Mellon Foundation Supports Social Practice CUNY at The Graduate Center to Cultivate Diverse Artists and Leaders in NYC

January 19, 2021

An innovative program based at The Graduate Center aims to create a new generation of cultural leaders in New York City who represent the city's diverse population and are committed to bringing social change through art.

“Court Crier,” 2018 by Julian Louis Phillips, (courtesy of Phillips). Phillips is a graduate of Social Practice Queens (SPQ).
“Court Crier,” 2018 by Julian Louis Phillips, (courtesy of Phillips). Phillips is a graduate of Social Practice Queens (SPQ).

An innovative program based at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York aims to create a new generation of cultural leaders in New York City who represent the city’s diverse population and are committed to bringing social change through art. The program, Social Practice CUNY (SPCUNY), is funded by a three-year, $530,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and draws on the strengths of CUNY’s interdisciplinary M.F.A. programs, which emphasize social justice and provide outstanding art and architecture education to diverse students.

The ambitious program will offer full in-state tuition fellowships to up to five Queens College M.F.A. students, grants of up to $2,000 for CUNY faculty and graduate students, and a graduate seminar based at The Graduate Center for fellows and other CUNY graduate students.

Artists and CUNY faculty members Chloë Bass and Gregory Sholette are directing SPCUNY. They have collaborated as co-directors of Social Practice Queens (SPQ), an art and social justice project that served as the seed for SPCUNY. 

CUNY is home to an untapped assemblage of socially engaged cultural educators. Once networked together, this systemwide platform will invigorate the diversification of M.F.A. graduates in the city, prompting greater structural reform.

The M.F.A. degree, conceived as a gateway to a career in the arts, has become increasingly elitist, a luxury available only to those who can afford the high tuition or take on the debt that might ensue. It is one more barrier that dampens diversity among practicing artists and arts leaders. CUNY, by contrast, offers highly regarded M.F.A. programs with modest tuitions. The programs attract diverse students and are taught by socially engaged faculty artists. SPCUNY will involve faculty and students in M.F.A. programs at four CUNY campuses: Queens CollegeThe City College of New YorkHunter College, and Brooklyn College.

SPCUNY will be based at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Situated in midtown Manhattan — at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue — The Graduate Center offers 31 doctoral programs and 16 master’s programs and supports more than 30 research centers and institutes. Graduate Center faculty and students are known for their shared commitments to scholarly discovery and social action. 

“The Graduate Center is home to faculty authors, artists, and scholars who are invested in promoting the public good through research and activism,” said Robin L. Garrell, president of The Graduate Center. “We are delighted to add SPCUNY to our rich portfolio of programs that enhance students’ lives and stimulate cultural and social change in New York City, and we are grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its generous support of this important initiative.” 

SPCUNY encompasses four major initiatives.

SPCUNY Fellows

Up to five students from the Queens College M.F.A. program who are participating in Social Practice Queens will be eligible to receive full in-state tuition fellowships during the final two semesters of their M.F.A. programs. In addition to their coursework, fellows will work with the co-directors and advisory committee to create a network of social practice stakeholders at CUNY and within New York City’s cultural community and will help plan programs that support SPCUNY’s objectives. 

SPCUNY Action Art Stipends for Students

Select CUNY M.F.A. and Graduate Center students will be eligible for mini grants of up to $2,000 to facilitate social practice projects. The grants enable students to connect with an external partner, such as a government agency, private nonprofit, or grassroots advocacy organization, and collaborate on an art intervention that amplifies the partner’s social justice agenda, while linking coursework to professional growth. The Action Art funding mandates that students liaise with the organization’s leaders during the planning process and involve a cross-section of the partner’s stakeholders. To help identify potential partners, faculty associated with SPCUNY draw on their community involvement with museums, government agencies, and grassroots advocacy and justice organizations. Ten grants are available each year, with five allocated to the SPCUNY fellows. A public symposium will conclude each Action Art project cycle, featuring students, their faculty advisers, and the community partners. 

SPCUNY Seminar at The Graduate Center, CUNY

The SPCUNY coalition will design and teach one SPCUNY Seminar each semester, from fall 2021 through fall 2023. Classes will be anchored in an appropriate Graduate Center department and will be held in Graduate Center classrooms and nearby community spaces. The seminars will use at least two different curricula, collaboratively designed and taught by the project co-directors and other SPCUNY coalition faculty. The academic goals are to help students understand the history and theory of social practice art and analyze ongoing artist-community collaborations in New York City and beyond for tangible methods to adapt to their careers. The five SPCUNY fellows and five Action Art students are required to enroll in two seminars; five spaces in each seminar will be reserved for other CUNY graduate students. Seminar curricula will be shared throughout the SPCUNY network for use in other classes, and outcomes will be archived online as open-source resources. 

SPCUNY Convenings Grants for Faculty

SPCUNY coalition faculty members are eligible for grants of up to $2,000 to attend conferences, workshops, roundtables, support visiting presenters, and design other gatherings that build cohesion and common purpose within the SPCUNY coalition, while growing understanding about social practice art across CUNY and within New York City. The intention is to produce events, projects, and online resources relevant to the New York City and CUNY communities, highlighting projects with deep levels of local engagement creatively and politically. Ten Convenings grants will be available each year, and all SPCUNY student members are required to attend the programming resulting from the grants. Open to the public, the events will take place in The Graduate Center facilities and in community spaces. 



You and I are just like a patchwork quilt_Paula Frisch

Paula Frisch, You and I are Just Like a Patchwork Quilt," at Allegheny College, Bowman, Penelec, and Megahan Galleries, September 2017. Frisch is a graduate of Social Practice Queens (SPQ).

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