Art, Education & Justice!—Art school faculty across Los Angeles are organizing. – by Marco Franco Di Domenico
On Sunday, October 12, Human Resources in Chinatown was bustling with the energy of solidarity. Art, Education & Justice! brought together all types of art laborers: teachers and students, art handlers and artists, to meet and start a big conversation across Los Angeles and the country. It was both a social event and a short informal conference with several speakers, a few performances, and an endless supply of Chinese food, which was nice. The main purpose of the event was to raise awareness of the poor treatment many art faculty have to live with. Poverty wages and lack of job security has led many to organize with the intention of forming a union with the Service Employees International Union. But the room was also filled with numerous related and allied organizations.
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There are a lot of problems in higher education these days. It’s a complicated organism, and each school has its own unique issues, but the general trend is that schools have gradually adopted a corporate operating model. Administrations continue to grow along with their salaries while full-time faculty positions are disappearing. To make up for this, part-time or adjunct faculty have been taken on in droves. In some cases, adjuncts outnumber full-time faculty—a severe irony since “adjunct” means “additional but not essential.” Of course, part-time faculty are paid less and don’t receive benefits, but what is most troubling is that in many cases, adjuncts live from class to class in a state of complete precariousness with no assurances for the next semester.
“In one day—a 24-hour period—I was let go by two schools simultaneously, without any kind of respect,” recalled Jessica Rath. The crowd at Human Resources immediately responded with a chorus of boos. A poignant statement for the first speaker to stand in front of the eight-foot-tall silver letters spelling “UNION NOW.”
Rath’s job loss was financially and psychologically devastating, especially for a single mother. As she spoke, her young daughter clung to her and hid behind her legs. This kind of vulnerability is too familiar to many faculty, but Rath turned it into a call to action. “If the majority of teachers are part-time faculty then these are our schools,” she screamed to a chorus of cheers. The responsive energy was contagious as each wave of boos and cheers grew louder, coalescing individuals into an empathic mob. Between speakers, this energy continued through lively conversation, helping to form new alliances among faculty from different schools.
Andrea Bowers spoke with great optimism and excitement about the movement to unionize. As a faculty member at Otis, Bowers has been getting calls from many administration leaders in an attempt to change her mind or even shut her up, which makes her think that faculty are doing something right. She said unionization would lead to a better quality of education. “They are blaming us for hurting the education system,” she said. “Students are paying higher and higher tuitions and we as adjunct, non-tenured faculty are being asked to work for less and less.”
Visiting speakers described similar troubles in other parts of the country, but also brought with them the optimism of their successes. Christian Nagler from San Francisco Art Institute and Lauren Elder from California College of the Arts both reported that their schools’ faculty had recently voted to unionize. Bebe Beard, an artist and part-time instructor who came all the way from Boston, said that the same conversation is happening on the East Coast; Northeastern and Tufts had already voted to unionize, and Boston University is on the verge. She expressed the need for more dialogue to happen between the coasts.
Beard closed her speech with a rousing call for unity. “Across departments, across the colleges, across the states, across this nation, I’m here to tell you that we can come together and make one big noise. We can paint big pictures regarding a course-correct in the way higher education is going.”
An example of where education is going can be seen at CalArts, which has clearly adopted a corporate model. Tuition has been constantly increasing since the mid-1980s, by at least a $1,000 a year and sometimes as much as $3,000—far exceeding inflation. Enrollment has been growing at the same time. Annual tuition is now nearly $42,000, making CalArts one of the most expensive private schools in the nation. This leads many to ask, where is this money going?
Groups such as Occupy CalArts, Divest CalArts, and Mickey Leaks have formed in response to the apparent mismanagement of the institution. According to Cori Redstone of Divest CalArts, the administration sees the students and faculty as assets, neither of whom are allowed real input into how the institution is run. This is especially troubling since CalArts has always had a reputation for harboring radical politics; now, that reputation is looking more and more like a product for sale than a bedrock. Thus, many students like Redstone are calling for a shared governance model. Since the school is privately held it does not have to share its budget; that would change if the faculty voted to unionize.
Adding fuel to this fire of mismanagement, it came to light recently that CalArts mishandled an incident of rape last spring and continues to fail in protecting the victim from harassment. This has shaken the CalArts community. The school is now under federal investigation, along with 84 other colleges and universities, for its handling of sexual violence. Outraged students responded to the crisis with a walkout this past Thursday and other acts of protest.
For more information about these ongoing crises, check out Mickey Leaks.
Adding another perspective, A.L. Steiner presented the work of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy). W.A.G.E. has spent three years researching ways to establish protocols for implementing artist fees at art institutions. “Believe it or not,” Steiner said, “no art institutions in the U.S. have a fee schedule.” Artists are often expected to provide content to institutions for free. The crowd responded with boos as expected and Steiner echoed the sentiment. In closing she advised, “Do not work for free,” and then led the crowd in chanting “We demand payment for making the world more fucking interesting!”
Arts & Labor West, an offshoot of a successful New York group, is now in the early stages of organizing. Their mission is to raise awareness about the working conditions faced by art handlers, gallery assistants, and other art world support staff. Sarah Mason, who works at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, is one of the few gallery assistants who have started talking about how to organize for better treatment. “The working conditions are awful,” she said. “Art galleries bring in a ton of money but the people who work in the art world see very little of that.”
Ken Ehrlich organized a lively station for people to make “book blocs”—large cardboard and foam placards painted to look like book covers. The blocs function both as a sign and shield for protestors, representing a symbolic as well as literal defense against oppression. Ehrlich explained that they can sometimes lead to great photo opportunities if the police attempt to shut down a protest or march violently. He pointed at a book bloc with an Orwell cover drying against the wall and said to imagine that book being smashed by batons. That would make a great meme.
The Llano Del Rio Collective, represented by Robby Herbst and Erin Schneider, brought their usual utopian optimism along with their amazing maps and alternative history books. Herbst also led many of the cheers and boos from behind their table. The collective’s work is a constant reminder of the revolutionary histories many have forgotten, and the real utopian dream that leads down this road.
There were a few participatory performances that effectively encouraged everyone to think as a whole. Amanda Yates Garcia, self-described art witch and Oracle of Los Angeles, directed everyone in a solidarity spell. She explained that magic is all about creating transformation—manifesting your will though symbolic intent. She told everyone to form a circle holding hands and direct all our energy into a bowl of water that sat in the center of the room. She led us in a series of howls, charging the bowl with the energy of our solidarity. She then told everyone to bless each other with the water for the rest of the event, and many did.
Later that evening Matias Viegener led a visualization, first asking everyone to think about autonomy. Viegener does not believe that autonomy means everyone is an island; rather, “Autonomy is not independence, it’s interdependence.”
He told everyone to close their eyes and notice that they are upright and think about what that means. “We make an effort to be upright,” he said. Standing is our first struggle and achievement as a toddler. He asked everyone to think of themselves as a tree for a moment and then reach out to touch someone. “Think about what it means to be upright among others who are upright and the fact that we are upright together. This is a form of autonomy that cannot fail. The trees in the forest remain upright because they are all upright together.”
The visualization did not end when eyes opened or the event ended. Everyone left together as strong as a forest in the streets. This is only the beginning.