“BROOKS INSTITUE TO CLOSE,” read the headlines yesterday. It’s a sad day for many photographers such as myself, who’ve made photography their livelihood, and can count Brooks as the fun, yet intense launching pad for our careers.
I suspect that Mr. Brooks may have had an inkling of this likely dissolution when he originally sold the school over five years ago. One of the early warning signs was when the campus facilities (prime real estate) were nearly instantly sold by the new owners. It was to liquidate anything of value in order to quickly convert the most valuable tangible assets into cash. When the beautiful Brooks campuses were sold in Santa Barbara, many of us alumni were worried that this spelled an impending doom for the school. I can clearly remember the day and wondering if I was on the wrong planet or something, and couldn’t imagine a place without these great teachers who taught the art, science and profession of photography.
It's a signifier of the times to have so many companies (in this instance, Brooks qualified as a company with extremely appealing assets to be liquidated) being swallowed up by investment pirates who essentially gut them, leave them for dead and move on to the next victims. By now, it's an old tactic to find undervalued companies, buy, and liquidate them. For us alumni, it's mind numbing, but for the pirates, it's just another day with more stacks of cash to burn. The buyers are likely a bit startled at any emotions involved because after all, its just cold hard cash for what are essentially pirate chests. I'd agree with many that this Brooks dissolution isn't a reflection of the state of photography, it's more an indication of the corrupt state of American business enterprise, and a national value system for education that has been eroding for quite some time.
This dissolution of Brooks may be viewed as a kind of indictment about the broader deteriorating state of education in the USA; it’s not just a small regional blip on the radar. The health of education in our country is so worn thin as to be in a crisis state as it erodes more each year. The USA is not even in the top 20 nations ranked for quality educations anymore. Just do a quick online search and enter "Educational Ranking by Country" (use the quotation marks) and you'll find the USA in a very low ranking everywhere you look, mostly far outside of 20th place. We're definitely not the country that used to be a powerhouse of international education. If education was the Olympics, the USA would have a cardboard medal with "24th Place" written in crayon.
Brooks fits into this scenario as a school that used to create successful photographers who'd contribute to both the culture and economy of what made the USA a world leader on so many levels. Brooks Institute is another casualty of the sorry state of education here in the USA. It's joined a lot of the state universities around the country that have had entire departments eliminated in recent years. Education has been under attack by politicians for decades now, mostly by having budgets cut each year so that many state universities only have a small percentage of their budgets originating from the government.
When I attended Brooks back in the 70’s, we had state and federal school loans and grants that were very generous, and students didn’t have to start repaying loans until they graduated. That’s not the case now; students have to start repaying immediately, long before they graduate, which makes it nearly impossible for middle-class students to pay for their educations. The steep interest rates and repayment schedules of these school loans presently defines them as predatory loans. If I was 20 years old right now, it would be impossible for me to attend either a school like Brooks Institute or a state university because I’d be priced out of an education. Not a very brilliant plan for educating our new generation of university aged students.
The writing is burnt into the wall, and we still have the time to transform ourselves back into a nation that holds education to be our most valuable national asset, and turn away from the pervasive culture of anti-intellectualism that emanates from many prominent politicians. We can start to solve many of our problems by getting our schools and universities properly funded again by state and federal lawmakers. What’s interesting is that this is a choice our nation has the ability to make. So what’ll it be?
Brooks Institute was among a group of schools of photography that strove to transform students into photographers, and to carry on the tradition and practice of exploring new ideas and making new work with creative photography. Somewhere around the end of our second year, the assignments started being less about technique and more about us finding our own voices, our own visual aesthetics, and way of interpreting the world. This is always a magical moment regardless of whichever school one is attending, because it means that the student is being transformed from just another person going through the motions to what could be described as a unique person with their own visual language. It is indeed a magical moment when they discover themselves as a result of an intensive work ethic with lots of new work produced on a regular basis, and getting astute feedback from very discerning and insightful teachers. This self-discovery often means that there is a new authenticity to their photography. I would also credit classmates who cut through all the nonsense in critiques; they didn't let you get away with anything.
Brooks Institute is a dream, a place where people had the ability to transform themselves and others. It seems such a shame to have such a high performance school disappear. If anyone wants to invest in a fine school of photography, I have just enough energy to help get it off the ground. I'll volunteer to be the Dean of Academics and assist with polishing a new curriculum and helping with facility design. Wouldn't it be great to have the Monticeto Campus back as part of this endeavor? I can easily visualize a new Brooks rising from the ashes.
Larry McNeil is an active artist and photographer with many national and international exhibitions. He is also a scholar who teaches photography and art at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He served on the Master of Fine Arts Advisory Board at Brooks Institute and received his undergraduate degree from there in 1978, and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico.
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