Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash
To MFA or not to MFA?
That is the question that many artists find themselves asking either post-college, or during a particularly dry spell in their career, or after a lay-off from a day job, or just because the thought of spending two or three years focusing solely on creating art seems simply too good to be true.
Unfortunately—as with most things in life—if it seems too good to be true, it often is.
While an MFA certainly has positive aspects, the downsides (such as endless student loans) can be debilitating. In the United States, higher education is incredibly pricey and, with inflation, tuition rates are soaring.
In the USA, nothing is free and everything is, in essence, a “for-profit” venture. This results in universities acting more like corporations than nonprofits, seeking to increase their ROI on each matriculating student. That means increasing tuition, decreasing facilities and staff, and attempting to squeeze as much money out of every student as possible.
Universities are also taking on new types of loans—and massive amounts of "institutional debt." This has been called the "financialization of higher education” and can lead to the ivory tower's house of cards literally collapsing, which is exactly what happened to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which, in 2020, shockingly "announced [that] the oldest art school of the western United States would not enroll a new fall class."(source)
A quick overview of the top MFA programs in North America also reveals student complaints about studio space, the general attention deficit amongst professors, lack of affordable housing, and other pitfalls accompanying even the most prestigious programs.
Case in point: Columbia University’s MFA program, which, despite being ranked in the top ten of pretty much every “best MFA program for visual artists” list, was the source of major controversy in 2018, when 51 of its 54 graduate students demanded “a tuition refund for the current school year, citing dangerously dilapidated facilities, a faculty shortage, and rising tuition rates.”(source)
To put that in perspective, at the time, “the tuition for Columbia University’s MFA program for the 2017–18 academic year cost $63,961.”(source)
Today, that same program, for one year of study (plus various fees), costs $73,240.
As if that wasn’t enough, the university also states that typical housing costs for one year in NYC are $22,778.(source)
A few years prior, in 2015, all seven first-year MFA students at USC’s Roski School of Art made headlines when they collectively dropped out, citing a tuition “bait and switch,” among other grievances. In their open letter, the seven drop-outs wrote,
“Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92% since 2001¹, compensation for USC’s top 8 executives has more than tripled since 2001², and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009”³. Adjunct faculty, the jobs that freshly-minted MFAs usually get— if they’re lucky — are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage4, while paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt.(source)”
That all being said, the MFA system does come with perks.
The MFA is a terminal degree, meaning it prepares the next generation of university art professors. Almost all university teaching positions require an MFA for eligibility.
A tenured teaching job is like the holy grail for many artists: it provides a stable source of annual income, often comes with free studio space and equipment, allows artist-professors to travel to residencies during the summer semester, or during an entire year of sabbatical. For these reasons, artists continue to pursue MFAs in droves.
Other perks, such as networking opportunities with curators, gallerists, and other artists can lead to inroads with powerful decision-makers—those art world pillars who can literally mint an entire career with one exhibition.
Certain MFAs, such as those from Yale’s School of Art and CalArts, can ensure a certain level of respect among a certain type of dealer, collector, or curator. But, all things considered, the quality of work will always trump an artist’s educational CV. Just look at Basquiat, who didn’t even graduate from high school.
To determine whether or not an MFA is right for you, ask yourself: Do I want to work in academia? If the answer is definitely yes, then an MFA is likely in your future. If you're still not sure, but you know you have the financial means to attend graduate school, then you just need to pick the right program. Jordan Kantor, dean of the California College of Arts, has some objectively good advice on the most important criteria that prospective students should consider when choosing an MFA program.
With this great debate in mind, we asked five of our most recent "featured artists" about their own arts educations, formal and informal. The good news is that, in art, there are no real “rules,” teachers take many forms, and inspiration doesn't have to come at a price.
Left, Theda Sandiford. Right, Mansplaining: Baggage Cart, by Teda Sandiford. Materials: Home Depot shopping cart, neon yellow and orange 550 paracord, Orange 850 paracord, braided 850 paracord, solar LED Twinkle lights, Orange Neon Green and Neon Yellow zip tie blanket on recovered commercial fishing net, 39 x 25 x 42 in
Education can take many forms for artists—tap into online resources.
"As a child, I gained a healthy appreciation for fiber from the women in my family. My mom taught me macramé, as well as weaving and needlepoint. My grandmother taught me how to sew and my aunt Terry taught me how to knit and crochet. I draw upon these skills regularly in my work now.
I have spent countless hours taking workshops, visiting museums, and studying art books to build my artistic acuity. Not to mention, all the sleepless nights, scrolling through process videos on YouTube Pinterest, Instagram, and now TikTok.
I jokingly tell people that I have a YouTube MFA.
I am an intuitive artist. The choices I make are dictated by my emotions and the materiality of found objects. I start with the experience that triggered how I’m feeling in that moment and then allow serendipity and intuition to drive the selection of materials, colors, textures, and techniques I work with."
You can read more about Theda Sandiford's work and practice here.
Left, Pratima Kramer. Right, Gossip by Pratima Kramer. Mixed Media, 14 x 22 x 9 cm
You don't have to choose one area of study.
"My first degree is in Microbiology, but art has always been my passion.
So, while I was working in the Health Service as a scientist, I was attending various part-time art courses and learning skills when I could. I have also been a part-time student at Camberwell College of Arts in St. Martins.
I would call myself mainly self-taught in my artistic expression, but I have also learned techniques from the experts."
You can read more about Pratima Kramer's work and practice here.
Left, Jessica Violleta. Heart (Detail) by Jessica Violetta. Gouache on Watercolor Paper, 24 x 18 x 0.05 in
Formal art education can give you confidence and connections.
"My journey with education has been a big influence on my creative identity. I was not a good student growing up — that is, I was a good student until I was placed in an honors program where I was the weaker of a stronger group. That, paired with developing early as a woman and receiving sexual attention at a very young age, made me feel like my body was more valuable than my mind.
So, I stopped putting any effort into school. I became a "bad kid." I was cutting classes and getting suspended. My dad enrolled me in a performing arts program halfway through high school which honestly saved me — psychologically and academically. It was the first time I was not bored with school. Once I was college-aged, I didn't really have a foundation to get into a great school, so I went to a liberal arts school for three years and dropped out after a horrible boss at my design internship told me I was "worthless" creatively.
I then went through several years of being very lost and confused — taking odd jobs and bouncing around cities until I ended up in San Francisco. During that time, I had the "a-ha" moment to go back to school—this time, to a good art school—and to take it very seriously. I graduated with a BFA in illustration (but, cumulatively with my previous school, more like two degrees) and graduated with honors at 30 years old.
It was the first time I really felt like I could do anything I worked hard at, and that has transformed my ability to maintain a studio practice"
You can read more about Jessica Violetta's work and practice here.
Left, Taylor Kibby. Right, Some other empty road by Taylor Kibby. Stoneware, acrylic paint, silica sand, glass beads
10 x 10 x 4 in
An MFA can accelerate artistic and personal growth
"Grad school was a super compressed and accelerated period of change and growth, but—even in the few years since—I’ve noticed the shifts in how and why I make.
Not just expansive growth, but I also feel like making work has me digging deeper into myself.
I don’t think I have enough distance to say I have any understanding or perspective yet, but I can feel the reverberations of the changes."
You can read more about Taylor Kibby's work and practice here.
Left, Tania Hillion. Right, Résurgence (detail) by Tania Hillion. Oil on cradled wood panel, 48 x 36 x 1.625 in.
There is no single path to becoming an artist.
"I am self-taught, and my practice is quite new, as I started painting in 2019. I have basically trained myself through books and social media by watching contemporary artists doing online demonstrations. I started by reading Harold Speed and practicing drawing with “Human figure” from John H. Vanderpoel.
Without a formal education in art, the hardest thing was to structure my daily practice and also get used to the art scene rhythm. My taste is quite eclectic, therefore making choices on the path wanted to follow was quite challenging. Days are obviously too short to try them all!
To be honest, the very first two years I was deeply feeling sorry for myself for not having a formal education in art. I believed that I could not make it, as I was lacking technique, structure, connections, feedback … you name it. I think I was not giving myself permission to experiment and fail, thinking that everything needs to be perfect from the very beginning.
I was underappreciating my work and finding myself not good enough. I had been comparing myself with talented contemporary artists, but I totally forgot that they have more experience, and that experience is not necessarily related to art school—not that I despise art school, I still would have loved to attend one.
But, now I am truly embracing my path. I have learned (and I still learn) to be more indulgent with myself—to experiment and fail.
Above all, I now understand that there is not a single path to becoming an artist. It is a personal journey. Knowing now that no matter which stage I am in, I will always find room for improvement as my criteria constantly shift, and that is perfectly fine.
Jumping into an art career at 41, living in a remote village in Quebec quite far away from all the art galleries I could rely on, without an academic background, was quite an act of faith—but I still believe it is the best decision I took in my life.
Even though I am eager to have a very strong visual language that is entirely mine, I know it will come in time.
I am at the very early stage of my art journey, and it involves introspection, patience, and perseverance—always coming from a place of sincerity.
I find sanity in my practice. It’s a place where I learn to be myself, where I don’t have to act, to fit. Mostly it is a place where I am growing. It just feels natural, not necessarily easy, but it feels right."
You can read more about Tania Hillion's work and practice here.
Left, Anne Wölk. Right, Hill Sphere (detail) by Anne Wölk. Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 19.3 x 19.3 in.
Art school is great for artistic exploration and not practical business skills.
My artistic training began quite early. I started studying at the Art Academy at Burg Giebichenstein when I was 17 in Ute Pleuger's class. There, I gained extensive knowledge of painting techniques, especially in the study of nature, design and composition theory, and color theory. In Pleuger's painting class, contemporary conceptual abstract painting was taught. For this reason, I changed art schools to continue my studies in Berlin at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee, hoping to get some support in pursuing representational painting. I have also completed an exchange program at Chelsea College of Art and Design in the sculpture department. Over time, I have received several degrees like a BFA and MFA.
Going to art school was part of my artistic journey, but I have not learned there to grow a viable, profitable business in the arts.
For that reason, I would not recommend attending an MFA program to everybody— it depends on the personality of each art student. Success depends not on your technical capabilities or where you got your degree. All that´s required is a willingness to take personal responsibility to show up regularly in your studio and start promoting your art. The most crucial factor for an artist is taking action and making order out of the daily chaos to make informed decisions.
You can read more about Anne Wölk's work and practice here.
What are your thoughts on the great MFA debate? Let us know in the comments below!