Art and Adjuncts
On the second floor of a modest office building off Bellona Avenue, Baltimore Academy of Illustration (BAI) holds eight classes a week. The classes and their four faculty members share one studio and its iMac, printer, utilitarian tables, and wall space for student art. Even with its humble start, the space feels like it could belong to a branded, pricy private art college. It even comes complete with what director Alex Fine calls a “pop color” accenting the chairs and walls.
I met Alex Fine, one of the three founders of BAI, when he was giving a presentation to my graduate pedagogy class. Ebullient, with a wide toothy grin, you know ten minutes after meeting him: Alex is a great teacher. At 32, he’s been teaching for more than a third of his life, starting when he was earning his associate’s degree at MCAD (Maryland College of Art and Design) and continuing after earning his bachelor’s from MICA, my school. He worked as an adjunct at MICA and The Corcoran, for almost ten years, but despite his efforts and accomplishments, being published on the covers of national publications like TIME and Newsweek, and his obvious enthusiasm, he could never quite land a tenured position.
Many other adjunct faculty are the same. Often they are the most passionate and dedicated teachers a student could hope to have. It seems that the teachers who played the biggest role in my post-secondary education were adjuncts: Barbara Krazewski, my freshman English professor who convinced me to declare a creative writing major, was an adjunct. Anthony Farrington, my Advanced Poetry professor who hosted readings and workshops every weekend, was an adjunct. Maureen Weiss, my typography professor who wrote me the letter that got me into grad school, was an adjunct. But despite the hints these teachers dropped in class, at the time I had no idea what an adjunct was, or how it differed from a full-time position.
Over the past few decades tenure and tenure track positions at American universities have all but vanished while adjunct positions and bureaucratic, administrative positions have soared. Administrative employees have doubled while tenured, full-time faculty now make up less than 60% of all instructors. It’s no wonder why. Why should colleges go through the exhausting process of searching for, and interviewing professionals they must dedicate several years to when they can hire them for a bargain? Schools don’t need to offer these professionals the equal pay, or benefits, but can still require the same amount of work per class. Investing nothing in their careers, a school can replace an adjunct on a whim, and with no job security they can decline to tell them if their class will be held until a week before it starts. It may not sound like much, but if you’re trying to make rent and buy groceries close to the poverty line, not knowing if your class is secured for a semester is a burden: you can’t search for other jobs for fear of double-booking, and you are far from certain you’ll be able to pay off your student loans for the next three months.
Alex grew up in a lower middle class suburb. With a father making 30k a year and a chronically ill mother, he learned that the benefits of any venture should always outweigh the expenses. In high school he was a self-described trouble-maker, nonchalantly cutting every class except one: art. After graduating high school, he attended MCAD where he was easily in the top of his class, teaching continuing ed. classes and sometimes covering for absent teachers. This is where he learned he loved to teach: as a teenager instructing adults twenty years older than him. “By the third class, every semester, you could see visible improvements. I was hooked. I got my BFA at MICA and freelanced for a while but always came back to teaching.”
At BAI Alex teaches his classes while emphasizing the end goal: that is to get hired by art directors and get paid for your work. Formal critique, where students pin up their work for evaluation, are still held but always peppered with small tangents about finding work, pleasing art directors, along with several comments mocking the current political cycle. Networking is just as much a part of BAI’s classes as brainstorming and execution. The school will often invite art directors from local publications like City Paper, or the Baltimore Sun to come in, critique, use student work. Showing off the extensive connections he’s made, Alex even brings in art directors from national publications like Newsweek and The Atlantic. If an art director likes a piece, student work is free for the them to use, but Alex will always pay the student: $250. Each class costs $500, and some students have been able to pay their tuition off in two illustrations.
He taught this way before BAI as well, but the private art colleges where he taught as an adjunct didn’t love the idea of student work being published, even if Alex was compensating them fairly while he himself wasn’t. As an adjunct he had no leverage to make his point with the dean, and after a unionization town hall with senior administration where adjuncts were essentially told they should have never taken part-time jobs to begin with, Alex and his two co-founders, Greg and Scott, decided to open their own school. They launched an IndieGoGo campaign and earned enough to pay a year’s rent for their one room school, which is currently in its second semester and is growing.
The competition graduates face as artists is ever greater as schools churn out thousands of artists a year, drowning in debt. Currently traditional art schools are having a hard time setting their undergrads up to reliably find work, and when they want to teach they refuse to hire, or compensate them fairly. BAI, and art schools like it, offer a reliable education and often help their students better enter their professional industry. Schools like Watt’s Atelier, The Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Arts, and The Safehouse Atelier, were each started by handful of artists and teachers who wanted a better work environment and to not feel as if they were swindling their students. They have all been proven to be remarkably successful in terms of job placement and job satisfaction. If traditional art schools don’t continue to offer a superior product schools like these may just overtake them. They charge less and since their administration is often faculty, they treat their teachers well.
Fine, A. (2016, March 9). Observing at BAI [Personal interview].
Fredrickson, C. (2015, September 15). There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts. The Atlantic.
Savchuk, Katia. "Black Arts: The $800 Million Family Selling Art Degrees and False Hopes." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.