When the School of Art’s 2020 MFA thesis show was abruptly cancelled just 14 days before it was scheduled to open, the graduating class was left with a choice: abandon their unfinished projects and mount a hastily-organized online exhibition of old work, or re-envision what an art thesis could be. Choosing the latter, the students set out on an ambitious two-year book project in which they each worked with an established artist, curator, or scholar. This slow and considered approach gave the six graduates the time to process the monumental global upheaval of the pandemic and to either consider how their work is understood in new lights or to create new work that responds to this specific moment in our history.

The book, which is published by the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art and titled the thing that happens when the thing that is supposed to happen does not happen, includes essays, interviews and dialogues, and visual conversations between two artists’ works. By creating these pairings, this book creates a nuanced view of each student’s art practice within larger social and cultural contexts of our time. Not only do these pairings provide key context for the work of the emerging artists of the 2020 MFA cohort, they provide new insights into established artists’ practices.

CMU’s three-year MFA program emphasizes in-depth dialogue and exchange with a myriad of visiting artists, curators, critics, scholars and other creatives and intellectuals. The thing that happens is a natural extension of this pedagogical mentor/mentee philosophy, which seeks to constantly challenge students to consider how their work functions outside the academy and traditionally-defined artworld. By pairing these six emerging artists with established practitioners and scholars, this book reaffirms the importance of artists’ connections with one another in a time of physical and social isolation.