Monday, January 30, 2006

Why I do not have an MFA

Every now and then I look at my life and wonder, "how did I get here?" Not that the level of drama, intrigue and adventure hasn't far exceeded my wildest dreams, but if someone had told my twenty-one-year-old self, "You will end up as a massage therapist in Brooklyn, living with cats," I would either have dismissed that person in total contempt or pegged them in the jaw, depending upon my state of mind at the time. Particularly in times of confusion and economic struggle, I wonder, "what was I thinking, during those carefree college days when I was Big Girl On Campus? How did I plan to make a living?"

After a few seconds of reflection, I remember the answer. I had what seemed like a solid, practical, realistic plan: get a BFA, get an MFA, get a gallery or two dealing my work, and teach. That was what our professors did; that was the assumed trajectory. This plan seemed realistic even in its humility; of course I wasn't counting on being an Art Star by the age of twenty-seven, just a professor by the age of thirty. With my acknowleged talent, discipline and 'cum laude' GPA, I didn't see how this could be a problem. Certainly I didn't count myself among the slackers who mumbled, "well, I like to draw, and I like drugs, so why not be an art major?"

Lordy, lordy, lordy.

Every so often I get an email from a stranger who has found my website and wants the inside scoop on SFAI. They never pay attention when I tell them "DO NOT DO IT. DO NOT GO TO THAT SCHOOL." When I tell them about the politics, the pettiness, the squabbles and backbiting and lack of practical assistance of any kind, they always think it sounds like an interesting challenge. They think, "I'm the talented one; I'm the one who will triumph. Lemme at 'em."

But lately I got hold of the one piece of information that convinces them of what I really mean. A very talented friend of mine from SFAI recently re-entered my life; she finally finished her undergraduate degree there, after a long set of detours. She is bright, holy, works like a maniac, and achieved more worldly recognition in her undergraduate days than a lot of SFAI professors ever will. She applied to some MFA programs and went to the SFAI faculty, of course, for the necessary recommendations.

One of those faculty members was the chair of the painting department, who for some reason, during my student days, always made me uncomfortable. I took a tutorial with her, and found that after one of her critiques I would destroy whatever piece I had been working on, and be unable to continue working for a week or two. Finally I started avoiding her, just so I could get something accomplished. She was nominally supportive of me only after I proved that I was not someone who fades into the woodwork when patronized, slapped down or ignored; we were on superficially good terms at graduation, but whenever I dropped by campus afterward, she didn't seem to recognize me.

Other former students, though, particularly the successful ones, spoke highly of her. "I know you don't like her, but she's been a second mother to me...". I wondered if I was just being an asshole.

Then my friend told me, "Chairwoman X has been on a lot of medication lately; that's probably why she said it. She came to me and confided, 'Darla, you don't realize it, but you're my competition now, and there aren't a lot of places for women in the art world. So I'm afraid I can't write you that recommendation.'"


I ask you, what kind of an institution hires someone who thinks like that, let alone makes them head of a department? "The San Francisco Art Institute: We Specialize in Career Sabotage." A degree from SFAI guarantees nothing except that you will be qualified to operate an espresso machine for a living, provided you had the sense to do work-study in the student café.

What I see is that higher education, particularly in "soft" disciplines like art and literature, has become a sort of pyramid scheme, trading on the unconsidered, antiquated notion that a college degree always helps you get ahead. Colleges and universities have become economic entities that exist to sustain themselves, not the students they purport to be educating. A quick look at the numbers can show you that. An MFA from SFAI costs $40-60K; for every three tenured professors who retire, schools are hiring one part-time, non-tenure-track flunkey to replace them. The chances of making a decent living as a university art professor after graduating with an MFA are nearly nil--let alone paying off your monster debt.

This fact is borne out among my immediate acquaintance. I do not know a single person within twenty years of my age who holds an MFA and a teaching job which pays the bills. They're stocking groceries at the co-op, working in libraries, temping, doing short-term, exhausting and thankless teaching gigs in inner-city public schools, designing textiles, pumping espresso, or sponging off their spouses. Some of them were wise enough to learn a technical skill of some sort, and are eking out a living in web design or carpentry. Most of them have either settled down permanently at the bottom of the economic ladder, or have made a complete career change and are no longer making art at all.

The cold economics of the situation, moreover, are conflated with a not-so-subtle implication that poverty equals moral and artistic virtue. "How do we pay for this?" asked a freshman student, at SFAI's beginning-of-term assembly. "Learn to live on almost nothing," was the perfectly straight response, from the director himself. And it is true that practicing thrift and learning to prioritize has made my life infinitely richer and more enjoyable than if I were pulling down $100K a year in a profession that bored me.

But that was the sum total of practical economic advice or assistance we received from the institution as a whole. Trivial, sordid subjects like marketing, career management, portfolio presentation, accounting, taxes, contracts, negotiation, and intellectual property law were never mentioned; still less did we make any of those useful, much ballyhoo'd "career contacts" that are indispensible in the 24-7 schmooze-a-thon that is the 'art world.' On the contrary--should a professor or another student happen to have a close personal friend who was opening up a new gallery, or know a dealer who'd be interested in a certain person's style of work, that person kept mighty quiet about it.

All schools, of course, are different. Whenever I meet someone who is enrolled in an MFA program, or has graduated from one, I pick their brains. So far the only program I've heard about which provides genuinely stimulating assignments, adequate studio space, assigned faculty mentorship, career assistance and top-quality technical instruction is the California College of Arts and Crafts. All the rest of them seem to consist of marathon sessions of arcane rhetoric and emotional abuse, masquerading as "critiques," labyrinthine ego politics, and very little else.

This business of "critique" needs to be addressed as well. "Critique" is the institutional trump card, the biggest rhetorical power play they undertake to manipulate students into dropping $13K per semester. "You need to be able to talk about your work," they say. "You need to learn to think about your audience, to think critically, to learn the vocabulary." Tommyrot. The greatest artists I have known have, most of them, been completely inarticulate. They do what they do, regardless of the army of academics following them around and telling them that they're irrelevant.

Moreover, too much analysis, too early on, can kill a creative idea faster than a gallon of Raid. Truly powerful visual art is rarely a product of intellectual construct; it emerges from a different part of the brain. The verbal rationalizations and explications of a work of art generally take place long after the act of creation. Rare is the artist who can think and paint at the same time.

This all goes partly to explain why I emerged from SFAI, 'cum laude' BFA in hand, in a state of creative, financial and emotional shock. I hadn't given much thought to MFA programs at all; I just instinctively knew that I needed some time to regroup. Financially desperate, I took the first full-time, temporary secretarial job from hell that presented itself. Three months later I stormed out of the job from hell and showered Bank of America upper management with irate letters, exposing their corporate archivist as a fraudulent bully. Then I sat down and figured out the minimum income I needed in order to survive, and calculated how much I had to earn per hour to survive on twenty hours paid labor a week, so that I could spend the rest of the time in the studio. After that I just followed my nose, to Mexico, massage school, and Brooklyn.

So, to anyone out there who is considering going into an MFA program, I offer this advice; don't. Go to the library if you must, and check out every book on critical theory, technique, composition and rhetoric that interests you. If you need to learn something like stonecutting, casting, welding or carpentry, take classes at a community college. Read artist biographies and go to museums. Then take that fifty thousand dollars that you were going to spend on an MFA, go to a country whose economy is one order of magnitude cheaper than the United States, rent a studio, and work for two to five years. Come back to this country, get a website and a blog, and start networking.

You may never become a Famous Artist, but it will be a lot of fun.


Chris C. said...

Wow. If I were ever tempted to regret not going to art school I think I'm over it now, lol.

Interestingly, probably through ignorance and misadventure as much as doggedly "following my nose" my own course has resembled your advice surprisingly closely. And for better or worse, I wouldn't change it. However, that course has its own toll. Without the support of the institutional credibility (as perceived by both others and self) of a formal art education, the level of confidence and conviction required from oneself can be difficult to sustain.

Maybe the toll most clearly boils down to: I don't know what I don't know. Maybe I know lots, maybe I know little, but not having had the traditional education I'm always left to my own judgment. Not only do I re-invent the wheel a lot, lets just say it makes opportunity for a lot of very public "mistakes", lol.

Whatever... I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. Plus, I never had any debt. And..."fun"? You bet!!


Anonymous said...

That's so horrifying & fascinating!

My program at State has been very careful to warn us of all the pitfalls, and made us take a class focused around professional managing of professional everything, and what we could expect. Basically, "You are now going to teach community college or high school with your masters..."

Anonymous said...

My husband did his MFA at a state school, pretty well known program. He adjunted for three years then got a job as a tenure track prof at another state u. He currently teaches in an MFA program, so has a view from a couple of perspectives. There are a few things I would say to anyone considering an MFA. Specifically those who want an MFA as a way to a teaching job. I appologize if these remarks are excessive in length, but I really feel that people go into these things with some deadly misconceptioins.

1.Forget private schools. PLEASE. Why pay for something that someone else is going to pay YOU to get? My husband got money in the form of teaching fellowships to go to school as well as a full tuition waiver. That was pretty much the deal for most of the people in that program. The teaching gigs then help you to get your first adjunt work. If you apply to one of those programs and you don't get in, apply again next year. They are competitive, while the private schools take pretty much anyone whose willing to pay. I know some of you don't believe me, but it's true. I have known art students as numerous as the fucking stars in the sky and have never seen anyone get turned down by a pricey private school. The UC schools turn down fifty for every one they take. What does that tell you?

2. If you are serious about ever getting a teaching job realize that you may have to move to West B.F., Middle of Nowhere for a while to get in the door. If you're getting an MFA and simultaneously thinking about a couple of urban areas that are cool where you might like to live and where you would think about looking for a job, just forget it now and save yourself the pain. Truth is, once you get the first real teaching job you're golden. That's when you can start getting picky about where you'd like to live.

3. Don't really expect your art professors to give you all kinds of wonderful wisdom that's going to open doors for you. They don't have that kind of power. Look, you get two years to do your work without a job at Coffee Corp. Take advantage of it and realize that nobody can teach you how to be an artist. You INVENT a way to do that and only by working your ass off. Don't coast through doing the bare minimum that is demanded of you because there is some crazy bastard out there, who you are going to go up against, that is willing to do whatever it takes.

4. As non-intuitive as it may seem, it is really unlikely that wearing good outfits is going to get you very far. Show up to an interview wearing a tie. Really. Don't dress like a rock star. Most artists in academia don't, but thier most poseurish students do. Arriving to an academic interview dressed like the most obnoxious art student your interviewers are currently wiping the nose of is not the way to go. Which leads me to the next point.

5. The skills you will need to land a job are varied and they aren't things you will get from any MFA program I know of. Do yourself a favor. Become an amazing public speaker. Do slide presentations at every opportunity and create opportunities to do more. Get some pointless coffee house shows and do artist talks. Present at every community college, every arts group, toastmasters, anything. It's one of the key parts of academic interviews and most artists are BAD at it. (Read: 'boring and tedious'.) You can give yourself such a powerful advantage that it should be illegal, like steriods in baseball. Get advice from people over in the Communications Dept on campus. Learn breathing and isometrics voice and how to structure a presentation to keep people engaged. There is a lot to learn on the subject and I promise it's the biggest favor you will ever do yourself. This is as much a part of your research as making your work.

6. If you don't want to teach why get an MFA? I guess the two years to work is good if you really do work. Commercial galleries sure as hell don't care about the MFA. Most of the really great artists of the twentieth century didn't have art degrees.

Good luck, people!

Pretty Lady said...

Hey, Anon,. that was AWESOME. Mind if I cut and paste it into a new post?

Anonymous said...

okay by me

philippe Orlando said...

I completely agree with the owner of this blog. Getting an MFA is probably worthless. Anonymous has also a point. Forget about expensive private school. I toyed with the idea to get an MFA in Film and Video Production. I've done several shorts and tried to shoot a full lenght movie. I failed on the financial side. SO I thought that maybe going to a good state school and get an MFA to be able to teach would be great. I did find a great school, cheap and challenging and interesting. It's the Film and Video Production Program at Iowa University. The same school that harbored the Iowa Writers' workshop. Still, even though the program is of quality and the school a very good public school, getting an MFA from it doesn't guarantee that you'll find a decent teaching position. YOu will if you get a Ph.D in Math or physics, or even in Spanish. Spending three years, as it's the case in the very good MFA program at University of Iowa is still a gamble.

philippe Orlando said...

By the way, I'm just remembering, this past march I have friends at Illinois Wesleyan University in BLoomington who interviewed 150 candidates with MFA in theatre for a position in that same school, which is lost in the middle of the corn and caters basically to spoiled brats who think University of Illinois is not good enough for them. I spent 7 years in Bloomington, IL and I'm soooo glad I'm back on the east coast since June. That was torture. My point?
There's no job for people with MFA who want to teach and there will be so many applicants for position in the middle of nowhere surrounded by corn.
Don't waste your time. said...

I just ran across your MFA post and couldn't agree more. I recall an article in New Art Examiner (a few years back) that came out and stated "MFA programs are pyramid schemes".

Anonymous said...

Very interesting critical look inside the MFA. Serena, (and anyone else): How do you feel about your BFA education? I switched out of a BFA program at the University of Florida because I noticed some of the things that you all mention going on. I felt like "If this is the top of the tower, why do I want to climb it?". Recently I've been rethinking that choice. I could definatly use to build more skills- do you feel the the BFa program was worth it?

Pretty Lady said...

What I feel about my BFA was that I got out of it what I put into it, which was a hell of a lot. I co-founded an alternative artspace, worked like crazy, watched all the other artists working like crazy, and got arrested for vandalism.

What I did NOT get out of it was any contribution from the institution itself, other than a place to work and observe other artists working. You can get this without paying a ridiculous sum of money. That's why I strongly recommend community colleges, night classes, cooperative studios, and the like. You build skills by studying with teachers who are skilled at both a craft and at teaching a craft, reading books, and practicing.

Artists who teach at expensive art colleges are rarely skilled, either at a craft or at teaching it. They're skilled at spouting nonsense. Skip it.

Anonymous said...

Great to see this come up as #1 on the "getting an MFA" google.

It speaks the painful truth. These schools as (mostly) a scam.

But the harder truth is that art making is really really really hard.

Chardin once commented to his students (paraphrasing) "if everything in the world had to pass as high a standard as an artist, nothing would get done."

Anonymous said...

Pretty Lady and Anonymous, you've hit the nail squarely on the head without missing a beat. Thank you so much for laying it out there-- some of us need to hear that more often.

I've been battling the MFA dilemma for the last year and a half since graduation, the least of the reasons being I'm already 32 and just beginning my professional career. It's hard to not feel behind, and putting myself further into debt without any guarantees (god did that BFA cost me) has always left me feeling depressed.

If the road that MFA leads down is so dismal, why is the pressure so high and where is that pressure coming from? I certainly feel it, no matter how much common sense I know and hear.

Pretty Lady said...

If the road that MFA leads down is so dismal, why is the pressure so high and where is that pressure coming from?

Sharon, my dear, isn't it obvious? Someone has an economic interest in convincing you that getting an MFA is the Only Way To Succeed, because their livelihood depends on it. Also, licences and certifications and degrees from fancy universities make people feel safe and validated; also, one artist described the phenomenon as 'degree inflation.' When there are a glut of MFAs on the market, it becomes like a high-school degree--you have to have one to get a job running a cash register.

Anonymous said...

Well I will certainly admit my tendency to believe that as you say, this economic interest is leading the way-- after all, institutions are out to make money, aren't they? It's a good point.

The problem for artists is the rate of return, or rather, the lack of such.

Mostly, I resent the pressure. It takes away the purpose of art completely, and turns it into a business based on a model that runs contrary to making it.

At the end of the day, it's good to see confirmation of what I've suspected all along--that it isn't necessary and artists don't have to bury themselves to get what they want. At least, not completely.

Wil M said...

wow. I may be the only person to say this, but my MFA was a great move. Way too expensive (grants helped a little) but, ultimately, it made my WORK better. Which is what it's actually for. Not career advancement. Not an entre into a teaching gig. Just an environment in which you can be challenged by your professors and inspired by your peers. Where you can meet people who actually have have careers in the art world and discover that they, like you, are completely real. It's not just that my work is better today than it would be had I not spent the last two years in a MFA program, it's that I feel like my work in five or ten years will be better than it would have been without it. It was expensive and it hurt like hell but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Anonymous said...

Wil, thanks will for putting in your comment. I completely agree with you. YOU GO TO GRAD SCHOOL TO BECOME A BETTER ARTIST. People are too quick to blame others. There is no victim here. There is no evil institution manipulating fragile minds. Art programs are not a big money maker. Are you kidding? A business school with wealthy donations from alumni is a money maker. The individual makes it work, not the school. Ask yourself why do I go to grad school? If the answer is to teach drawing I, painting I, or any other fundamental course you are way off. If you want to learn how to teach art then go into art education. I'm usually not this argumentive. The bottom line is why do you want to go to grad school? The answer should be to make better work, and to know why you are making better work, and to continue making better work. Develop / evolve. Even after 5 years of an MFA, you still struggle with these questions, but you are confident in what, why, and how, you are doing what you're doing.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying my MFA program at the college of art and design at the University of North Texas. It's very personal, the instructors seem to genuinely like and want to help you, and there is a lot of opportunity to T.A..

Oly said...

Hey, PL.
Best... Post... Ever.


But I have to say it applies to any and all careers and all education levels.

I worked in the financial industry trenches for 4 years here alongside high school grads and associates degree people.

Me, with a degree from Boston University's prestigious College of Communication.


It's done me no good whatsoever.

Education is shouted at kids so strongly it's ridiculous.

Here's what I think is far more important than education in terms of "succcess."--

1. Self-Confidence. But it's not all braggodoccio. Sometimes they're the silent type, shy, etc., not good at words-- but they still exude a sense of being in touch with their work and are able to transfer that sense of pride in themselves to others.

2. Secondary source of money-- parents, relatives, trust funds, spouses, significant others, sugar daddies and mamas, etc.. All the education in the world can't beat a full wallet.

3. Good looks. No really. It is rare that I see someone considered "successful" who is not also what's considered to be "visually attractive." There's a lot of research with science done on this, but I'm a believer. I think the art world is just as gaga over looks as any other entertainment-based industry.

4. Masters of Manipulation. The greatest artists today arent necessarily making the greatest art. But they ARE masters at getting OTHERS to BELIEVE they are the greatest. This is a sales technique plain and simple.

That's my cents on it.

No MFA--Oly

Pretty Lady said...

Thanks, Oly! You nailed it! Why do you think I chose the moniker I did? Sometimes people need to be steered...


Anonymous said...

"I ask you, what kind of an institution hires someone who thinks like that, let alone makes them head of a department? "

Answer: every art institution. I hate to say it, but that describes every prof I had at Canadian Art College Not Worth Naming. I think this phenomenon may be an inherent quality of a professional art milieu.

"I do not know a single person within twenty years of my age who holds an MFA and a teaching job which pays the bills. ...Some of them were wise enough to learn a technical skill of some sort, and are eking out a living in web design or carpentry. Most of them have either settled down permanently at the bottom of the economic ladder, or have made a complete career change and are no longer making art at all."

That's a spot-on description of art school grads here in Toronto. I'm the web designer. The living's all right, but I really have to fight for my studio time, and as you may be able to tell from my blog, this makes me Angry and Frustrated.

"Truly powerful visual art is rarely a product of intellectual construct; it emerges from a different part of the brain. "

I couldn't agree more. Furthermore, the student critique must die. I would not learn to drive or play chess from fellow novices. Same with art. Furthermore, considering that most art students view each other as competition, there is too much conflict of interest for them to EVER say anything genuinely useful.

I still resent the 40K I spent on Art College. There is no way in hell I'll get an MFA. I'd rather use the money to buy myself studio time.

Anonymous said...

Reading this blog has fortified my belief that there are indeed no clear path to success, but you can reach it in many different ways. While I agree that no degree gaurantees sucess, whether it is a MFA, MBA or PHD. However, I do disagree with the notion that having a solid education in your discipline is unneccessary or unimportant. Education gives you the substance neccessary to find solutions in a dilemna and articulate yourself to your constiuents. Not having it is like having an uninformed attorney trying argue your case in a murder trial. Don't get me wrong, getting a degree does not imply supreme intelligence to those without one nor does it guarantee success, but it is a great tool or resource to have in your development as an artist.

Having both practical and theorectical experiences are key factors to having a well-rounded education (peiod). Because it is during your studies that you will learn about the different arts, cultures and political figures that carved the social histories of the world. School provides a structured environment to allow you to do this effectively; where I think that one's going to the library on there spare time could hardly compare to a curriculm that would allow you to determine the measure you aptitude of a skill or your grasp of the percieved topic by someone who can properly facilitate that assessment. Getting a degree is not an "end-all", it is about what you do with it. (period)

Don't be misled to think that a degree is worthless, as I have several friends in Human Resources for reputable Fortune 500 companies, who can attest to the fact that having a post-graduate degree is primarily an asset to get your foot in the door for being considered to obtain C-level position (i.e. Creative Directors, Senior Design Managers, etc). But once you get in there, YOU have to sell you.

So remember, if it doesn't make dollars it never makes sence, no matter what type of degree you acquire. You've just got to create your own path. Develop a startegy that best allows the marriage of your art with the realites of global commerce. No field is exempt from the backlash of this poor economy, unless you are a biochemist developing alternative energies to alleviate this countries dependence on foriegn oil. (lol)

And let's face it, just as all of us aren't artists, most of us are certainly not biochemists! Just follow your heart and get the best hustle on that you can to sustain yourselves while doing it. All I know is, that it seems that life is capable of being much more fulfilling doing something you love, rather than something you hate or are just going through the motions doing to get a paycheck.

The most successful businessmen are great thinkers and those who dared to take risks. They dreamt a dream, devised a plan and went for it. When they had hiccups, they improvised, but nonetheless still moved forward. And when they needed someone to do the grunt work, they employed people with had no foresight to do it for them.So if you're making coffee or working at someone's cash register, when you should be creating your next best work as an artist, then perhaps you haven't had enough foresight for your life. Exercise the muscle between your ears, dear friends. If you don't think, others will do it for you. Just food for thought.

Peace & Love

Anonymous said...

I wonder have your thoughts changed since 2006?

You brought up so many valid points, and for many years I have been on a similar track. After quitting a BFA program over 15 years ago in Drawing and Painting I went back to school on my own terms and developed my own integrated major, part creative writing, part computer graphics. Everyone thought I was crazy, it seemed so useless, but I loved it.

I decided, however, NO MFA! No way. No how. Not ever.

One little problem, I worked professionally the whole time in web design and graphic design, self-trained. In marketing firms, federal websites, now I make 75k at a non-profit, but now I will go no higher.

Why? – I don’t have a Master’s.
Yup, I have reached my professional plateau, nowhere to go but sideways.

You can’t do an MFA “part-time” 60 credit hours, my co-workers are in programs that are 36 cr maybe 42 cr.

It sucks, but man after working with wanna-be’s and backstabbers in hierarchical organizations for the past seven years, it makes two years of busting balls with over inflated academic egos seem like a way to have fun.

I am starting to think about going for the MFA. To move up, but at the same time move backwards. Give up my 401k, health Insurance, transportation reimbursement, and health club discount. I see so many MFA clad young ones sailing past me. I am a bit on the older side and feel if I don’t decide soon, it will be too late.

I recall crit. When I look back I think: Why did I let I bug me so much?

Pretty Lady said...

You think an MFA is going to help you make MORE than $75K A YEAR???

It won't. Sheesh.

Ebriel said...

To the most recent Anon: get a targeted MA, not an MFA, unless it's in Digital Art. You can do it part-time, and it'd be more relevant to what you're doing now.

What field do you want to use it for? Do you want to change careers? The art world isn't too forgiving of those over 40...or those under it, either.

Anonymous said...

I just got an MFA in creative writing, and I hear a lot of these same arguments... and I think they are a little tired and often driven by bitterness. This blog makes good points... but anyone who did their research ought to have known that going into it. The MFA is not a teaching degree, it is a studio degree.

It has been my experience that most of my fellow MFAers never expected to secure a tenure track job, if they did, great, but they knew it unlikely. They just wanted to write and learn. I went to one of the aforementioned state schools, a reputable one, that paid ALL of my tuition, and between fellowships and T.A. positions, I made over $40,000 in pay in less than two years (all this, and in four semesters I only taught three classes the whole time). Not bad for a student. Good, supportive programs are out there, you just have to look for them. My teachers were immensely helpful and, those that weren't, I avoided.

I will also point out that of the people who were the "best" (IMO), hard working writers were also the ones who began to win major awards and get published in reputable magazines... some even in places like The New Yorker, Playboy, etc... I haven't broken into slick mags yet, but I've already started getting into reputable often-anthologized literary journals... and my MFA only arrived in the mail last week. Am I getting published b/c of the degree? No. But the instruction and support helped a lot.

So before you bash the MFA, take an honest look around. Good things are happening for many MFAers.

And by the way, to one of the previous commenters... I learned to play chess by playing with "novices." Ditto on poker. Ditto on writing. Ditto on most things in life. Pretending like your "teachers" are the only ones that can help you sounds a lot like the elitist attitude you claim to reject.

chogyam said...

Well, um, er, unlike many of the comments here, my experience was utterly positive, while getting my MFA. I went to a school in Vermont, Vermont College. People like Steve Kurtz have taught there. The faculty were more like mentors or peers, rather than like wild dogs out for a kill. They actually cared about students. (hard to believe I know). At the time I was already teaching Digital Art as an Adjunct.

My main reason to go was a sense of passion and curiosity and wanting my work, my process to go to a new place. And (yippee) it did. With the help and guidance of the faculty and mentors at VC, and 3 hours of sleep a night for 2 years, I grew as a person and as an artist in ways that I could not have imagined. And I am an "old fuck" as George Carlin called it (57 at the moment).

And they helped us prepare ourselves for jumping through hoops (writing CVs, etc) to deal with galleries and with educational institutions.

Yep, it was expensive. Nope, not really selling any work (digital video), and nope didn't get a tenured position, and as of this moment, probably not going to teach as an adjunct anymore, for about 100 reasons. (poverty being one of them).

But, selling my work is not important...thats not why I make art. What I gained personally at VC was well worth the time, vast effort and money...a priceless experience.

I think it really depends on your motivaton, why are you getting an MFA? And also what school you go to. They are all incredibly different. I just kind of lucked out...Vermont College is a rare kind of school. So, there ya go. Have fun y'all.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in the decision mode of MFA or not mode and glad this came up in my Google search. Thanx for all the comments-both pro and con MFA-I will add to my list of considerations/comments/advice to weigh whatever it is I ultimately end up doing.

Anonymous said...


My career is based on working with Federal gov't agencys and not-for-profits. The additional credit hours influence base pay in these sectors.

I am a web designer (Some print) and am looking to go for a "back to basics" MFA in Graphic Design.

I am looking for the exposure to the less business side
side of art, where my Microsoft Outlook does not rule my creative soul.

I am looking into MA's, that way my company would pay for it. This may be my best option, I think. But they are more structured than the MFA. If i have to earn credits for no other reason than saying - "Hey HR look at my credits, please up my GS level pay" - I at least want to enjoy it. Then be qualified (credit wise) for lead positions at the Smithsonian or the National Gallery for online exhibition development or in their traditional print positions.

I just do not know if I want to go through it.

The Unspoken Word said...

My story is a long one.. i went to a BFA program. the teachers were lazy.. i dropped out.. went to Germany, and continued to be a artist. My career grew from being around professional artist, and i showed my work . In Europe, i did not have the need or time to persue a MFA . My art work was evidence that i had a intellectual , professional and inventive Art approach
My point is.. Having no degree, i managed to create just what a degree is suppose to create,
a working artist who can compete in the International art market yet now, 2008 having a great Cv. international shows and teaching experience all with out a Degree. i was just told i could not have a job teaching a drawing class for undergraduate non art majors , cause i didnt have a MFA.
My point.
i dont respect the schools rule of manditory MFA,

i am Qualified to teach or impart information regarding art, since i have the professional record to proove it from actual experience.

John F. Moore, Jr. said...

I am currently an MFA candidate in a private institution finishing my third of four semesters, as an MFA candidate. I do not think this is the path for everyone, and I do not encourage fence-riders to enroll. Anyone yearning for financial success and/or security should not choose this path.

I am worried as shit about what to do after school, but I knew I'd have to deal with this eventually.

I believe that hard work can offer you the same career opportunities as an MFA.

What can an MFA offer? Dedicated studio time, close relationships with other people working toward a similar goal and, most importantly, the opportunity to engage in dialog with other artists (student or teacher) about art. You won't find this in your shitty day job, not even at the coolest bar/coffee shop in town. Believe me, I've tried that, too.

The only reason to enter an MFA program is self-enrichment. The responsibility is yours. You need to arrive at class every day fresh,not hungover, with questions to ask and answers to offer. The only reward to the program is self-development. If you feel you can get that on your own, go for it.

School is not the only way toward this enrichment, but it is a concentrated environment without the distractions of everyday life.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I have an MFA - and I had a great experience, am doing well, sell work, and have loads of awesome students. I guess I just didn't learn how to make excuses.

Anonymous said...

^ best post of the thread.^

romulus1129 said...

I recently taught a a private art school for one year and it ended badly; however, I still want to get my MFA (at a state school) and teach. Read about my experience:

ATTN: Human Resources
Educational Management Corporation
210 Sixth Avenue
33rd Floor
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

August 14th, 2008

Dear Human Resources Coordinator,

As of yesterday evening, August 14th, at the end of my Thursday evening class (my last class for this week), I was told by Linda W. Wood, in an unannounced, late-night meeting, that I would be relieved of my teaching position with The Art institute of Atlanta, Dunwoody effective immediately. I was told this would also include the class I had been teaching on the satellite campus in Decatur.

This statement was made without proper notice, justification, or adequate opportunity for remediation. Just as I would normally resign from a work position with the typical two weeks notice, I would expect the same consideration and respect in a proper dismissal.

I had expected to be paid for the full term. I had an agreement (in essence a verbal contract) that I would be teaching from the beginning of the quarter (July 15th) up until the last day of the quarter (September 12th). I would have been willing and able to fulfill my obligation to work the term from start to finish and expect to be compensated accordingly. I had even been recently informed by the Lead Faculty member, Kat Hagan, that I was scheduled to teach in the Fall Term, two nights per week.

In the aforementioned surprise late night meeting, I was also told by Linda W. Wood that if - on the condition that I turned in my midterm grades on the following Monday by 12 noon - then I would receive my last payment of compensation for the week of August 18th – 22nd. Such a demand would circumvent the original agreement / assignment and is therefore unacceptable. I expect to be paid for each week that I worked - or was expected to work - up to and including September 8th – 12th. Even more troubling, there is no indication of severance pay of any sort listed in the specified section of my hand-delivered separation notice.

The circumstances for my early dismissal are perhaps too complicated and varied; however, I do not agree with or understand the department chair’s hasty assessment - “Performance” as per the reason listed for dismissal in the separation notice. From my perspective I found myself suddenly - without proper warning, justification or remediation – having been forced to change my teaching routine. According to my recollections, I had been doing fine since I started in October of 2007 (Fall Term 2007). I had even recently applied to (and got accepted to) an Educational Specialist degree program at a nearby University because I felt teaching was my new chosen calling. Suddenly everything came crashing to a halt.

I found myself struggling to reformat / re-tool my teaching technique without any proper assistance or guidance in an ever-increasingly hostile / unfair teaching environment. From the beginning I was faced with professional obstacles and those were further aggravated by the introduction of crippling new personal obstacles.

The professional obstacles I faced, from the beginning, were my being hired with no technical / educational training or input other than being given syllabi from other instructors; I was also given a poorly written textbook that students complained contained unclear sections, poor instructions and illogical entries.

I soon learned that complaints from other instructor’s regarding the textbook’s much-needed changes, edits and alterations went ignored / unanswered / unfulfilled. Furthermore, I also learned students were not being given (supplied with) required materials in their school kit (e.g. textbook & USB drive); and instructors (such as myself) were being forced to randomly create projects with no guidance / direction / input. Complaints about these learning hurdles were voiced to the Department Chair, Linda W. Wood, by other instructors; however, no remediation was given.

The personal obstacles I faced were recent and devastating. The problems began at the beginning of the Spring quarter when I was trying to deal with one particularly unruly student in my Monday night class. I reported the incident, via email, to the lead faculty member, Ms. Kat Hagan, who, at the time, stated she would inform the department chair, Ms. Linda Wood. No intervention or remediation was given.

Sometime after the Spring term had ended and right as Summer term began (either July 16th or 17th), I was summoned to a meeting with Ms. Wood and Ms. Hagan. I was shown bad reviews by two students– presumably the unruly student’s comrades from the Monday night Spring 2008 class.

Ms. Wood and Ms. Hagan stated they would assist in distributing and organizing my future class evaluations. I was so sufficiently shocked that I was permitted to take home copies of allegedly confidential student evaluations, that I failed to inquire as to why my desk had been moved to another floor without my being informed.

On the Friday before Summer term began, I learned that my desk had been moved to another floor without my being informed which caused my syllabi to be misplaced / lost. The lost / misplaced syllabi brought about un-needed distractions / problems in my first week of class.

The aforementioned distractions presumably resulted in a poor reflection of my abilities in the eyes of my students. After the first meeting on July 16 or 17th, the problems I faced were then further aggravated with the addition of new complaints lodged against me at the beginning of the Summer term by two new students.

A second meeting was called on July 30th; this time with Dan Garland, Linda Wood and Kat Hagan in attendance. I found myself suddenly - and very late into the teaching assignment – being commanded, by Linda W. Wood, to teach in a very certain, specified way heretofore unannounced.

I explained that the new way was analogous to being forced to drive a car to a destination (that I knew well) while several carloads of other people - who didn’t know the way - attempted to follow behind in heavy traffic. I voiced this concern and received no remediation or other alternative solution.

I soon learned that spies or agents had been inserted in my classroom – one in particular was a known school employee (a graphic design department employee and subordinate to Ms. Wood), one Mr. Willis Ponder, Jr., - to disclose and report my teaching progress and class activities. Additionally, the lead faculty member, Ms. Hagan, dropped in frequently and unannounced in order to watch over my shoulder and take copious notes.

On the night of August 14th, a surprise late night meeting was called. This was the third and what I was soon to learn (and quite honestly had expected) was a final meeting. As my Thursday evening class was ending, sometime around 9:40 PM, I was informed about said meeting by Ms. Hagan.

Ms. Hagan, who had been present the entire time in class watching over my shoulder and taking copious notes, waited until the very end of my class to inform me that I was being summoned by Ms. Wood.

I was subsequently led by Ms. Hagan to darkened, locked 3rd floor office which - at the time - seemed completely out of the ordinary if not outright inappropriate. It was in this manner that I was told by Ms. Wood, in front of Ms. Hagan, that I would be relieved of my teaching position with The Art institute of Atlanta effective immediately.

Based upon my observations and experiences with Linda W. Wood in her present position with The Art Institute of Atlanta, Ms. Wood lacks the necessary competence and qualifications required to chair one academic department, much less two. I would recommend placing someone else - someone more tactful, competent and sufficiently qualified - in the Graphic Design / Photographic Imaging Chairperson position before Ms. Wood continues making further questionable decisions which can only serve to damage the institute’s reputation and educational integrity.

I would welcome the opportunity to further discuss the nature and circumstances of my departure in an exit interview by phone or in person. As soon as possible, I will return any remaining keys and / or security passes (for both campuses I am employed) to the appropriate persons. Please contact me should you have questions or concerns in this matter. Thank you for your consideration.


Robert D. Miller
Posted by romulus1129 at 10:11 AM 0 comments

John Sanchez said...

Amen sister!

Suzanne Elizabeth said...

THANK YOU for speaking the truth about this. I soooo relate to much of what you said, and as an art major who is STILL paying off those monstrous loans from undergraduate school 10 years later, the idea of getting an MFA to add 60+k to the pile exhausts me, which is a main reason I never went. Oh but the guilt and feelings of insecurity about not being more articulate about my work or art in general since graduating!! Dude. Still have dreams with my professors in them haunting me.
THANK YOU again. I needed to read this today.

FailTriSucceed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Billy Hollis said...

Thanks for this post. I'm 30 years old and hold a BA in Studio Arts from Baylor University. I constantly have debated back and forth about getting my MFA. I'm married with a kiddo and another on the way. Working as a web designer and developer pays the bills but isn't exactly my hearts desire.

I've noticed friends of mine who've got their MFA, and those that don't be successful. If I could afford it, I think I'd go to have that season of refinement and focused time making art.

Instead, I read what I can get my hands on and make it a goal to be in at least 2 shows a year. Out of all of my art heroes (living, not dead), I've found that those who "make it" just never stopped creating art and pursuing it. Some do hold MFA degrees and some do not. It's sad that teaching with an MFA isn't necessarily a given...but it makes sense why it's not.

Last thing is that I really think your comments on getting away to a foreign country is a good idea. It may have been presented as "tongue and cheek" but after living for 6 months in Morocco, I can testify that it's a great idea. Those sorts of experiences will connect you with people you'd never meet, grant you memories you'll never forget, and change your life in a big way.

Anyway, thanks for being so candid and brave to post this.

Anonymous said...

Freakishly prescient: (Students File Complaint against Art Institute with N.C. attorney general)

Cannot remember how many times I've steered folks to this particular blog post. I hope you might consider re-posting this, as almost all studio undergrads go on to pay for MFA's that are nothing but bad loans and bullshit credits.

Chris said...

lol, not surprising coming from a SFAI BFA...only the strong survive. You hold the weakest argument ever for not getting a MFA...only because you know people who have not acquired what you deem to be success. I know tons of people who HAVE got their MFA and HAVE gone on to be successful. Guess birds of a feather flock together.

Not Available said...

You certainly don't need an MFA to make art or sell art, but you do need it if you hope to teach, and if you love knowledge and want to push yourself intellectually and creatively I recommend it.

As a woman with no family and at the end of my 30's I decided to go back for an MFA at SFAI after a 15 year career in architecture. Life is short and I want to live as many of my dreams out as possible.

I'm closing in on the end of my first semester. The facilities could be better but I am happy with the program. It is a lot of work and I've had times of crying, sweating, and feeling unsure. But I'm learning stuff I would never have been exposed to outside of academia: reading materials, class discussions and presentations, advice, conversations, new friends with common ideas and goals etc.

That I'll owe over $80,000 for a second degree does not thrill me, particularly when I am still paying off undergraduate loans. However debt is ubiquitous in the current era and I'm investing not for financial return but for return in my personal happiness, fulfillment and evolution as a creative soul. It would be nice to own property but after years of grinding away in an office and isolated in my art-making at home, I needed this more.

On a broader scope, we need more artists and creative types with higher education under their belt, who are able to analyze and critically respond with art-making and writing, to culture, society, politics on a playing field that is level with the politicians, policy-makers, corporations and other intellectuals.

To anyone who's considering going for it, my advice would be to very thoroughly consider why you want an MFA before making the decision to apply. Research schools as much as you can and pick the one that suits you the most as an individual.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Found your blog after dropping two out of four required courses at Loyola Marymount's MFA film school. I am in my second semester. A mistake to get an MFA in filmmaking.
I just recently applied to UCLA's moving image archive program. It is much more stable and I have experience working as a special collections archivist assistant already.
Major film studios, museums, and federal agencies like the CIA need archvist to preserve, restore, and archive digital files. federal govt pays about $84K while museums pay roughly 50k to start. It's a nice start for a young twenty something woman fresh out of school. ALSO, i can take cinematography classes on the side at UCLA but now think it is a joke to have a degree in it.

Along with archiving, I would like to save up and open my own vegetarian or ethnic cuisine restaurant.

Annie said...

If you go to grad school to become a better artist, you don't understand art. Are you a little baby that needs to be nursed along?

Red said...

This post and the comments that go with it give me much food for thought. I'm a late bloomer and have always kept the dream of pursuing professional art to myself. I think more in terms of how an MFA might benefit me personally, how it would make me feel, give me a sense of personal accomplishment, and so on. The expense doesn't really factor in all of this. What matters more to me is whether or not venturing towards an MFA would positively impact my life. Thanks for your honesty in posting this and thank you everyone for your input.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

This is a great discussion and it's great to hear all viewpoints on the debate.

I have been accepted into the MFA program at CCA and have the next three weeks to decide if im going to go for it. Ill be owing roughly 30k per year (for two years) after a 10k/year scholarship. The cost would be my only reason for not going.

I have little interest in teaching (although the option for the future is nice). My main goal is to push my work to a new level, strengthen my thesis, and to be frank, make connections.

It's hard to know what to believe as someone on the fence. A lot of folks say that the art world is "buttoned up" these days and that you have to have an MFA to advance, others say it doesn't matter.

I think both viewpoints are true to a degree. It's a personal decision, but in my case a very difficult personal decision.

Unknown said...

I liked your honesty, though you did finish your "BFA"degree from the SFAI - its seems that you gave up to easily. In short, you quit making art, with or without a BFA or MFA you didn't stick with it and now seems like you have just settled in. I only have a B.A. from Berkeley, though I am asked to guest lecture in many art schools and journalism schools in the country, (my work fits in both worlds) the number one thing I tell students is don't quit. Another is, its not a career, its a way of life and you know from that start if that life is worth it to you or if you can survive in it. By all means the lecture to the incoming students at SFAI that were told to live on the cheap is exactly right and to learn how to support yourself on very little and have a day job that pays enough to work on your art but doesn't take up all your time - well that is something you should of figured out even way before High School let a lone a expensive private art college such as SFAI, The problem is that kids are not taught to take care of themselves until a very late age in this country,getting an education is important of course but so is practical work experience, travel and learning a skill you can earn money on. Most of the Art school students I have seen are blind to all this and only want the label of being an Artist but don't want to pay there dues or put in the years of work, there is not one road to take to do this but the key is don't leave that road like you did with your own career. I know many a talented artist in different mediums that couldn't see the end of the tunnel and got tired of living poor and they had much more talent then myself but they quit, I didn't - yes my work shows at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and is housed as permanant collections in two well known museums but that didn't happen because I went to school - it happened because I made it happened , my work is what got me out of bed in the morning and it continues to make me happy to this day. I will go back and get my MFA some day soon ( currently living in Africa working on a new project) but the only reason to get an MFA is to teach plain and simple. But first, prove to yourself and to the world that you can do art and not quit and have "success". But to get an MFA shortly after you received your BFA is a waste I agree, prove yourself first. I am getting older and to have a terminal degree is a good asset when applying to a tenure teaching position, btw even top art schools and University's wave the terminal degree if you have proven yourself in the art world and have a solid track record of exhibitions. The reason I stayed with it all these years while I saw friends drop out left and right was. I knew that getting some "job" and living a easy life wasn't going to make me happy, I had been working and supporting my self since I was in middle school and worked along middle age people who didn't stick with what they were passionate about in life and were jaded and had many regrets, I saw the window into the future of my own life at fifteen and that could have been me now at 48. But I didn't settle for less but just kept pushing on.