In recent highlights and appraisals on art schools in France and Europe after the Bologna Accords, and in debates regarding whether or not art schools under these conditions are still reliable as places to learn about creating freely, Frankfurt’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste-Staedelschule or more simply “Städelschule”, is often pointed out as the example of an art school that has decided to say no to the standardisation of higher education, with the freedoms afforded by its lack of fees, curriculum, credit-point system, or rules in general, and by its guaranteed studio space, and inspiring artist mentors. Consequently a myth has blossomed out of these specificities, and La belle revue has chosen to ask artist Anders Dickson (USA, 1988), a recent alumni of the famous school, to share his experience there.
Benoît Lamy de La Chapelle:
As an American student who had already been in Europe for a while, what made you choose to apply to Frankfurt’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste-Staedelschule?
Since 2009, I had been studying in Germany. Initially, I started just as an exchange student in the Philosophy department of the University in Freiburg and then, in 2010, I began at the Fine Art programme of the Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe. I remained there for 4 years. It was during my time there that I first even became aware of the Städelschule. Naturally, there was an interesting mythos surrounding that school and from Karlsruhe I learned of its solid reputation in turning out artists and attracting excellent teaching staff. I enjoyed studying in Karlsruhe, it is a smaller, lesser-known city, and due to that, there was a lot of space for experimentation and development. Eventually, though, I felt that I had spent much too long in a city that didn’t really give me the sustenance or inspiration I was after. Frankfurt felt like a pretty obvious choice to try for: being an international school seemed advantageous and I liked the proximity to my old school. It wasn’t until I had managed to get a meeting with Monika Baer1 that it really was apparent to me that I definitely wanted to be in Frankfurt. Of course, though, this went with the idea that as a foreigner studying art in Germany, I hoped to establish some kind of connections to artists from other countries. Looking back now, I think that the choice of going to Frankfurt also felt like it may have cast a rope and connected me back to America.
Städelschule is often presented as being a dreamy school with outstanding teachers and a very flexible agenda. According to you and your experience, what makes studying there so specific or different from any other art schools in Europe?
I think it touches back on what I mentioned above to some degree. In my experience the school catered towards a pretty particular environment in that it provided the opportunity for a large number of international students to be there. All of the professors speak English and the majority – if not all? – of the lectures were given in English too. This also facilitated access for a larger number of visiting artists to come as professors, interim/guest professors, and lecturers. The student body was also rather diverse; it included both a number of recent high school graduates and also many students who’d already completed a BA in art. As such, the range of students’ experience, knowledge and intensity really varied, and because of this I think everyone kind of benefited from one another.
I was in Städel from 2014 to 2016. This was actually the period when they switched from being a private school to a public one. This meant meeting particular demands of the state ordinance and I think despite this, the school was still able to retain its particular identity; i.e. not becoming a Bachelor program, nor requiring its staff to speak German. Also, my stint at the school felt like it was running on the fumes of the previous ten years’ good reputation. There were many stories of past students, professors, and meetings that kind of propagated our own sense of fun at the school. As a student in Städel you are granted access 24/7 to your studio, this meant that irrespective of your individual working rhythm, you were really able to be at the school whenever you liked. Oftentimes it felt a little bit like our own jungle gym and the rest of the city was the playground.
Ultimately, it was an impressionable time for me and I was deeply affected by the number of great students and professors around me. In our class we had regular meetings to provide criticism, host reading groups, and even just to converse with one another in greater depth.
How would you describe the school’s teaching method? How is it oriented? How do the classes function and what type of exchanges exist with the teachers?
It’s hard to really define a specific overarching method particular to the school. It really comes down to individual professors’ methodologies. In my case, I was lucky to study with both Amy Sillman and Monika Baer who each lead the class in their own ways. Loosely defined, you could say that a class was structured by the regular visits of the professors to the school. During the period of their presence, there would be the opportunity for arranging an individual or class discussion about your work (group or individual critique). Later, the professors would often arrange reading groups or gatherings with their classes so as to encourage a community and discussion beyond merely working in shared studio spaces.
With Monika, we would read a book and have periodical reading group meetings to discuss the last chapters (we read Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon for instance). With Amy, we would also do reading sessions, but she also encouraged us to write and draw a lot. So there were a few times when we were given tasks, perhaps at most assignments for writing about our own or someone else’s work. In other classes it was different; I recall friends in Michael Krebber’s class saying there were never any work critiques with Michael but he was persistently arranging reading groups and engaging with the students in the “mensa” or outside of the school at night. We would also spend a lot of time with our professors outside of the school too; either going to movies, dinner, bars… Even on lucky occasions, we would go on trips together. This is a nice aspect of the German school system in general perhaps. There was occasionally funding to take a class trip to biennials or some city for whatever reasons. Ultimately, these types of ways of engaging with the professor had the nice effect of creating a less harsh power structure or hierarchy towards the professors. Actually, it really encouraged a mentor vibe as we got to feel quite close and personally involved with the professors’ involvement in the school too.
In an essay presenting the work of Jana Euler (also an alumni of this art school), art critic Isabelle Graw specified the importance of networking for artists these days, in order to have the possibility to launch and guarantee themselves a career.2 Is it true you have to be introduced by a teacher to be accepted there? And that some kind of deep networking has to be done prior to entering the school?
The school accepts students like any other school, with the standard procedure of portfolio application, followed by the invitation to an interview and practical test. There is however, or at least there was, quite often the chance that, if you were able to meet a professor ahead of time, it would at least give you a bit of a feeling for how the school would suit you. Naturally, some people inevitably already know someone in the school, or a professor, and that helped at least insofar as getting the chance to meet with a professor or hang around with the class. I was lucky and had a friend who was in one of the classes. Also, though, when I switched from my old school, one of my former professors put me in contact with a friend of his who was an acting professor in Frankfurt. So I was lucky in this case to at least get a chance to come in and go over my portfolio ahead of time. Regularly, people would be trying to get into a class meeting or, somehow, spend a few minutes with one of the staff. However as my stint in Frankfurt ended, my professor made the choice not to meet with anyone from outside of the class before the application process. I thought this was also nice, though, as a change, because then it levelled the playing field for those who weren’t in a position to come and meet in person beforehand. It is pretty funny though because I recall students coming from Japan to try to meet our professor, and also some coming from New York for a week, just to try to enter the classes and hang around. If anything though, the whole process of getting to Frankfurt and spending time there was really relevant to me. I was entertaining a very romantic and rather idealistic impression of the art world: to see how the aspect of networking played out to the advantage of certain people shattered this illusion. It just woke me up at least to the reality of how things worked. It’s not only in the art world that networking is important, right? Obviously, if you know someone in a good position who can help you, then that is great. Nonetheless, it’s pretty nasty to see how people are willing to do whatever it takes to get in touch with the right crowd.
Could you tell us what could be constraining about being a student there as opposed to the freedom of creation the school is renowned for?
Naturally, it was a bit of a scenario to get used to the school. The reputation is clearly well known, and not only the stories of cool artists and great professors there, but also for sometimes nefarious or intense relationships between students. I think a big part of the school’s identity was built around the nature of the “mensa” and how it was the melting pot of students meeting, exchanging ideas, and lounging around even. I can’t really say I ever felt that I fit in or was particularly integrated. My position was a bit more on the fringe, but that may’ve had something to do with my studio also being at the far end of the school, on the last floor where really no one would be passing by, unless they came particularly to visit us there. As such, there was definitely a sense of pressure in the beginning. I felt like I had to prove my validity or the quality of my position had to testify to a style or something that I felt insecure about in the environment of the Städel. Externally, there wasn't anything really putting a “strain” on you or preventing you from working. It often only had to do with my own sense of feeling comfortable there or not. Honestly, the 24-hour access and really open territory to work was great for spending ages in the studio and working on my pieces. This probably isn’t particular to the school either but worth noting how much of the education had to do with what happened outside of the studio also: i.e. going to the bars, or openings, and kind of deciphering certain codes. There were different scenes in the school, Daimler and Dürer Strasse being separate buildings in the city already led to kind of specialised discourses or styles, and each class in and of itself bred its own identity. To answer your question more pointedly though, one example of how the place may have been constraining was knowing how the outside world looked at the school and the expectations of the artists coming out of it. The rundgang or open studios in winter, always drew far more visitors than my other school. These moments in preparation for rundgang were by far some of the most intense but also funny, I guess. People really strung themselves out preparing their works and arranging their exhibition spaces. Maybe the pressure from outside wasn’t that great but I think I imagined it may’ve been there.
I read that in those last years, the school was having budget difficulties, with bad workshop spaces with poor equipment for students to work with, and so on.3 That seems like some major lacks for a so-called art school… Would it not be more accurate to call it a post-grad school? Or as another graduate told me recently “a residency program”? With all of this taken into account, can we still call the Städelschule an “art school” that can hold the status of a model for others? Would that be fair?
I’m not so sure about the budget running dry. During my time there, the workshops were up and running, although they were kind of provisional or stripped to the minimum of what was necessary for them to count as a workshop. I didn’t really use them much more than for occasionally welding or printing something at the computer lab. I would be on board with calling it a post-grad or residency, for sure. However, I think this may have changed now, as the school has supposedly started to limit the number of guest students coming, and controlling somewhat the amount of semesters they’re eligible for studying there. Consequently, the school is a bit ‘younger’ than it used to be and the students are staying for longer periods of time, not merely passing through for a quick semester. It did always feel like it was the outpost for foreigners to get into Europe or Germany, using that as a little launching pad, but now that the school is reconfiguring and trying to concentrate a bit more on breeding the identity of a school again, it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.
It’s already a difficult issue, knowing how to label the status of an art school as an institution, I imagine, and what kind of prerequisites are necessary, what’s expected for valuing or judging the works, etc.
In fact the school was the most real glimpse and preparation into the art scene for me. It broke my romantic illusion of things just clicking on their own; it exposed me to codes of inclusion/exclusion, my first glimpses into the market; and more than anything else, it taught me to rely on my peers and community. Without that network, it’s a pretty lonely job hanging out by yourself in the studio. For all its ambiguity, the Städel is a school with many facets and ripe for getting what you need out of it.