informal, and more like an artist network, exploring learning and arts practice and whatever may come to inform that or be of interest.

Does AltMFA have any kind of sponsorship/funding/donation?
Not currently, although we did receive £3000 from the AN Group Bursary in 2017, which we were able to use to create 'The Future' programme of 10 lectures/ workshops by well known artists and practitioners, and create 10 artistic responses by AltMFA members, which we put into a publication. See more about this online.

Does AltMFA have any specific place for events?
Yes we have begun to use in the past year two different activist spaces, May Day Rooms and LARC (London Action Resource Centre). As well as regular pubs that we know which are quiet or have space on Mondays, and peoples houses which are near to most members across London.