Alternative Art Schools — Part 3— Alt MFA

Published Mar, 2015

By Shona Macpherson

On my Art Map London search for free alternative post graduate courses across London, Alt MFA wasn’t my first find; although they have been the longest established course of this kind in London. They don’t seem to have had as much media compared to School of The Damned or Open School East over the last few years, but they have been steadily working on their own strand of alternative art education, building a vibrant community of creatives and initiating some exciting new cross-polinations within the art scene.

Originally published on 17 Jun 2015 Art Map London

I caught up with them just after their residency at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects in Broadway Market. Guest Projects is an initiative conceived by Shonibare Studio, which offer’s a free space for a one month residency in the heart of East London for artistic practitioners of any discipline (dance, visual arts, music). Life drawing and supper clubs also take place regularly at Guest Projects.

Alt MFA was founded in 2010, it seems like it was one of the first of the recent wave that have opened (even before Open School East). Could you tell us a bit about how it all started?

Yes, we were the first in London to set up a peer-led postgraduate course, as far as we know, but we were inspired by a long tradition of radical education, and artist-led schools such as The Independent Art School (Hull) and The Mountain School of Art (Los Angeles), as well as the Occupy movement and the pedagogical theories of Paolo Freire. The course emerged from discussions and collaborations between Louise Ashcroft and Lucie Galand, who met while working together at Damien Hirst’s studios. They wanted to do MA’s but couldn’t afford to and they both felt personally and politically opposed to the commercialisation of education and the burden of student debt. Lucie had taken part in ‘School of Echoes’, a project at Raven Row led by the collective Ultra Red and wanted to continue its direct, collective, free approach to learning; Louise had been curating group shows and residencies in warehouse spaces and wanted to develop the conversations she was having there into a more rigorous, structured platform for critical thinking and peer support. A logo was made, we found some texts we wanted to read, and we held the first meeting in Molen’s cafe near Finsbury Park. New members joined rapidly, and the group has continued to meet every Monday night since, alternating venues between pubs, houses and galleries. The number of members fluctuates between ten and twenty people, who each bringing ideas and knowledge to the content of the course. There are no leaders and it is the responsibility of each of us to contribute content to the syllabus, which continuously evolves.

What makes Alt MFA different from Open School East and School Of The Damned?

We are more similar to School of the Damned than Open School East perhaps, because we are DIY, have no institutional backing, and we have a horizontal hierarchical structure (no leaders). Unlike School of the Damned and OSE, we have no admission process — we are open to new members at any time as long as they can attend meetings, and the course never ends (you leave when you want, and are welcome to return). We are less formal than the other two schools in terms of the way we give back to the community or visiting artists, but we have a similar reciprocal ethos. We are free in every way and we mostly operate without money. We also have an international branch made up of past London members, who are in Texas, South Africa, Hong Kong and Berlin, and whom we collaborate with regularly.

What happens during your Monday meetings?

Originally we used to alternate between three types of meeting: a crit, a theory reading group, and a session led by an invited artist. Over the years the format has relaxed and each week is different. Often we set a theme a week or two before, for example ‘Skin’ or ‘Walking’ and everyone researches the theme and brings material to discuss. We continue to have visiting artists (most recently Mark McGowan) and crits, but not every month. Snacks and tea are crucial — the evenings are fun and relaxed, and the friendships we form extend beyond the Monday meetings, so we often exhibit together or go to events together during the week. The fact that we are nomadic and therefore meet in all kinds of venues, from public spaces to domestic spaces, gives us freedom, variety, and a sort of tribal intimacy.

What do you think the most important aspects of a good art education are?

Passion. People. Presentness (spending time together). Fun. Encouragement. Guidance. Adventure. Play. More ambition, less competition. Critical Framework. Variety. Sounding board. Abundant content (text, films, material to devour). Equal status and equal responsibility. Generosity. Sustainable / works around real life commitments. Rigorous learning. Diverse. Critical. Safe environment (place you can be yourself and take creative risks). Friendship. More art, less admin. Sharing resources and ideas. Curiosity. Politeness / friendliness. Exposure to new material/places/people. Energy. Freedom from debt. Good snacks!

Are new students selected or can anybody join? You must get a lot of applications?

AltMFA has no selection criteria or selection process. Anyone who can commit to Monday sessions and being an active member of the group can join. It’s an MFA style course (although unaccredited), so most of us have developed practices and thinking to postgraduate level or beyond, but we are open to all — you don’t even necessarily have to be an artist. To join, email and we will tell you where the next meeting is. If lots more people were to join we might have to review the logistics of selection, but currently about twelve of us are usually present at each meeting, which is ideal because that’s about the maximum number that can squeeze into someone’s front room!

Do you think Alt MFA has an in-house style?

Not at all. Through learning together and showing together, we are often cross-pollinating intellectually and being exposed to some of the same influences, which means that there can be some coherence between the work, however, both aesthetically and conceptually, we are all very different artists from a real mixture of backgrounds.

What projects are you working towards at the moment?

We are currently recovering from an intense month-long residency ‘AltMFA Jamboree’ at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects in Broadway Market, and are now looking forward to a week-long residency in the Lake District at Merz Barn in July. It will be nice to escape London for a week, go on lots of walks, have some campfire chats, and make some new work in the countryside.

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