Should I Get An MFA? The 2016 Edition

by Rea McNamara on January 21, 2016 · 1 comment Opinion

Detail from Walter Scott's "Ask Wendy" advice column for The Hairpin (August 2015).

Detail of a Walter Scott’s “Ask Wendy” advice column for The Hairpin (August 2015).

Back in 2011 AFC asked the question, “Should I get an MFA?” At the time we leaned towards “No”. There were a number of reasons cited, the most pressing being that we believed it was too expensive and most artists could get the equivalent experience in the real world.

Five years later, has much changed? Let’s take a look:


The Studio of Eugène Delacroix. Engraving from: L'Illustration, 25 September 1852, 205, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788.

The Studio of Eugène Delacroix. Engraving from: L’Illustration, 25 September 1852, 205, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, T 1788.

2011/2016: Two Solid Years of Studio Time.

This benefit hasn’t changed: having the time to make your work is invaluable, and will definitely impact your artistic and intellectual growth. “The transformation of young artists during graduate school is astonishing, both in terms of the sophistication and accomplishment of the work made and because they come to understand the kind of commitment and intensity they must bring to their work to sustain it,” says Deborah Bright, Chair of Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute in an 2014 interview with The Artist’s Magazine.

2011: Four Solid Years of Studio Time (Part-Time).

Hunter’s three-year full-time programme allows students access to studio space for longer periods of time and attend school part-time for four years. Other upside: popular open studios frequented by critics and gallerists.

Pioneered by Bard in 1981, this low-residency model offers multi-week sessions of intense on-campus work with long periods of independent study. “The idea,” said the poet Robert Kelly, who wrote the graduate school’s constitution, in a 2012 Brooklyn Rail Magazine interview, “was to create a graduate school for people who didn’t usually go to graduate school—people in the midst of their lives who wanted to reanimate their connection to art.”

2016: Three Solid Years of “Low-Residency”.

Baltimore’s Maryland Institute for the Arts and New York’s School of Visual Arts now have low-residency MFA programmes. But, according to Artsy’s recent survey of alternate MFA options, a low-residency programme, such as the one at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, will still rack up a $90,000 tuition for the 60 credits to graduate.

 2016: MFA Subsidies and Alternatives Emerge.

Artsy mentioned Kara Walker’s decision to teach at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts as an encouraging sign that “moving away from the big brand-name programs is a better option.” Also encouraging is Rutgers’ recent decision to grant all incoming fall 2016 visual arts grad students with scholarships equivalent to a first year’s full out-of-state tuition and full in-state tuition for their second year. “As a public university, we feel that critical art practice should be the focus of our graduate program and that access should be as democratic as possible,” said Gerry Beegan, chair of the Visual Arts Department at Mason Gross when the news was reported.

But let’s not forget the existence of free artist-run schools. AFC favourite BHQFU offers a full slate of free artist-taught classes, a summer residency and even a gallery. And this fall, as reported by Artsy, they’ll be launching MFU, a new year-long programme offering five artists studio spaces at the Bruce High Quality Foundation in Brooklyn. While it’s not accredited, BHQFU outreach director and faculty member Sean J. Patrick Carney quips that “we’re going to offer everything an MFA offers including visiting artist critiques, studio visits, and an opportunity to reach, and it costs zero dollars.”

2011: You Can’t Teach Without an MFA.

Thanks to the ongoing professionalization of the art world, most teaching positions require a MFA.

2016: You Really Can’t Teach Without an MFA.

MFA remains the terminal degree for a teaching position, and in some cases, has been replaced by the PhD as a desired requirement.

2011/2016: A Built-In Lifetime Network.

While this shouldn’t be a primary motivation for getting an MFA, there’s definitely a value in the connections made with fellow students and teachers. Being a part of a supportive community, face-time with visiting gallerists and curators furthers careers; this amounts to the professional pay-off of recommendations, introductions, and even group show invitations.

2011: You’ll Learn Theory.

Theory, according to Coco Fusco in her 2013 Modern Painters Magazine rundown on a MFA’s worth, is an “aura still hang[ing] over a handful of high-profile MFA programs.” Being able to talk up the intellectual and philosophical merits of your work with critical theory artspeak terminology has traditionally given artists the intellectual arsenal to get their work picked up by critics and curators. Understanding the “contemporary art moment” (read: art world trends) can help artists navigate the changing tides of opinion, not to mention beef up their grant writing skills. Since grants can cover a huge chunk of living and work expenses, this is invaluable.


“Why are artists so fucking poor? (detail),” 2012. William Powhida for W.A.G.E., courtesy the artist

2016: Theory is Out.

As Fusco pointed out in the same article, theory is a “double-edged sword”. If the glut of artspeak-ladened e-flux press releases not to mention Alix Rule and David Levine’s International Art Speak project has taught us anything, theory can overshadow art work. Often, art speak can seem like overcompensation and worst, exclusionary, suggesting that a viewer without a certain level of higher education won’t get the work. It’s an artificial re-enforcement of the value of education. Artists should realize that being able to plainly speak about their work is a valuable skill in itself.

And, honestly? Most of us don’t need school for that. If an artist keeps up with their favourite art world blogs and publications, actively attend shows and read catalogues, they’ll easily come away with an understanding of the de rigueur theory. As well, a lot of artist-run centres offer a seasonal slate of professional development workshops that include crash courses on how to write artist’s statement.

2011: Earning Potential Improves Slightly, Slim Job Prospects.

When Paddy surveyed the following art world jobs boosted by a MFA, she reported the following pay grade:

  • Art Handler (MFA recommended): $35,000-$60,000 a year
  • Visual Arts Professor (MFA/MA required): $50,000-80,000 a year
  • Full-Time Artist (MFA not necessary, but having it does improve your chances of commercial gallery representation and being considered for grants and residencies): $47,000 a year
  • Art Critic (MA helpful, but not necessary): $30,000-$60,000 a year

2016: Earning Potential Increases for the One Percent.

If the MFA needed to secure a gallery job lands you a position of director at a blue chip contemporary gallery, the degree will more than pay for itself on sale commissions. If you have designs to work as an artist, and are hoping a gallery administrative position will sustain, those days are gone. In AFC’s 2014 interview with arts and culture recruiter Geri Thomas, she notes that the middle class squeeze is problem that affects all industries, including the art world, and administrative positions “have terribly low salaries”.

Updated data on the previously cited art world jobs supports this:

Well, that’s depressing. However, silver lining! While this is mostly focused on the job prospects of museum curators, a good point is made that with the ongoing trend of boomers retiring, there will likely be a “changing of the guard” in the job market.

2011: An MFA is Expensive.

Five years ago, the most inexpensive MFA cost a minimum of 35K. At the time, that kind of debt could be crippling for those entering the job market. There simply weren’t enough entry-level jobs that paid a fair wage. Two years later, this continued to be the takeaway: in a summary of the BFAMFAPhd collective’s Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists report, it was noted that “our higher education system is producing a vast quantity of workers with educations and expectations for high-level and high-paying jobs that simply do not exist in the quantity needed to employ all these people.”

2015: An MFA is Still Expensive.

In 2014, Jerry Saltz calls a MFA “straight-up highway robbery”. And, as The Atlantic later calculates, with the average tuition for the ten most influential MFA programs (think the usual suspects like Yale, Columbia and Goldsmiths) being 38K per year, artists are likely looking at a two-year program with the addition of room and board costing a grand total of $100,000. The Atlantic notes PayScale continues to rank MFA earnings at the bottom of their Highest Paying Graduate Degrees by Salary Potential List: “Fine Arts” is #257, with an average mid-career pay off of a $61,700 year salary. Increasingly, an MFA accounts for a very small group of the American workforce — 1.3 percent, to be precise — that adds further fuel that only those with an elite status can afford to work in the art world.

2011: Shady For-Profit Schools.

While this wasn’t noted in our piece, around this time, we all started to pick up the stench of sham degrees and schools offering a quality of education not on par with its tuition fees.

2016: Really Shady For-Profit Schools.

If the unethical treatment of USC’s MFA students taught us anything, graduate schools can be shady AF. Last year, Pell Grant Data revealed that even though only 13% of the overall college student population attend for-profit schools, “they account for nearly one-third (31 percent) of all student loans and are responsible for more than half (51 percent) of all student loan defaults”. Meanwhile, Forbes’s expose on San Francisco’s Academy of Art University pulled the curtain back on what an institution with a whopping $22,000 annual tuition offered students: not much in the diploma mill game, especially since only 32% of full-time students actually graduated.

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