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Debt Down to an Art

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Four times a year, I get an email notifying me that my student loans accrue $1.46 in interest every day. Add that to the tens of thousands of dollars in principal that I and many of my friends already owe, and earning a college degree seems less like an advantage and more like financial albatross these days.

Jovanna Venegas, an MA Curatorial Practice fellow at the School of Visual Arts in New York, has accumulated $23,000 in student loan debt, and she happens to be doing something with that debt other than paying it off.

Venegas curated an exhibit in the CP Projects Space on West 21st St., titled “Crushing Debt,” to expose “the elephant in the room”the $1.3 t national student debt. She came up with the idea when she was visiting artists at their studios in search of pieces for future shows. It seemed that she and all the artists she’d met had two things in common: their love of art and crushing student loan debt.

Free EducationThe first part of the exhibit is a video that includes facts about artists, student debt, and the costs of higher education. Some examples are that only 15% of people with art degrees in NYC can afford to quit their day jobs and that female artists earn $0.81 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Next, there are images of albatrosses (traditional symbols of burden) with diagrams of their detached wings. Venegas told MarketWatch that there is an emphasis on the wings because “an artist with student debt is like a bird without wings as it’s preventing the artist from pursuing her dreams.”

It is interesting that you cannot say “know” without saying “owe.” In two pieces by Nicky Enright that are also in the exhibit, dollar bills spell out “I know too much” and “I owe too much” atop backgrounds of doodles drawn in art class. In a more emotional and personal response to student debt, there are sketches that Alicia Grullon drew during therapy sessions about her debt-related stress. In one session, she made a kite, which is meant to be symbolic of wanting to be free but actually being helplessly tied down.  

“What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?” asks BFAMFAPhD, an art activism group that has several members participating as artists in the exhibit. While Venegas’ show does not suggest a solution to the student debt crisis, she knows the solution starts with a discussion. She wants to unite artists with these financial numbers that, for some, are too embarrassing to talk to others about (like your age when you are older than 25).

“Crushing Debt” will be open until February 12th, and it is free (of course!), so my fellow debtors have no excuse not to go. When the price tag on education is so high, there is no telling how many more artists like Venegas do not have the privilege of education and what kind of issues they could be addressing right now if they did. We are all a little indebted to Venegas for bringing student debt out into the open and working towards affordable education.

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