Next week, Sept. 12 through Oct. 3, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will exhibit work by its new MFA graduates in an annual show it has been hosting for 119 years.
For the major exhibition, both the historic Landmark and Samuel Hamilton buildings are partitioned into designated spaces where graduates are able to put their best foot forward as they launch themselves into the larger art world.
But more than a dozen artists will not show their work. Instead, the walls provided to them will be mostly blank, adorned only with handmade signs explaining why they are boycotting the Annual Student Exhibition.
“I put in my space just a sign that says, ‘Defund the Police,’” said Tess Wei, who just graduated as a painter. “That’s where my work would have been.”
The boycott stems from an incident at PAFA earlier this summer, when the administration sent out an email to all faculty and staff warning them not to affiliate themselves with PAFA if they choose to make their political positions public.
The email was in response to a citywide petition of support, “Philly Arts for Black Lives,” in June, which supported the Black Lives Matter movement and called to redirect funds away from the police department and toward community services. The petition was signed by thousands of artists and cultural workers, including several from the PAFA community.
The message from PAFA human resources department was met with criticism from faculty and students, who read it as a threat, particularly to adjunct faculty with little job security.
“Black Lives Matter is not a political stance. It’s a human rights issue,” Wei said. “We felt it was inappropriate for them to threaten faculty via email over that.”
“For us to boycott is in solidarity with faculty who decided to sign that letter,” said Autumn Casey, another MFA graduate.
In June, faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and alumni each drafted their own letter to PAFA administration. Wei and Casey were the first to sign a list of demands from MFA students demanding the diversification of the Board Review Panel, job security for faculty to publicly support Black Lives Matter, the replacement of president and CEO David Brigham with a leader of color, and a review of the Board of Trustees to see what affiliations they might have to organizations opposed to Black Lives Matter.
PAFA administration opened their ears to the complaints, setting up online meetings mediated by an outside organization. To many, they were less than satisfying.
“The students are asked to perform the emotional labor of [explaining] what’s wrong with the school, but we are the ones who have questions and need answers,” Casey said.
Afterward, the students received a video message, via email, of PAFA’s chair of the School Review Committee, Reggie Brown, in which he thanked them for participating: “We were profoundly moved, we learned a lot, and the outcome of your participation will yield to a more equitable and fair place to study and work here at PAFA.”
When students were allowed to re-enter their studio spaces inside PAFA in July to finish their work for the Student Exhibition, some opted to simply clear out.
“I had no desire to be in there,” Casey said. “It felt different to me. It felt empty.”
Responding to the boycott, the dean of PAFA’s School of Fine Arts, Clint Jukkala wrote in a statement, “While the majority of eligible students will be participating in the Annual Student Exhibition, we fully support those students who have made the decision to protest this year’s exhibition. It is a strong and clear example of these individuals’ commitment to bringing about necessary change in our community.”
“PAFA shares our students’ commitment to racial justice in society, and to building a brighter, more just and equitable future for our own community,” he continued.
Watching all this transpire were PAFA alumni. As one of the major art schools in the United States, PAFA’s graduates populate much of the Philadelphia art scene, including the small artist-run galleries at 319 N. 11th Street — one of the hotbeds of art activity in the city.
On the second floor of 319 N. 11th are AUTOMAT, Grizzly Grizzly, Practice, and Pink Noise Projects. Normally, they host a new exhibition by a contemporary artist every month, opening on First Friday. But they have all been shuttered since March due to the pandemic.
This weekend, for their first shows in six months, all of the galleries in the building will open exhibitions of work by MFA students boycotting PAFA.
“The galleries on the second floor have been meeting all summer for COVID-related purposes, about reopening,” said Morgan Hobbs of AUTOMAT. “When this situation came up, we all agreed unanimously that we would reach out to the students and offer them space.”
The galleries are collectively presenting “Action Verbs > Action Words,” featuring works by 11 PAFA graduates in the four gallery spaces, with a few pieces from each artist. The works are grouped and curated into a coherent show inside each gallery.
Each artist will not get as large an exhibition space as they would have in the PAFA student exhibition, nor are they likely to be seen by some of the deep-pocket art patrons that are likely to attend a PAFA show.
“That is not the audience that we’re making our work for,” Wei said.
Some of the work on display has been years in the making, like Casey’s “The Sun,” a chandelier made of predominantly yellow odds and ends that she has been tinkering with since starting the MFA program two years ago, as a sculptural index of her journey through the program.
Other works respond to the last six months. A patterned silkscreen tapestry by Laura Carden contains telling images of this moment in the United States, including an eagle with bloodied tail feathers wearing a riot helmet, and a scroll of words – “To believe in this living is a hard way to go” – from a song by Nashville songwriter John Prine, who died in early April from COVID-19 complications.
The work can be seen in-person: The galleries are open on weekends through September to restricted numbers of visitors. Similar to the PAFA student show, the work is for sale through an online payment site. Normally PAFA takes 30% of all art sales to fund scholarships. For the “Action Verbs” show, that 30% gallery fee will be donated to Black Lives Matter-affiliated organizations of each artist’s choosing.
The artists and galleries see a silver lining in this boycott show: PAFA alumni have shown themselves to be a powerful support network. After the news broke about the pushback against the administration, a group of about 50 alumni got onto a Zoom call to discuss the matter among themselves.
“When this happened, we all wanted to show support,” said AUTOMAT’s Hobbs, who is both an alumnus and a former staff member of PAFA. “I still have fond feelings for PAFA. This may seem like an action against them. I see it as tough love. PAFA professes to be a progressive organization. We want to hold them to the things they say they are.”
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