How MFA programs perpetuate the taboo against artists with children

Michelle Carla Handel still remembers an unpleasant experience from her days at Claremont University, where she earned her MFA in 2011:

One male teacher in particular, Michael Brewster, who has since passed away, asked me during our first studio visit if I had children or were planning on having any. He said that if I really wanted an artistic career, it would be better not to have children, and that as a woman, it would be really difficult to have an artistic career with children.

For a first studio visit, it’s quite an opening.

Before we even get to sexism, it’s helpful to understand a bit of the history of Master of Fine Arts education. You would be forgiven for thinking that art schools should emphasize the skills and concepts of artistic creation rather than the career, but the very emergence of graduate programs in art has contributed to its professionalization. American art education was co-opted by universities in the 1960s, ironically when many prominent artists did not have formal college degrees to begin with (e.g. Willem de Kooning was mostly uneducated) . Universities began to give primacy to theory over craftsmanship, ushering in an era of academic curators who continue to play an outsized role as institutional gatekeepers. Thank goodness many poets still write art reviews.

I did my Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, and in the months leading up to my graduation in 2008, a homeroom teacher brought our whole class together to share what she honestly thought was helpful advice, telling us that if we were engaged in art we couldn’t have had a “normal” life, and as she went into more detail it became clear that one of those things we couldn’t have was a family. Three different women who graduated from UPenn in 2009 or 2010 all remember a specific faculty member telling them that “the most successful female artists are either childless or lesbian.” Among those former students is Susan Fang, who recalls, “I think that comment really stuck with a lot of students…. At the time, the comment made me feel incredibly sad and anxious. I think I was too young to be told something like that. At the end of our pre-graduation counseling meeting, I was surprised by the presumption of telling artists how they should live, given that making art is central to the freedom to find a path. which is unique to you.

It would be easy to judge the faculties that perpetuate these destructive messages, but it would also be unfair. American ideas about work and family arise in the context of little or no government support for child care. the New York Times recently reported that among rich countries, the United States ranks last in government spending to help families with child care: “Rich countries pay an average of $14,000 a year for child care -small, compared to $500 in the US. Corporate America continues to view having children as a weakness or a liability, primarily for women as presumed caregivers, but these biases permeate our entire culture. Robert Russell did not forget to be a new father at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2005: “When I showed up at the vernissages with my baby”, he told me, “My classmates class were baffled – I became invisible.”

Robert Russell next to his paintings at the California Institute of the Arts graduate school with his son Benjamin (2006) (photo by Ellen Pocai)

When the MFA programs started, the faculty was essentially a club of white men, and these men were not the primary guardians of their children (if they had families). Women have had to navigate their way into academic jobs in the face of gendered assumptions, including the idea that the responsibility of raising children precludes serious art. Both male and female teachers internalize these biases and recapitulate them – we are all products of our time. But the resulting dogma is to be criticized, in particular the model of the professional gallery owner who must strip his life of everything except making art. Alina Tenser, a 2012 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) (among the programs Tenser was accepted into, it was the only school that offered her a year off because she was pregnant) said:

There were no teachers who had children of any age (although some of those teachers had children since), and just as representation matters with sexual orientation, race, and gender, it was difficult not to have my experience reflected on me.

TJ Dedeaux-Norris, a faculty member at the University of Iowa School of Art, recalls a rare and refreshing experience during his graduate studies at Yale.

I had studio visits with Kate Gilmore, who had just given birth, and she was openly apologizing, saying, “Sorry, I have to go pump those boobs,” and I really enjoyed that. It was an outlier in harshness. I felt like the teachers looked at the younger generation and didn’t appreciate our feeling that we could have both a family and a career. But there were very few real conversations about it because it was just as taboo as talking about having a gallery instead of the work.

TJ Dedeaux Norris (upper right quadrant) teaches at the University of Iowa, with Jessica Bingham (former Curator of University Galleries at Illinois State University) at upper left, for the Seminar in Rhetorical Theory—Race, Rhetoric & Trauma (2021) (photo by TJ Dedeaux Norris)

The family taboo that prevails in MFA programs can also extend to artwork: Tenser described how “mommy’s job” was a term used in reviews, as in it’s great that you don’t make mom work. “It was clearly something disgusting and embarrassing,” she recalls,

It made me feel that if I’m to be taken seriously, I better tiptoe around Mommy’s job. The new materialism was highly valued in our sculpture program, it was about the autonomous object – a deeply anti-feminist conceptual structure, admitting no social context.

Similarly, in his 2015 memoir, The Argonauts, poet and critic Maggie Nelson recounts a seminar (during her doctoral studies from 1998 to 2004) in which scholar Rosalind Krauss dismissed motherhood as “contaminating serious academic space”. About 42 years after Mary Kelly’s hugely important act Postpartum document project made motherhood the subject of its seminal concept art, this situation is shocking.

Fathers are generally treated differently than mothers due to the assumption that a father will not be the primary caretaker of the child. William Wilson, who will graduate from VCU this year, is fully committed to co-parenting with his partner: “While I have heard many horrific stories from friends and colleagues describing terrible encounters with Tories and other artists saying how ‘regressive’ having kids can be for your career,” says Wilson. “I can’t say I’ve ever had that experience. there was no occasional “tap on the shoulder” expressing the difficulty of having children in the art world versus how others might perceive you.

Maybe Wilson’s schooling has been different because he’s male and limited to distance learning, or maybe the culture has started to change, especially in recent years as Covid continues to force work and family life to completely overlap. For some parents, remote learning may have at least temporarily reduced some of the pressures associated with having a child during college. Tenser told me how having a child pushed her to the edge of the MFA community ten years ago: pressures to socialize late at night at the bar (“when the real conversation is happening,” I was told), or an impromptu camping trip that was not possible for me. “You’re not really a member of this community” was the message I received repeatedly. In the remote learning context of the pandemic, evening seminars are less problematic for some parents because they can participate from home, and of course students are less likely to congregate in bars or go camping. in groups these days. Jered Sprecher, a professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxille, takes a view that is both more welcoming and complex: “The community thrives on the energy that each individual puts into it,” suggests Sprecher, “perhaps the individual with a child is not able to go to the bar, but they explore a new territory within their cohort of the mysterious land called parenthood.This experience can add new insights and perspectives to the whole community.

Dedeaux-Norris and Tenser (who teaches at SUNY Purchase) are part of a new generation of MFA educators, representing the possibility of budding change. Dedeaux-Norris also encourages its students to seize the opportunity:

With my students over the past few years, I have really enjoyed these conversations. The University of Iowa doesn’t come with the bundle of expectations endemic to Yale, UCLA, etc., so it’s a more open environment. I found it new that during final exams the teachers asked a new father how his baby was doing – it was a bit shocking and I had to put off my own conditioning. As a teacher, I try to find a balance against the “gallery artist ideology” by demonstrating other real, true-to-life models. A graduate student showed up with an engagement ring and started crying and said, “I don’t know if I can do this and still do art,” and I said, “The only way to find out is by doing it.

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