For art students finishing B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs this spring, the big debut was supposed to have been the thesis exhibition. The culmination of years of work, these shows represent a shot at getting discovered by curators, dealers, collectors and critics who make the rounds at top schools.
Then the pandemic forced schools to close and truncate programs.
“Having the thesis show canceled is like having the rug pulled out from under you,” said Ben Werther, a 22-year-old senior at Cooper Union in New York who, like his peers across the world, felt the added loss of this important first exposure amid the growing health anxiety.
The Covid era is a precarious time for students joining the art world, itself reckoning with the economic sustainability of museums, galleries and global art fairs. For those who have also taken out student loans for expensive programs and received no tuition reimbursement, the disappointment has been especially stark. Since being shut out of his painting studio at Yale and missing hands-on instruction, James Bartolacci, 31, is one of many wondering what exactly he’s paying for.
But Mr. Bartolacci said he’s feeling a little skeptical about the whole M.F.A., “when you’re burdened by student debt and you’re in this reality of increasing financial uncertainty in the art world and not necessarily able to make that money back.”
Now Mr. Bartolacci and his peers have been driven to collective action — demanding relief funds and leading the charge on a number of online alternatives to thesis shows, with the help of veteran gallerists and established artists.
On March 21, 128 master’s students at the Yale School of Art sent a letter to the president of the university and their dean requesting partial tuition reimbursement. “We were told that Yale is not offering tuition refunds of any kind,” said Cindy Hwang, a 27-year-old graphic design student. She and other Yale students reached out to peers at seven art schools across the country and created a communal spreadsheet comparing how each program had responded to the students’ relief efforts.
While all have struck out on tuition refunds, M.F.A. students at the University of Chicago have gained other concessions. In response to a letter from the 16 students in the visual art department, the university has given each $9,000 living stipends and extended their program an extra quarter, with the thesis show to be held in November.
“They still value a physical experience of the work,” said Madeline Gallucci, 30, a second-year M.F.A. student at Chicago. “That’s one of the main things we argued for when we collectively organized.”
At Yale, students have shifted to repeated requests for “universal emergency subsidies,” according to Ms. Hwang. The university has an endowment that topped $30 billion in June 2019. On Tuesday, the dean of the Yale School of Art, Marta Kuzma, said the school will begin accepting relief applications to the Student Support Fund on May 20, “made possible through the generosity of donors, including Yale alumni, faculty and staff,” adding that it would “directly support our student artists by providing emergency aid to students in need.”
Students have been advocating for each other, as well, by organizing virtual exhibitions that have sprung up quickly to fill the void of canceled thesis shows.
After schools closed in March, the Los Angeles dealer Steve Turner checked in with Susan MB Chen, an M.F.A. student from Columbia with whom he had recently done a studio visit. “She sent me a picture of her first self-portrait done in quarantine and it showed so much anxiety on her face,” said Mr. Turner, who immediately offered Ms. Chen an exhibition. She in turn suggested that he show Columbia’s entire graduating M.F.A. class.
“Alone Together,” at the Steve Turner gallery’s online viewing room, through June 6, shows works by 24 students made in the isolation of their apartments and reflective of their emotional states. Twelve pieces by eight students have sold already, and they will get 60 percent of the sales (more than the standard 50-50 arrangement between artists and galleries).
“To sell work through a gallery this soon doesn’t happen in ordinary times,” said the gallerist, who offered solo and two-person shows to six of the artists over the next year.
As for Mr. Bartolacci’s gamble on Yale’s reach — it may yet pay off. He was introduced to Peggy Leboeuf, a partner and executive director of Galerie Perrotin in New York, who offered to host an exhibition for his Yale painting and printmaking class, opening June 8 in the gallery’s new online viewing salon.
“This is a gesture to connect students with the community of collectors and curators that we’re working with everyday,” said Ms. Leboeuf, whose gallery previously wagered on an artist right out of the gate, taking on Daniel Arsham in 2005 after seeing his thesis show at Cooper Union. Each of the 23 Yale students will exhibit three works and receive 95 percent of any sales.
Generous as these exhibitions are, they cater to a small number of students already advantageously positioned.
More democratic in scope is “Thesis Shows 2020,” a website conceived by the graduating photography class at the Rhode Island School of Design and built by the students Erin Wang and Travis Morehead. It links to documentation of complete exhibitions by the entire class at 75 art programs in the United States and Canada.
A professor and photographer, Laurel Nakadate, suggested the online platform, which was then workshopped with her class over Zoom. Ms. Nakadate sent out an open call to colleagues at other institutions with overwhelming response. The public can connect directly to the artists.
Mr. Werther, the senior at Cooper Union, realized that he, too, could advocate for his deflated classmates. He organized an online show hosted on the digital site Serving the People run by Lucien Smith (an artist who caught his own early break when the dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn bought a piece out of his 2011 thesis show at Cooper).
But what started as an exhibition just for Cooper Union has snowballed into a sprawling international collaboration, The BFA Show 2020, going live May 21, now includes work by 836 students from 96 art schools around the globe. No submissions were excluded and nothing is for sale. Mr. Smith is setting up virtual critiques connecting this network of students with established artists and writers.
“That’s a good way to build mentorship and stimulate internships that are going to help these students more than just an art sale,” he said.
Mr. Werther finds the gallery game flawed for emerging artists, the majority of whom show nothing at all while a lucky few get anointed. “You’re either zero or you’re 100,” he said. “I think showing art online will disrupt that dynamic and be something more respected than it was before coronavirus.”
He hopes to make the BFA Show an annual event. “It’s the next generation of the creative industry,” he said. “It really is the future.”