Schools are more than brick-and-mortar buildings children attend during the day to learn; for many families, they’re community centers, too. So when a city closes one, people often experience a particular sense of grief and upheaval, as well as uncertainty about their government’s commitment to equitable education. Over the last decade, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia have shut hundreds of public schools—frequently leaving behind vacant buildings in impoverished neighborhoods and raising questions about lawmakers’ motivations. (Last year, four independent education organizations in Louisiana, Illinois, and New Jersey filed a Title VI complaint asking the U.S. Justice and Education departments to investigate racist or otherwise discriminatory practices in state closings.) It’s against this backdrop that contemporary artists are using the empty buildings to explore the emotional toll that school closures take on residents—entering the fraught education debate whether they intend to or not.
Artists have long realized the emotive power of abandoned places, from the 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert (known as “Hubert Des Ruins”) to the 20th-century conceptualists who recognized that neglected buildings can articulate complex social issues. One such example is Gordon Matta-Clark, who in his 1974 project, Splitting, famously sawed an ordinary, suburban New Jersey home awaiting demolition down the middle. As the New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff put it: Splitting encapsulated “the growing sense that the American dream was evaporating.” (A few months later, the house was destroyed.) Similarly, the husband-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher are known for their powerful photographs of the declining industrial era. Taken across Europe and North America, the photos feature abandoned plants and factories whose functions, like those who once worked there, had become obsolete.