Marketing Mondays: The M.F.A.

We're entering graduation month, so it seems appropriate to ask: When did the M.F.A. become so important? And to whom, exactly, is it important?

Colloquially known as "More Fucking Artists," the Master of Fine Arts degree has become--depending on your point of view:

. essential for a career as an exhibiting artist
. a way to avoid the pressure of showing art in the real world
. an invaluable educational experience
. a colossal waste of money
. network central
. a clique with you on the outside
. the best thing you could do for your career
. a debt that virtually assures you'll never be able to buy a home

The days are gone—and they were few to begin with—when dealers would swoop into the M.F.A. studios of a big-city institution, select a student and then create a career for her, or more likely, him.

If you want to teach, yes, the M.F.A. is essential. But consider this: If every M.F.A. graduate expects to teach, there will need to be more and more students—an educational Ponzi pyramid. Think you're going to get a cushy job in a major city? Think again. Unless you have a great career already, your options will be limited to universities in Podunk, Wahoo, and Boondock Corners. OK, that's extreme, but don't plan on teaching in New York, OK? And once you get tenure in Podunk, you're cemented in there.

As for dealers, when I ask how important this terminal degree is when they're considering an artist, every one I have spoken to says, in almost these exact words: "It's about the work." Daniel, a Chelsea dealer, says unequivocally that it makes "no difference." Edward, also a Chelsea dealer, qualifies his "no difference" with the comment that, "It shows me an artist is serious about his/her career." In other words, an M.F.A. might enhance your chances if you have a chance to begin with. Might.

I want to hear from all you artists out there, but in this post I though I would talk to two painters who are also dealers. Both Miles Conrad and Kathleen O'Hara can address the topic in a way that few others can.

Miles Conrad, a partner in the Conrad Wilde Gallery in Tucson, has a newly minted M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. Here's what he has to say:
. "As an artist, it was a grueling and vulnerable experience that was absolutely necessary for me to undertake in order to move my work forward. I learned a lot about myself in the process and my work has evolved. "
. "As a gallery director/curator I am most impressed by strong, coherent work from any source. An M.F.A. is not part of our criteria when evaluating work, but we do consider those factors when making hard decisions and distinctions among equally strong candidates."

Kathleen O'Hara, a partner in the OHT Gallery in Boston, says, "The two years I spent in graduate school were a pivotal phase in my life."
. As an artist: "I think it varies from artist to artist, but for me the process of earning my M.F.A. confirmed my commitment to being a professional artist/curator. Having few expectations other than that I would be provided the opportunity to work in depth with good people, helped. Two years of working in a studio environment with fellow students and faculty artists seemed like a dream come true for me, since I had been out of school for a couple of years working 9-5 for a commercial printer."

. As a dealer: "As co-director at OHT, I agree that it's all about the work. But I also have to say that the overwhelming majority of our artists have an MFA or BFA degree...."

If you're in an M.F.A. program for the opportunity to grow as an artist in a supportive environment, you'd better make sure you pick a school that will support you. If the institution is all about new media and you're a painter, oops, bad choice. (This is the situation my friend J encountered, but she stuck it out because she needed that degree to keep her job.) If what you want is to eventually support yourself through the sale of your art or if you're a woman, better make sure you won't be dealing with old-school professors who believe that selling well means selling out, or that women don't "deserve" the same career as men. (Yes, they're still out there.) Ask around. Choose wisely.

In the interest of transparency, I have an M.A. in Visual Arts from Goddard College. I got it when the terminal degree was less important than it is now. It was a low-residency program, which allowed me to continue working to support myself. Perhaps for that reason, I have not found it nearly as helpful as my own hard work. It's important to note that I'm not interested in academia as a career (though I love the professional development course I teach—one, I might add, that has nothing to do with a degree and everything to do with actual experience).

So what about you: Do you have an M.F.A? Was it worth the time and expense? Has it helped you? If you don't have one, do you feel held back by the lack of the degree? If you're a dealer or curator, does an advanced degree make a difference to you when you're considering an artist or is it "all about the work?"

Image taken from the Internet: Arm and Leg charm by Amanda Jo


* said...

Hi Joanne--

The MFA experience was a good one for me, although different paths work for different people.

- Got me out of Mississippi. I went to Cranbrook (painting MFA), and Detroit was just the right shock to my system in advance of NY.

- Two years of intense focus on reading, thinking, talking about art, painting and relative isolation with a group of peers in the same boat.

- Challenged me in ways I was ready for and needed. I was able to use that challenge to make my work better.

- Working with George Ortman who was head of painting there at that time.

- The degree made teaching a more viable and better-paying 'day job'.

= worth it for me.


CMC said...

I don't have one.

Many times I've wished I did. Sometimes there is a little intimidation felt by artists who don't have the MA or MFA.

More often, I really would have just preferred to have a degree period....more toward Liberal Arts. Frequently I feel that having other interests would feed my art more than the art school kind. Too many people I know seemed to think their art schooling was a waste of time and money.
I know that as a young person I would have probably been too immature to have chosen the right school so that it would have been a good experience.
I'm happy to hear that 'it's the art that counts'...unless you want to teach.
Good topic, Joanne. Thanks for posting on this.

Anonymous said...

if you look at past residents of programs like skowhegan, provincetown, yaddo, rome etc you will find that most have mfas. either non-mfas are not applying, are "worse", or it is a factor in the selection.

Anonymous said...

wow! i could go on for pages... ultimately though the 4 years i spent getting an mfa in sculpture were really worth it in almost every way, however i'm not the type to have regrets and i don't believe that however "good" or "bad" things were at the time (1983-1987), that it was someone else's fault. i did it and i'm responsible for doing it. that said what the experience taught me was that i would never be an artist in the romantic way of an artist that i was led to believe we were all striving to be when in undergrad school. it taught me that those who "made it" in the art world hadn't achieved it by will or talent (which is not to say that many weren't very talented) so much as some arbitrary or random series of events that no one could possibly arrange to happen. then when provided a glimpse of said "artworld"(mostly in chicago), it taught me clearly that this was something that i didn't even want to be part of. it also allowed me to understand the pettiness of individuals and the inescapability or having to deal with them in addition to working like crazy to make something unique and important. i'll have to cut this short 'cause i could just go on and on. one last positive was that it was easily the most fun ever and the microcosm of the art departments allowed me to explore and come to terms with things that wouldn't have been possible anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

oh i forgot... the year i graduated, mfa-sculpture, there was one full-time university teaching position listed in the CAA catalog for sculpture... so ponzi scheme indeed

Joanne Mattera said...

Hey, thanks all. Keep those commments coming.

Jim, I didn't call the MFA program a "Ponzi scheme"--which suggests a sinister motive--but a "Ponzi pyramid," which simply suggests that the architecture is flawed.

As you all talk about the value of the education--and you all do seem to have valued it--what about the cost of that education? Cost was certainly less a factor in the eighties. What about now? Who's in a program now? What kind of debt will you come out with?


Donna Dodson said...

I don't have an MFA. I was a pre-med major in college but I decided not to become a doctor so when I got out of college in 1990, I was a self-taught poet who eventually got interested in found object assemblage art/sculpture, pottery, artist books and drawing with my non-dominant hand. Since I live in Boston and I have supported myself through library jobs, I've had access to research and open studios that led me to my art teacher where I studied and apprenticed for about 5 years intensively. I thought about a low residency MFA or traditional program but by then, I had started to make a mature body of work and since I didn't come through an art school for my undergrad, I wasn't sure I'd like teaching or know how to play the game but I keep it open as an option, in the future, if I needed to do it. said...

My sister received a masters some years ago, and my brother has enough education to be spread across three people, my other brother just graduated with a BFA in photography, my other sister will be graduating not long from now with a bachelors in fashion, my wife will also be graduating this coming month with a masters in Art therapy, and I have my MFA- so, needless to say, I have a lot of direct sources when it comes to higher education (not including the family spouses degrees, which include more art therapy, graphic arts, archeology, and business). We all have discussed the topic of, “was it worth it,” many times- some were, some were-not. As for mine, maybe I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about it if it weren’t for the current job market. However, I don’t regret it; I did it for myself, despite the enormous debt. There is one issue, and that is, “overqualified,” (insert sarcasm: no one should be doing a job they are overqualified for).

Bill said...

I have a BS in Art Education. I taught for a few years, and had planned on getting the MFA, but I never did.

I've never felt held back by the lack of the MFA. In fact, financially, I'm ahead - as I never had the ridiculous amount of debt to pay off. I agree with what Joanne said - my own hard work as an artist, and my experiences working for art related businesses has been more helpful than the MFA.

To the best of my knowledge, the galleries and consultants I know and work with (or would want to work with) care more "about the work" than the degree.

Sharon said...

Hi Joanne,

I earned an MFA from the University of Connecticut where I was fortunate to receive a teaching assistantship which included a full tuition waiver. Everyone in the program (5 people per year) got one, and when we graduated, we may not have had as many artworld connections, but we had a lot less debt than our friends at nearby Yale. Overall, I think it was a good choice.

Sharon @ Two Coats of Paint

Caleb Taylor said...

Thanks for getting back to this topic so promptly. I'm also happy to respond as someone who has finished an MFA recently (May 2008 - Montana State University-Bozeman). Flat out, my three years in grad school were totally worth it - it is similar to a three year residency with total commitment to studio and critical thinking. I went to grad school to change. I emerged a stronger communicator and extremely critical (though I sometimes work to shut off this response.) Applying to grad school was the worst time of my life...six applications and one acceptance. My undergrad professors got into grad school with a phone call. This is not how applications works today.

I did not go to school in a city, there was not a gallery scene, but I did find a network of strong artists that were committed to their practices. I learned about people as much as painting. I'm glad I didn't go to a big school...I had critiques with my professors every other week and this forced me to constantly progress. A lot of bad art comes from bigger art schools.

Being strongly interested in the exchange between studio and teaching, I was glad to be a GTA for three years. My fellow grads and I really practiced the art of teaching and left with a strong foundation. Our funding was jerked around for three years which I felt this was the university's way of taking our steam. In the end, my verbal promise of a full waiver was not the case, but that's okay. I wouldn't be making my work without these influences.

As for galleries, of course the work is the important factor. I have had galleries challenge my pricing and ask "Do you think you should get more b/c you have an MFA?" Yes and no. I've been asked to charge the same as people my same again rather than equal experience. Age does not equal experience. Getting an MFA is a huge financial, personal, and professional commitment. I want my work and prices to reflect this.

I think you should only go to grad school to be changed. Don't go to remain figurative, abstract, minimal, etc. Get an MFA to work.

S.Dineen said...

Since receiving a BFA twelve years ago, I've gone back and forth a few times about getting an MFA but it never really sat well with me. Primarily because of the cost but also because of that transition from art school world to real world. I just didn't want to go through that transition again. I decided that residency programs would be a better route. It still shows commitment to the work but for a fraction of the cost.
I was accepted to my first residency this year to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan for a five week painting residency which takes place in June. So I guess my theory will be tested then.

The other things that have stood out in my mind about MFA programs are the horror stories I heard from people who had faculty from the old boys club who believed in tearing you down to raise you up. I don't mean constructive criticism, we all need that. I mean borderline abusive tactics to beat you down mentally. The worst stories I heard were from two friends in the MFA program at Yale. My female friend was actually told the art world was no place for a woman.

Anonymous said...

Caleb Taylor: "A lot of bad art comes from bigger art schools"... That's some statement!

I don't have an MFA and although I did think about getting one at some point, it never seemed interesting enough. It's now 10 years since I got my BFA and I see that I'm no less successful than the friends from my undergrad years who went on to get their MFAs; I have great gallery representation, public art commissions, etc.
To me, it's a very, very individual choice. I personally had traveled and worked for a few years before I even got my BFA and being 27 at that point, I felt pretty satisfied with being told what to do. Think an artist's success (or whatever we want to call it) is a whole lot more dependent on how genuinely interested/committed a person is - and getting an MFA doesn't prove or guarantee anything.
A good article in the NY Times from a few days ago addresses the myth of the genius and how success has less to do with talent, but almost everything to do with hard work:

Eva said...

I have no degree at all. I went to the Art Students League of New York, but it does not dish out degrees. When I was young I think it held me back because the question “Where did you go to school?” came up so often. Now that I am in my 50s though, this question never comes up! It’s all about the work. And some people who went to school while I went to work are no longer making any kind of art at all.

Of course I have lots of MFA friends. The result varies to the extreme. One friend painted actually much better before his MFA. He sort of lost himself, it seemed to me. He even had Profs and classmates say “Why would you paint that when you can photograph that?” Yeah – and he was a kickass painter. But now that he has the degree he is teaching somewhere. All the cool gallery shows never followed though. And he owes thousands. It’s true – he cannot buy a house. No way.

One thing I also saw a lot was this transition period after school. It took several of my friends years to figure out what they really wanted to make. They looked like their Profs basically. In the end, they figured it out, but it was not a big fast run straight out of the gate.

But there are good stories too - one painter in particular – wow – he is now fulfilling all of the potential he once had, when it all just looked like potential. His recent work is fabulous. But I would say that this doesn’t happen for everyone and maybe not even 50 percent. Because first and foremost, you’ve got to stay an artist.

Admin said...

I considered earning an MFA early on, but my life's path took me in other directions, and now, as someone Older Than Jesus, I think I value more highly my Master's in Life Arts, and I think it's reflected in my art. An MFA can look good on a resume, but my lack of one is not holding me back. Besides, I'm a big believer in DIY.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. In all of these comments I read the works "critical thinking" only once. The purpose of education is NOT to just parrot back information: The purpose might be to take the information into your life and solve problems with knowledge. MFA, BFA, PhD, MA, BS...If you don't have the ability to learn (especially after the constructs of the educational system), remain unteachable in life, than you probably don't have much to say anyway.

Anonymous said...

hmmm, "interesting", these primitive thinkers have not mentioned the even the most basic buzzwords. i concur, shirley. your analysis merits further breakdown of sentence structure. we shall get to the bottom of this.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 10:48,
That's a sweeping statement based on 15 comments, doncha think?

S.A. said...

Joanne -- Thanks for introducing this topic -- I'll relate some things we've already discussed but might be worth injecting here. Two MFA experiences - my own, and that of a good friend (& ex-student) of mine.
My MFA was from Columbia in the mid '70s -- long before it was the powerhouse it is now. The program was musty, but the students were fantastic - smart & adventurous, and I was able to study with and interact with people like Dore Ashton, Richard Pousette Dart, Kurt Varnadoe, Brice Marden, Marcia Tucker...but I think more important, it was 2 years of iconoclastic free thinking, and entre into the NY artworld network. I never really considered teaching until about 12 years later, but when I did, the credential was a big help.
My friend's experience is a bit different -- MFA from Parsons, fairly recently -- a good experience in that his work matured and he got exposure to lots of good ideas and artists -- but he emerged with the equivalent of a hefty mortgage in debt. Unlike many of his wealthy classmates, whose parents set them up in lofts after grad school, he has been struggling with that debt ever since. It has been crippling to his work.
So the question of how much is the MFA worth is a good one. Sharon's experience is the way to go -- the MFA as the foundation of your future practice, not your first big roadblock.

Caleb Taylor said...

A May 2007 Art in America article has some interesting insight into this discussion. It's definitely worth the read...

Also, Daniel Pink's "A Whole New Mind" states that the MFA is the new MBA. As companies transition into this conceptual age of business strategies, they are in need of creative thinkers/strategists to show the suits how to loosen their ties.

Anonymous said...

Caleb said: " companies transition into this conceptual age of business strategies, they are in need of creative thinkers/strategists to show the suits how to loosen their ties."

Interesting point. Also interesting are the MBA's and people from so many other professions (laid off and/or retired) who want to pursue art because of the lack of fulfillment from their previous job/profession.

Anonymous said...

Question for all: Are there to many artists?

Anonymous said...

One more thing.

Going through an MFA program is like eating the apple in Eden. the choice is between self-knowledge and innocence. Which is better? A case can be made for either direction, but the thing is, having both is extremely rare. Currently self-knowledge is valued more highly than innocence, but this wasn't always true. Look at the AbExers. Can you imagine those guys studying theory??

Sharon (again)

Marilyn Fenn said...

Joanne, Great question! I was lucky enough to spend 2.5 years at SAIC getting my BFA. This was after 2 previous degrees and, as one of my professors was so kind to mention, "no longer a spring chicken."

I found that experience to be invaluable -- immersed in an environment totally dedicated to learning art (from my POV), surrounded by other serious artists, with many great teachers, in a city full of excellent art-viewing opportunities. But it went by way too fast, and I didn't find my voice while there.

If I could have afforded the bucks to go to grad school, I would have; I put myself through school, and paying for that private art school used up the next 8 years of my life.

I believe I really missed out by not experiencing the challenge of a good MFA program. I had no burning desire to remain in academics, but I would have wanted to get out of it what Caleb Taylor mentioned: "similar to a three year residency with total commitment to studio and critical thinking." The constant progression of one's work. Really finding oneself as an artist, without the interference of demanding real world jobs that tend to beat down the dreamers among us.

Sixteen years after getting my BFA, with too little time to paint while making a living in another field, my work and I are perhaps only now ready for that challenge. But at this stage of my life, I don't think I could recover from the financial hit. If I were twenty years younger, though, I would go for it.

(I'm trying to post comment a second time; hope it comes through this time, or if show up twice, feel free to delete one please)

Rico said...

Coming to you live from Podunk.

I do not have an MFA. Has it held me back? At times I feel it is used as a first sweep to weed out the stack of artists' materials on a gallery desk, or for grants. I applied to various MFA programs over a period of several years, and even went back as an adult to take 2 years of foundations courses and art history courses, thinking this would surely impress potential graduate review committees. Surely. NOT.

Am I carving out a career without one? Absolutely. I borrowed less than a year's MFA tuition with a small business loan, moved into a new studio and worked my butt off. The debt I have now is debt I can see on the walls of businesses and in people's homes. The conclusions I've arrived at artistically are my own, and even without school I continue to be relentlessly self-educating about art.

My spouse is a professor and is fortunate enough to have gotten tenure last year. She is the exception and potentially the last generation of academics to land such. The job market has been contracting steadily and guess what? Colleges and Universities are finding out they can do just fine with adjuncts, who cost less and have virtually no say in how the institution is run, unlike those pesky professors. What college administrator with a background in the corporate world would want to trade that deal?

Not going to grad school was the best thing for my work, and I stand behind that statement. I think it will always sting in terms of rejection, but learning to live with and work through rejection is a central strength anyone who wants a career in the arts has to develop.

Great blog!

Franklin said...

I posted about this a few weeks ago. I agree pretty well with Joanne.

Joanne Mattera said...

Among the many great comments that have come in, these jump out:

. Ken: "Challenged me in ways I was ready for and needed. I was able to use that challenge to make my work better."

. Sharon: "I earned an MFA from the University of Connecticut where I was fortunate to receive a teaching assistantship which included a full tuition waiver... we may not have had as many artworld connections, but we had a lot less debt than our friends at nearby Yale." So smart. Are there other such institutions?

.Eva: "Because first and foremost, you’ve got to stay an artist."

. Caleb: "I think you should only go to grad school to be changed."

. Chris ("Older than Jesus): "An MFA can look good on a resume, but my lack of one is not holding me back."

. Sarah: "My female friend was actually told the art world was no place for a woman."

. Steven: "...It was 2 years of iconoclastic free thinking."

. Marilyn: "I believe I really missed out by not experiencing the challenge of a good MFA program. I had no burning desire to remain in academics, but I would have wanted to get out of it what Caleb Taylor mentioned: 'similar to a three year residency with total commitment to studio and critical thinking.' The constant progression of one's work. Really finding oneself as an artist, without the interference of demanding real world jobs that tend to beat down the dreamers among us."

. Rico ("live from Podunk"): "Am I carving out a career without one? Absolutely. I borrowed less than a year's MFA tuition with a small business loan, moved into a new studio and worked my butt off. The debt I have now is debt I can see on the walls of businesses and in people's homes. The conclusions I've arrived at artistically are my own, and even without school I continue to be relentlessly self-educating about art."

. Franklin, from his blog: "One can garner many of the benefits of grad school by other means, particularly concentrated time to work. If you have to indebt yourself to go to school, you're essentially borrowing money to buy time to work, but it's an imperfect transaction because grad school will oblige you to spend time on art history courses and writing a thesis. You'll then graduate, and be forced to pay for that time with interest. If you don't immediately start making a living off of your art, you will then have to find other work, and that will subtract from your studio time as a professional, which is the point of all that schooling.

If you really just want the time to work, I would pay for it up front, or as you go. It may be harder to pull it off, but your time will be yours. You'll be able to classify yourself as a professional rather than a student, which brings with it a certain seriousness that's hard to muster when you're enrolled at a university."

I think the consensus is no consensus, but you're passionate whatever side of the easel you're on.

Anonymous asks: Are there too many artists? Good question. Can we save this for next Monday's post? (I was going to do something on Vanity Galleries, but that can wait. So mull your answer and let's tawk about this on Monday.)

Meanwhile keep the MFA comments coming.

Stephanie Sachs said...

I thank you all because I have enjoyed this conversation. After my BFA in '88 I moved to Maui. There were a world of artists making a living and nobody had a degree.
Sharon's words about the "choice between self knowledge and innocence..." strikes a cord with me.
The academic indoctrination into niche conversations with others who are "in the know" is part of the process. In some respects I see it hindering an artists ability to make a living.
At the same time I have loved every moment experienced in art school and Skowhegan. There is a joy in creating along side other artists, learning and exploring.
It is difficult to navigate and find your balance.

NJ ART 73 said...

Hi Joanne,
I have an M.A. in Visual Arts/Painting. I waited six years after graduating with my undergraduate degree. The state college that I received my M.A. from is now a university and that degree is no longer offered. I have no regrets about undertaking that program. I know that an M.F.A could have provided a possible path to tenured teaching position at a college. I needed to take in account cost and location . I was never interested in teaching in a high school . My M.A experience was great -it really helped me to develop as an artist-to go beyond preconceived ideas. I was selected for an honors program and studied with a really great artist who was one of the best people that I have known. Friendships were made that now unfortunately some twenty five years later are dormant.
Now having pointed this out I wonder what is going on regarding the M.F.A. It is my understanding that there are now some institutions that are offering a Ph.D in the fine arts. If that concept were to spread what would be the value of an M.F.A with regards to college level teaching? If the purpose of obtaining an M.F.A is to teach on the college level-good luck. Considering the state of the economy and the job market trends I think that obtaining a teaching position at a college is going to go beyond being competitive. These jobs are going to very hard to obtain .How many college students will seek out an M.F.A in painting as opposed to concentrating in video or computer art? It is my opinion that the one main reason to go after an M.F.A is to grow as an artist. Having this degree may open some doors but that depends on where you go and what options are available when you get there. I think that one should also take into account the cost of this degree. It can be very costly and this can set an artist back for many years.
I guess in the end one must ask what do they want to do and where do they want to go. I was going to go for an M.F.A {low residency program} a few years after my M.A but the cost was too much. Yes it "hurt" to give up that dream but I am still proud of what I accomplished in obtaining an M.A. by going part time for two years after work. Sometimes I think that it would be have been nice to have that "terminal" degree and perhaps a full time tenured position .An artist that I knew told me that an artist just has to paint. I have decided where I would like to end up as an artist .At this time I am enjoying painting & working on improving my art . Eventually I will re start my career. I did end up doing some adjunct college level teaching and while I enjoyed it to a degree it was too brief -one class per semester and just for a year. Adjunct teaching is certainly one path but it is an uncertain one unless one is fortunate to find a situation that keeps bringing you back each semester. An M.F.A may be nice but I do not think that it is essential . I have found that one of the joys in being an artist is this-your education never ends. I am always learning and no matter what degree someone obtains the way to grow as an artist is put mileage on the brush.

nemastoma said...

What I always find so ironic and perplexing, as a biologist, is that it is the people who are the least inclined to think about money – artists – whose studies and professional degree cost the most. It should be the exact opposite.

Joanne Mattera said...

NJArt73 says: "I have an M.A. in Visual Arts/Painting. I waited six years after graduating with my undergraduate degree." I thought that was me writing!

You mention the Ph.D. Holy moly, now you're talking Ponzi in lights. You need a masters to qualify for the program. It can take three years--five if you do it part time. That's going to be some educated salesperson at Pearl paint! Some qualified adjunct! Why buy a home when you can be a barista with a Ph.D?

In the US, the Ph.D. seems to be limited to art history, but in other english-speaking countries, the programs are in full swing for visual arts. The question, of course, is who's going to teach the first batches of Ph.D. candidates? Experience be damned, the students will outrank the teachers.

I Googled "Ph.D., fine art" and here are some links I found:

Anonymous said...

I got an MA in Community Arts from MICA. I found it to be a complete waste of time. Many of the students I was with in the program couldn't meet deadlines and, to my surprise, weren't expected to. I wonder how they are doing now that they are in the real world where deadlines matter? I think my frustration was more in the program than the actual degree. I think a MFA program that was well established would have been a better fit for me.

sra said...

great post topic. i only got my BFA in 2007. i would have loved to launch right into an MFA program. I really wanted to immersed on an art-only, really intense program with the potential to radically change how i was working. however, being two years out of my bfa - and essentially nowhere on the job circuit - i wonder what advantage getting an MFA would have? would i just be pricing myself out of even more jobs? obviously that opens up the "teaching" path but as mentioned - not an easy road - and also not exactly what i should be doing right away. while i would love to teach [it is something i actually do enjoy - having run some small local technical workshops, and having some prior teaching experience with high school kids for a music program] but as far as teaching on the college level for art - i would hope to have more real world success and experience to bring to the classroom. not that every teacher needs to be a self-supporting artist - but i guess as someone not too far out of the BFA gate - i do think that teaching is something that should be taken very seriously. people get out with their MFAs and the only real tangible job prospect is to teach. and i've had some of those newly minted professors who obviously are there for the check and not to teach for teaching's sake. i think it is sometimes forgotten that being a professor puts you in a profound position to alter the path of other people's lives. not to say that one bad prof can ruin it for a student [since yes, obviously this would probably mean they weren't cut out for it anyway] but if it comes to a point where everyone is adjunct and there are not quality instructors? thats a sad environment for even the most promising new artists coming through the schools. while i love the idea of getting the MFA, i think my focus is to make the real world my program. if i can make the commitment to my work and my time - that's half the battle right there. perhaps an investment/focus on residencies, workshops, retreats would be a better use of my financial resources for at least the time being. one of the most precious things you can garner from the MFA programs other than the instruction is the time. which is why it seems probably even more alluring to those like me who are working long hours for little pay and are often too exhausted to eek out enough studio time when they're off from work.

Ingrid said...

Here's what I think is the most valuable aspect of graduate school. Time. You get a two year period to indulge yourself in your own work. I got my MFA in 1993-before marriage/babies/life filtered into my existence and ate away studio time. I met some really interesting artists through our visiting and resident artist programs, made some important friendships that stay with me today, and had unlimited amount of time in the studio to work, experiment, challenge myself, make a mess, reflect. Did it better my career? Probably not. It looks good on a resume, but it was really was simply the gift of time. I miss that some days.

NJ ART 73 said...

I was stunned to hear of a Ph.D in Fine Arts. If you ask me this is ridiculous -overkill. I think that the more you stay invoved in these programs the more you end up tripping over your own two feet.I think that the better M.F. A programs have a balance betwwen theory and practice. I am curious as to how a Ph.D in the fne arts would be constructed. I agree that the students will outnumber the teachers. The professor that I studied with for the majority of classes had a Ph.D but it was in Fine Arts education. This was in addition to his M.F.A. I do find it interesting that in other English speaking countries the Ph.D in the fine arts is the trend. Could this someday supplant the M.F.A? I doubt that this could happen here because of the economics but one never knows. You are correct in that a Ph.D in the Fine Arts will produce an overeducated art materials sales clerk.

Sheree Rensel said...

I have an M.F.A. I do think it has made a difference in my life in some ways. It has given me credibility. It has helped me get my foot into the door of some jobs. However, the most important thing that two year stint gave me was courage, tenacity, and balls. I was so young and na├»ve when I entered grad school. The art department was run by a “good ole boy” network of artist / professors. I had no idea what was in store for me. It was brutal. I was beat down. I was abused. I was even told on a regular basis I would never get through it. Well, I did! I am not sure this educational experience made me a better painter, but it galvanized my entire being. I realized my own strength as an artist and a woman. To this day, I look back, smile, and realize I was the victor in that particular war! It was worth it!

Toby Sisson said...

I wasn't the typical MFA student but I wasn't exactly the typical aspiring artist either. I had been a bartender for 20 years when I entered an undergraduate art school at the age of 42 (I wanted to be an artist all my life but didn't find the courage until mid-life). I cut back to part time bartending, withdrew my savings, and took a leap of faith. It was all I had ever dreamed it could be -- challenging, exhausting, and wonderful. I finally felt completely alive. I graduated magna cum laude in 2003.

I began graduate school at the University of Minnesota in 2006 and after a rigorous 3 year program, I will receive my MFA this spring. I have no regrets. That said, I do have significant debt, but mostly from the private undergrad school. The U of M provided me with a very generous tuition wavier because I taught every semester for all 3 years (and I still worked the bartending job on the weekends so I could make my house payments).

Both degrees were a labor of love. In the process of pursuing my dreams, I discovered that I'm a pretty good teacher as well. This fall I will start a tenure track position at a University in New England. I'm selling my house and starting fresh, again. The last decade has been surreal sometimes but I have been extremely fortunate. I am blessed to be an active artist, have an amazing network of friends/colleagues, do work that I truly love, and after almost 30 years, hang up my bartending apron.

For me at least, earning an MFA at 52 was worth the sweat and tears. I feel like I bagged a unicorn.


Joanne Mattera said...

Dude, you did! Congratulations.

Toby Sisson said...

Joanne, thanks for your response...but this "dude" is actually a woman. Sometimes I forget that my name leads people to believe that I'm male. I invite you and your blog contributors to view my blogspot.

I'm an encaustic painter too!

Ms. Toby Sisson

Kate P. Miller said...

As a public school art teacher (taught all grades) I burned out and finally went back for an MFA in my 40s, to me it was the most indulgent,gratifying and special years of my life, equal only to having babies. I never knew there was so much I didnt know. I loved the academic world and the chance it gave me to understand the huge pardigmical(word?) issues of the day but also the chance to really dig deeply into myself. Since then I continlued to teach adjunct first then full time at a small community college for the past 8 years only to now be told that they can no longer sustain my dept. Art is the first to go though for the life of me I dont understand that.
so as I said in a previous response I now have time time time to ponder, create do all that I craved time for and it is exciting and also terrifying.

Joanne Mattera said...

You know, Kate, the terror can help you pull up some great stuff. And I don't mean "terrifying" stuff--simply that the emotion is a powerful catalyst. I know. Eleven years ago my 9-5 ended (a new editor in chief took over the magazine where I was working and fired the entire senior staff). It was the best thing that could have happened. I decided not to look for another editorial gig and instead went into the studio full time. Unfortunately you'll probably have to learn to live with less money, or at least a less predictable income, but everything is legitimately deductible when you're an artist, so it pretty much works out.

Good luck!

Pretty Lady said...

My take on MFAs has been out there for awhile; basically I notice that everyone I know who did NOT have to go into debt for one (either because of full scholarships, teaching assistanceships or personal financial independence) was happy with their experience. The problem lies in assuming that the benefits conferred by the degree are commensurate with what it costs to get one, which is less and less the case, as tuitions skyrocket and the art market tanks.

Personally, I found that moving to Mexico by myself, knowing no-one, learning the language and the culture, making friends with other artists, writers and musicians, eventually finding a huge, cheap studio and working in it for two years gave me the experiential equivalent of the best MFA on the planet, at a fraction of the cost. The trouble is, this doesn't figure on my resume at all, except for a few modest exhibitions in Mexico and one interview in a highly local Guanajuato newspaper.

I guess it all boils down to your personal definition of 'successful career.' Doing it yourself is really hard, really fun and really obscure.

Unknown said...

"Doing it yourself is really hard, really fun and really obscure."

Hit the nail on the head!

That sums up my experience so far.

Last year, I emailed several artists whose work I admire who attended MFA programs I was considering. All but two had day jobs to support their art careers. Nearly all of those jobs were not involved with the arts (two were teaching, adjuncts). Two out of 24. Less then 10%, ouch.

Most said it was worth it. I wonder if they truly believe this deep inside or it's something the schools encourage the students to believe. It's in the schools best interest to make students believe this so I am wary of it.

I currently have better equipment and space then any program I have looked into can offer me. I don't have any debt and I like it that way. But...I fear that I am hamstringing my career by not punching this very expensive ticket.

I have seen where some programs have teachers who got their BFA and MFA from College A, one right after the other, and they went right into teaching there. That makes no sense to me at all.

As you can see, I am considering it but quite wary of the system that encourages it.

Anonymous said...

Very informative post! Thanks Joanne.
I recently graduated with a BFA Honours in 2008 in Canada. During and after this degree I’ve been slowly, but surely getting my work out and have shows under my belt (and more to come) while still working a full-time job. It’s hard and studio time is a luxury, but I try to squeeze as much as I can every week.

I decided to pursue an MFA mainly because I felt I wasn’t challenged enough with my undergrad program. I decided to apply at a few schools in NYC. I was accepted in two for this fall and was excited to relocate and move to the Big Apple! Unfortunately, the school that I accepted is a private one…which means the tuition is like a down payment to a house! I didn’t get enough funding for this year and cannot enter the US.
This situation made me realize on how expensive a two-year stint can be and decided to wait. I don’t want to pursue my dreams with a huge debt chained on my ankles (heck, I’m already shackled with my undergrad loans). I will try again next year and at least now I have time to apply for more scholarships (I swear I’ve been filling up forms after forms than actually painting on a canvas). I plan to still chug along and get more shows at the time being. Artist residencies are also an option I’m currently pursuing. At the end I really have to tell myself that the most important part is that I haven’t lost my fervor in creating and thinking about art.

Sarah Bliss said...

Joanne- thanks for an excellent topic, and thanks to all who've contributed from their own experience. A number of folks have mentioned the benefit of attending public universities where teaching assistantships and lower tuition can help to significantly reduce program costs. Could anyone recommend particular such schools which also have strong programs? I'm a 45-yr old interdisciplinary sculptor considering applying this fall to an MFA, and am particularly interested in programs strong in critical thinking and non-traditional methods of working. Thanks!!

cbeiers said...

I graduated in 2000 december with an MFA in ceramic sculpture. I have been working in other careers to support my art habit since then. I mostly dabbled in art in the evening and weekends previous to my lay off in 08 january. Since then I have been making art part time working part time living on a very small income. This present lifestyle is my favorite since I began making art in the late 1980's.

Due to my bachelor's in Fine Art from a private christian liberal arts and my Masters from University Montana-Missoula I am currently in forebearance or deferment from my loan payments. I doubt I will ever buy my own home. I have been painting rather than doing ceramics since last january in part because I do not have the money or studio space to support the clay habit.

Graduate School was my plan to get myself making art regularly and my hope was that a teaching job would pay for my loans when I graduated. That didn't work. I am actually really glad it didn't because I have learned so much and gained so much freedom in painting on my own. It is empowering to have the time to create and to network with artists and business people when I am not cleaning houses for money.

Had I known that I had the choice between an art education and a house/studio I think I would still have gotten my education. I would have made less expensive choices in the medium I work with as well as limiting it to a BFA at the most. There are so many opportunities for education that you can take advantage of and pay as you go. Workshops, residencies, classes, art associations that sponsor group work sessions... I hope if youre out there thinking about a master's that you realize this and also that anyone who can create something can teach through parks and rec or other non academic options.

As for critical thinking, I value it. I do find it frustrating though that since I am lower class economically it is rare that I encounter people to enjoy it with. The academic world really is an ivory tower and the artists have a tower of their own inside of that and it barely relates to the real art world as far as becoming an established artist is concerned. I think the statement about innocence vs. knowledge was very astute.

Anonymous said...

I enter graduate school a poor white married man with four kids and a wife, I left a a young educated father and husband of five kids and a wife. I was able to work on winter and summer breaks in the oil and gas fields;and came out of graduate school with $17,000 in debt after for 3 years. I was able to pay the student loans of in 2 1/2 years; whilie working back in oil field, not very much on ART. Recently I have been able to make the time to concentrate on my body of Art work and teach the community at the same time. I am very excited about making Art. Take Care. Pat

Anonymous said...

To people who say "I don't have an MFA and it doesn't hold me back" you are all literally delusional. You simply cannot know what you are missing by not pursuing a given path. It doesn't work out for everybody but it definitely does for some. I literally know many, many artists who are exhibiting their work at and selling it to MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, etc. simply because of the contacts they made during their MFA programs. I know one artist whose first teaching job is at the premier Ivy League art school even though he did not attend a particularly prestigious, although very well located, MFA program. The debt issue is another form of delusion. Haven't any of you ever heard of the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program? You literally do not have to pay the loan off, ever. And then they forgive the balance after enough time has passed. Of course, the MFA is not for every one, but do not use debt or the delusion that you could do just as well on your own as an excuse to not pursue it.

Joanne Mattera said...

Here's the thing, Anonymous 1:21. If you're going to be insulting to me or my readers, then have the courage to write under your own name instead of hiding behnd the curtain of anonymity. Literally.

Anonymous said...

I don't have an MFA, although one of my teachers was adamant I should. I understood her reasoning, but it just didn't sit right with me. Instead I did an associates in fashion design (at FIT) that interested me and opened up other worlds into the art that I now make. I can't speak to what an MFA is like, but at one school I attended, SFAI, my performance/installation classes were mixed with half MFA's, and undergrad. So I don't feel like I missed out on anything, and in the early 90's there, I loved the school and felt that it was exactly what I wanted and needed. A lot of my friends have their MFA's from Hunter College because it was much cheaper by half. At that time I thought I could always go back and get one. Now I only wish I could tack it on for the consideration I wonder rightly or not that MFA's are looked at more for grants, opportunities, etc.

I also pretty much sail my own boat when it comes to doing work. I left my first school which I regret going to because of a scholarship. I ran into the 'old boys' there, this was back in the late 80's. I was told by the head of the sculpture dept. that I couldn't do video, ceramics, and whatever else I wanted in sculpture. It was very hard to deal with at 17, being told I didn't know what sculpture was, being berated for my work -and he wanted to take me out to dinner, yes this happened. So off to SFAI I went where I could be myself.

Now I am amazed that so many have MFA's, since most people I knew could barely afford a BFA. Most of my friends with MFA's have deeply valued the experience, also most of them teach.

Residencies have profoundly changed me, challenged me, introduced new locales and people- musicians, writers, dancers and given me great bodies of work.

Everyone has their own experience. It's been nice to read the comments.

Anonymous said...

I have gone back & forth in pursuit of an MFA because it gives the illusion one is a master. This is partly true because of the value society gives to it and the focus of work actually done.

I have children, run a business and maintain a painting practice. My husband is an academic at a very prestigious institution. Over the years, there have been many great artists/scholars, etc with whom I've talked to about this subject. I opted not to pursue the M.F.A. primarily because as one matures (I'm in my 40's) it's not about pleasing what ever construct says you need it.
I do believe in education but as someone who is also an art educator, the key is in the regular practice. Education is everywhere and learning how to absorb wisdom and slowing down to truly listen is a strong magic. A strong practice, living life fully, challenging yourself and surrounding yourself with those who inspire you are utmost. If you're not independently wealthy, you learn to be a great juggler...and a richer person in the end.