Alumni, students demand reinstatement of MFA program founder
A group of more than 200 alumni and current graduate students have sent a petition to Lesley University’s administration, demanding the reinstatement of Anthony Apesos—a popular professor—to the MFA in Visual Arts program at the Lesley University College of Art and Design (LUCAD) that he founded.
Petition co-organizer and alumna Stacey Piwinski told DigBoston, “The petition was … written in the hopes that when the administration saw the evidence of his inspiration and positive impact, they would keep him. However, it seems that their minds were already made up.”
Several alumni activists, and Apesos himself, frame the events leading up to the petition drive as a debate over the program’s values. Will it become more career-focused like too many other part-time “low residency” graduate programs in this era? Or will the focus be on making students the best artists they can be—trusting that they will be more likely to achieve career goals along the way if they’re encouraged to “follow their bliss” wherever it might take them?
The affair began last fall when Ben Sloat, interim director of the program, did not rehire Anthony Apesos’ to teach MFA students as would normally happen every semester—announcing the decision in a Nov 14 email to current students which stated, “Due to recent changes in the Lesley Core Faculty Contract, full time undergraduate faculty are no longer able to teach in the MFA program.” Apesos is also a full-time undergraduate faculty member; but, despite Sloat’s initial assertion, at least two other members of the full-time undergraduate faculty remain involved in the program.
In an email exchange acquired by DigBoston, dated Nov 14-16, Sloat messaged Apesos and three faculty members to clarify his claim about the union contract, which was contested in its entirety by a union negotiator. He retracted the claim and said that core faculty members “can indeed teach in the MFA program”; however, they now need to seek “approval from their department chair,” who would review their workload and make a decision with that in mind.
A DigBoston analysis of the Lesley University Core Faculty Union Contract found nothing that would have stopped the program from rehiring Apesos.
Sloat’s email to current students further stated that Apesos would be running a new—and as yet nonexistent—“LUCAD Studio Residency.” The Oct 31 email from Sloat to Apesos informing him (in glass half full language) that he would not be rehired explained that the new program would be “a non credit studio week immediately following the June MFA residency” and that it would be “populated by MFA students, alums, and local artists.”
Apesos maintains that he never agreed to run the proposed residency because he thought it didn’t make sense pedagogically or financially—anymore than “the changes in emphasis toward careers” that Sloat is now making to the program make sense to him.
He began conceptualizing the program in the early 1990s. At that time, Apesos was teaching at the Art Institute of Boston (AIB)—a nearly century-old independent art college. His thinking ran against the grain of career-oriented MFA programs that were then coming into vogue nationwide. In his 1993 proposal for an “AIB MFA in Painting” program that he later modified into a broader visual arts program proposal, he said that “Our students would not be narrowly focused on their art, but would be widely focused on life, where their work as artists would play a vital and sustaining role.”
That proposal would not be operationalized until after AIB’s 1998 merger with Lesley University, whose leadership was supportive of the idea. Since the MFA in Visual Arts program was founded in 2002, over 500 students have enrolled.
Apesos was the first director of the program and has served as interim director in the past. The 60-credit low-residency curriculum includes five intensive 10-day residencies over two years in January and July. Faculty advisors work with students during the residencies and throughout the four semesters between those residencies to guide their work.
Apesos taught in the July 2016 residency, but as winter approached it looked unlikely that he would be able to return for the January residency. On Dec 8, in an effort to help the teacher and mentor who had—in many cases—personally recruited students to the MFA in Visual Arts program, alumni Piwinski, Nina Earley, and Coelynn McIninch started a petition to have Apesos reinstated.
When Apesos found out about the petition, he was surprised. “I love teaching advanced students and have especially loved teaching the students in this program,” he told DigBoston. “Some in the petition have said that they feel sorry for the students who will not be able to work with me if I am not teaching in the program. I am really deeply touched by this, but I absolutely believe that these students will be fine as long as they remember to measure everything they hear against the real, if elusive, core of their being.”
Apesos stresses that his differences with Sloat are philosophical and do not involve teaching performance or any issues with the structure of the program. He believes that the LUCAD program should be about the personal growth of students, while Sloat has moved to focus the program more on professionalism and preparing students for careers in the arts than it was heretofore. Apesos points out that the average age of a LUCAD student is 45, and he feels that people come to Lesley to focus on improving their visual art skills, not necessarily to find an art-related job. Many of his former students were in their 50s and 60s while in the program. In addition, he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to focus an MFA program on careers when there never seem to be enough decent full-time jobs with benefits for highly trained visual artists.
Available job statistics seem to back him up in a profession where some MFA graduates find jobs curating art at museums or working for galleries and auction houses, a larger percentage teach art at all educational levels, and only a small percentage manage to make a living selling their art. In its 2015 report “The Economic Value of College Majors,” the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that the very visual arts jobs that the MFA in Visual Arts program provides advanced training for are among the lowest paid in the United States. The number three lowest-paying major is studio arts. Visual and performing arts are number six. Art and music education are number 15—and many of the lucky few artists with MFAs that have full-time jobs in any industry actually related to their field are art teachers.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook projects that the job prospects for “Craft and Fine Artists”—the category that gets closest to describing the workforce in MFA programs—will be lousy between 2014 and 2024. With only 2 percent growth in total craft and fine arts jobs over that period compared to 7 percent average growth for all occupations. The handbook states, “Competition for jobs as craft and fine artists is expected to be strong because there are more qualified candidates than available jobs.” Keeping in mind that there were only 50,300 artists in that category in 2014 that actually had a job in the same market that dozens of undergraduate and graduate art schools around the country are pumping thousands of new graduates into every year. By way of comparison, there were 4,731,800 “Food and Beverage Serving and Related Workers” that same year—a job category where it’s fair to say the lion’s share of art graduates end up working for at least part of their lives.
Apesos also claims that there has been a decrease in enrollment since a marketing switch toward potential students based off of a “jobs” mentality. He told DigBoston, “I think trying to sell a program about professionalism doesn’t work. I think people are skeptical about it, and it’s not about jobs, but rather how to be an artist when your career isn’t going anywhere. That is an incredibly hard thing to do.” Although he agrees professionalism is important, Apesos said, “It does not need to be the center of graduate art education.”
Ultimately, 207 alumni and current students of the small MFA program signed the petition in support of Apesos. On Dec 19, it was delivered to the Lesley University administration. LUCAD Dean Richard Zauft responded politely but dismissively the same day. Sloat responded in similar fashion on Dec 20 and had a private meeting on Dec 22 with with Apesos, Zauft, and Associate Dean Kristina Lamour-Sansone — in which Zauft declined to reinstate Apesos.
According to Apesos, “Zauft said he was backing Sloat’s choice, and that hirings are up to program directors, and that he did not believe it was for him to second guess a director’s decisions.”
Prof. Anthony Apesos in action at AIB (LUCAD) MFA Visual Arts after hours painting workshop during the January 2011 residency. Video by Jason Pramas
Multiple alumni have written Zauft in an effort to get Apesos reinstated to no avail, including Matthew Meyer, who wrote of his experiences, “Tony’s after-dinner workshops treating various painting techniques were always well-attended and much appreciated. It is worth mentioning that Tony was the only one—the only one—of our professors to offer such off-the-cuff workshops after regular school hours.”
Current student Elizabeth Graehling threatened to withhold donations to the university as a result of the situation. She commented in the petition, “Relieving Tony of his position at LUCAD will relieve me of any future interest in donating to the Lesley programme. He’s one of the most invested, shining examples of student-advisor interaction I’ve personally borne witness to in an academic setting.”
The Lesley University admin refused to speak to a DigBoston reporter on the record about this issue. Interim Director Ben Sloat, Dean Richard Zauft, and Provost Selase Williams did not respond to requests for interviews, and in a terse email, John Sullivan, the school’s director of communications, said, “The university has no comment on this.”
So, as of this writing, Anthony Apesos will not be returning to the LUCAD MFA in Visual Arts program—and Lesley University has nothing to say about why. It remains to be seen if continued alumni and student protest will change the administration’s mind.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Disclosure: DigBoston Senior Editor / BINJ Network Director Jason Pramas is an alumnus of the Lesley University College of Art and Design MFA in Visual Arts program.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.