Should Artists Even Bother Getting an MFA?

by Michael Bise and Christina Rees September 30, 2017

R. Crumb


Christina Rees: I come across a lot of young artists in Texas who have their BFA and are trying to decide whether they should go on to get their MFA. Ten years ago this wouldn’t have been a question. They just would have done it. But in the last five to ten years there’s been a major national discussion about student debt, and real-life experience, and hustling, and the grind of adjunct teaching and the disappearance of stable jobs in academia. Basically a set of arguments against getting an MFA, because it saddles one with crippling debt and the artist can’t even make a living teaching anymore. 

You got your MFA. Who would you recommend grad school to, or would you?

Michael Bise: I know we agreed to have this conversation, but I’m probably a terrible person to ask. Most of the major decisions in my life have been made on the heels of a single-minded impulse to avoid working, and make art while avoiding it. I enrolled in the seven-year undergrad plan, spending three of those years drunk, painting, going to shows in Deep Ellum in the middle ’90s, and paying for community college courses with a job at a video store called Mickey’s Movies in a Dallas suburb. One day I was staring at the gum-ball machine at Mickey’s with a terrible hangover, and I think I realized I couldn’t live that way anymore. I applied to UNT, took out all the federal loans they’d give me and split.

I bought into, and still do, a romantic vision of what it means to be an artist. I didn’t want to teach. I just wanted to get out of that shitty suburb and keep making art. My parents instilled in me the idea of going to college at any cost. My dad dropped out of forestry school right before graduation and my mom spent about 15 years going to night school to become a teacher. So getting a BFA was the path I chose. My parents hadn’t been able to save for my or my sister’s college. We took out loans. Repaying the loans was the last thing on my mind.

The decision to go to grad school was a little more calculated. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t research schools or think about it in career terms. My political awareness of the fact that certain schools look for certain kinds of work was pretty dim. I was accepted at the University of Houston. My dad died during my last semester at UNT and I couldn’t afford to move far. I more or less fled the claustrophobia of a chaotic family life. I came with my girlfriend who was also accepted at UH’s MFA program.

I go into all this personal detail because I don’t really believe in thinking of artists as a class. The phrase “creative class” or “creatives” makes me nauseous. Artists are individuals and everyone has their own path and they have to make, and live with, their decisions. I suppose I can say that I think a “stable job in academia” is a pretty terrible reason to get an MFA — mostly because they’ve never been all that plentiful. But I do think — although I can’t predict the future — that the future of art does not lie with the MFA program.

CR: I love how you just get to the brunt of actual, lived human experience. As though “getting an MFA” or “not getting an MFA” were the only two choices left for artists, and that one of these things is the right thing to do, and one is the wrong thing. When do we stop to take the individual into consideration?

I know a very young artist here in Dallas who’s finished his undergrad, and he also happens to be extroverted and a bit of a hustler. He’s getting shows around here. He’s collaborating, too. He’s selling work. He’s networking, at least as much as one can in Dallas and Texas. And more so than a lot of his older peers here who got their MFAs. When I’ve asked him if he’s going to grad school he just kind of shrugs. Right now it would actually interrupt what he’s getting done on his own. 

I don’t know what that means for his work. I don’t know how much grad school really helps the artists with the work anymore. I know some programs are better at that than others, but it almost seems like grad school represents this “You better get your MFA for the networking factor” — or else. Or else you’ll be isolated and gallerists and collectors and critics and curators won’t have any reference point for you. People are going to grad school to get plugged into a network as much as anything else. 

This kind of reminds me of people who think of frats and sororities at college as crucial for future business connections. If you’re getting a business degree, being in a frat with a lot of other future titans is probably a good idea, right? Not my bag, but hey. Higher education is for the connection leg-up as much as anything isn’t it? 

I have another young artist friend in another big Texas city who I think feels a certain pressure or expectation to go on to grad school soon, and I think more varied conversation around the work he’s making now would be useful to him. But he would HAVE to choose the program really carefully, and go primarily because of the quality of that dialogue. He’s sort of already getting networked in on his own steam. 

MB: I had this 17-year-old kid in a design class at the MFAH’s Glassell School over the summer. He had dropped out of his last year of high school. He wants to be an artist. He has 2,000 followers on Instagram and he sells tiny paintings for something like $10 or $15 bucks apiece through some platform — maybe Etsy, I can’t remember. I can’t say he’s an amazing talent yet, but as far as the networking side of the art business goes, he lives in a different world than I did when I was 17. I was hiding in a corner drawing my own jerk material. Art survives. It existed in the caves of prehistory, in the more or less totalitarian societies of antiquity all over the world; it adapted to the domination of Christianity and the Catholic Church and it slid just fine through Marxism into democratic capitalism. Art always finds the money.

I don’t believe you can predict the future, so I can’t say if the MFA will disappear, but I think that as a prerequisite for a career the MFA is more and more one option among others for networking. Art dealers scan social media platforms looking for work (and cute artists) they think they can sell. I’m sure the artists you mentioned put on their scraggly charm online. I can even imagine the apprentice system coming back in some weird digitally mediated form — it never really went away. For a long time the secret of a successful academic career has been a three-tier process: first the BFA, then the MFA, then a job as an assistant to a well-established artist. It’s really that last step that plugs an artist into that part of the network with the most connections. But that’s all on the career side. The art could all still be terrible.

In an ideal world the MFA is meant to guide students in more than the pursuit of money. Artists who teach are examples to their students. The academy is only as good as the teachers in it. There are a handful of tenure-track university jobs available across the country at any given time. I never seriously considered pursuing a tenure-track job because I had a sense of the massive amount of bureaucratic bullshit involved. I also knew that I would have to keep my mouth shut. I liked Houston, it had a lot to teach me and I didn’t want to move to the middle of nowhere for a teaching job if one was even to be had.

I’ve paid a whole variety of prices for those choices. And I’ve reaped a lot of rewards for them, too. There are a lot of very visible activist-types who complain about adjunct jobs, but believe me, there are worse jobs. The pay is $20-30 an hour, you don’t have to carry 50 pound buckets of drywall mud or work in a machine shop without air conditioning. It’s hard to get a full slate of classes but that’s what bar-tending and submitting reviews to Glasstire and hustling to sell work is for. There’s no security, but has there ever been security for artists? Some artists work hard and get lucky, most artists just work hard. Who knows, maybe the academy reconstitutes in a real way in the community college systems. There’s actually a lot of freedom for teachers there. That could be cool.

CR: I like couching the would-be ‘necessity’ of getting one’s MFA as merely a trend or cycle — one that we’re still in but may be receding — rather than an immutable truth going forward. 

The monstrous debt incurred by most artists when they get an MFA certainly locks them into a more vulnerable position, possibly for life. They either get trapped in the academic/adjunct cycle, or they start making art that collectors or curators want and stop trying to make anything else, or they stop making art (for the most part, except as a hobbyist) and get a day job that helps them pay not only current bills but old college debt. The hustlers may be better equipped to deal with this form of exploitation or capitalism and be happy to make art that the market seems hungry for, but a lot of artists didn’t start making art in order to become wage slaves (or collectors’ pets) for life. We’ve talked about this before. 

For that matter, I think it’s become very trendy lately to tell artists to screw the MFA system and try to be professional artists through just about any other means. 

But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of whether, for the art’s sake, the MFA degree is worthwhile. What exactly can an artist get from a good masters program, and how often do you think it leads to an artist making better art? Much better art? 

MB: In retrospect, getting an MFA, as far as I can see, doesn’t lead to an artist making better art. I think it can lead them to make worse art. For artists of my generation, at least it was a way to buy time and hang out with interesting people and work. And time is not cheap. Real artists have to work too, success or no success. And working for a living prevents you from doing your actual work. Kafka complained all the time about never having enough time to write because he was always selling insurance. An MFA is (for broke kids) a government-financed training course in how to navigate the art industry, but it won’t turn you into an artist. If you are dumb and without talent going in you’ll still be that way coming out.

CR: Okay, fair enough to all that. So, if taking MFA studio classes isn’t going to really help one’s art (as opposed to art history classes which may help), I still circle back around to the networking aspect of graduate school. Yes, thinking you’re on the path to being the rare artist who gets to make his whole living off of art is akin to trying to be a rock star, risk-wise, but there’s certainly a large contingent out there who say that if you can get into Yale or SVA or Cal Arts or MICA, you’re halfway there just from the connections you make while you’re getting your MFA. 

I’ve truly heard people say that a suburban middle-class white boy who gets his MFA from Yale and still doesn’t become an Art Star is an artist who threw away his opportunity. That his future as a big deal with Zwirner was practically guaranteed. I’m only being slightly hyperbolic here. 

What do you think of that?

MB: Honestly? I don’t give a shit. I tend not to care about the kinds of artists who have those kinds of discussions. Art is the visual representation of an empire’s moral and intellectual power. I don’t see a bunch of back-stabbing strategists yammering on about which Ivy League employment agency will get them into the right living rooms, kunsthalles and biennales fastest as contributing much aesthetic moral fiber to a cultural bulwark against ISIS, Xi Jinping, or Donald Trump himself.

I’m for artists making a living. I still feel warm when I sell something, and I like a good night out. But having just glanced online at Yale’s current and second year grads I can’t help but say that there’s a lot of trivial nonsense getting churned out of those studios. I’m just not that interested in those networks anymore. Like you say, I think the networks are online. We’re in a massive technological and economic revolution. I don’t think that means every online “art lifestyle” hustler is really an artist.

I don’t know what the structure of American art will look like in 20 years, but I don’t feel super positive about it. Half the time I feel like I’m walking into the DMV when I walk into a show. The other half the time I feel like I’m looking at paintings by really precocious 4th graders. But I see some good stuff, too. I just don’t see much of it. But I am in desperate need of a vacation. Maybe that would help.

CR: Maybe it would. Because I’m not an artist, and I didn’t go to grad school, and my own lack of a masters’ degree doesn’t seem to have kept me (in any meaningful way) from the kinds of jobs or salaries I’ve gone after (not that non-profit journalism is any big pay day), I don’t approach this MFA subject with any real animosity. 

But I have one last big question for you about the possible value of MFA programs, and in some ways about art school, period. You mentioned earlier in this discussion the pretty entrenched idea that a key step in an artist’s trajectory is “a job as an assistant to a well-established artist.” Historically this is true.

I’d say that at this point, there aren’t nearly enough well-established artists who can afford to hire younger artists as assistants to keep up with the increased flood of younger artists. The proliferation of MFA students and programs reflects the idea that an art career is “legitimate” (i.e. obtainable), and so there are many, many more young people pursuing that path with the goal of becoming professional artists. But who are they going to assist when the number of successful artists who could hire them hasn’t shifted that much? This is a basic supply-and-demand problem, not unlike the teaching-job shortage.

Which makes me wonder if, for some of these potentially promising would-be MFA students, the only meaningful or protracted contact they may have with established artists is through going to school, and staying longer in school. Their professors are their mentors. Maybe their only real mentors in their young or susceptible years. In other words, if young artists learn how to be established artists by being around established artists, I wonder if for some young artists, the MFA program is the primary way to come into contact with seasoned, career artists who know how to do it (and who almost certainly learned from the older generation back when they were younger).

For four years I worked and taught at a Texas university with an MFA program. I saw an array of helpful and damaging dynamics play out between students and professors. I also saw students switching disciplines in order to work with the better professors. 

Were your MFA professors useful to you? Influential? Even if by teaching you what not to do, if you didn’t like what you were witnessing with them? I feel like the MFA programs have a way of cultivating a kind of child-parent, love/hate relationship between teachers and students — a lot of knowledge is imparted, there are some jealousies and resentment and disdain going both ways, and plenty of admiration and actual wisdom passed along, too.

MB: My teachers were absolutely useful. I don’t regret going to graduate school, I just think you’re either an artist or not before you get there. I met my friends there. I started a seven-year business with a good friend I met in the studios. I met my wife in an art class. The teachers are supposed to be the most interesting of the interesting people you hang out with while you buy time at 5% interest.

One of the more revealing moments for me was when Al Souza took my grad class to his home studio in the Heights. He had a small, mid-century house and a garage apartment on top of his studio. I’m not sure if his studio had been a garage or he had it built, but it could have been a big two-car garage. I remember thinking: “This is doable. Even if I can’t buy a house, I can rent one with a garage and cut a hole for an AC and roll studio rent into house rent.”

But it’s not just the practical things that teachers are supposed to teach. Al was originally an engineer and worked for the government designing helicopters. I remember him telling me the story of how he quit that job during Vietnam. The town where he worked was a short way from Milford, CT where the original John Birch society formed. Many of the clients and employees Al came in contact with were, as he says, nice people but he also describes having seen them happy only three times: when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when Bobby Kennedy was murdered, and finally after the killings at Kent State. After Kent State, he quit his job. The ideological and political conflicts were too great. He was already making art, but when he quit, that was when he decided to build his life around a career as an artist. And it took a long time and he pieced it together. So your grad school teachers can be moral examples as well.

I’m not as grim as I used to be about the life of a working artist. The flood of MFA students thins naturally as they stumble out into the sunlight after two or three years. I frankly don’t see a problem with the fact that only a tiny fraction of MFAs are making work ten years out. I say thin the herd! More resources for the real artists.

Francesca Fuchs, a Houston painter, recently said, “Artists are can-do people.” We were talking about how artists are better prepared for things like flooded houses because their lives are about piecing it together and being adaptive and doing things themselves. And they are. If the MFA is too expensive and too politicized to do anyone any good, artists will find a way to keep learning and making art without it. We’ve been doing it for 40,000 years.


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Loli Fernández-Andrade kolber October 1, 2017 - 10:04

I disagree with the idea that if you make Art quietly and keep on making it, perhaps not showing nor sale it it is a hobby. Artist do that, they make Art, Good or bad, no matter what. Having said this I agree with what you both say. At the end the best tool is “to be extroverted and a bit of a hustler” or manage to classify among the “anointed”. Like anything else in life, Goddess Fortuna works the best. Everything you can say about being an artist you can say about any other profession, the only difference is perhaps the starting money and the ability to maintain a certain, above minimum, economic level. Now about being a good artist, about being fulfilled, those are in the “Another Story” book. After all life is like a small blanket, either covers your head or your feet but not both, the choice is yours.

Beth Secor October 1, 2017 - 12:47

I absolutely disagree as well. First of all, if you were “dumb” as you say, you most likely wouldn’t have gotten accepted into an accredited graduate school. Secondly I learned so much when I went to the University of Houston to get my MFA. From Ed Hill I learned to think critically. From Richard Stout I learned that no matter what the story was behind my work, if the work wasn’t strong no one would get what I was trying to convey or even care. I learned composition from Professor Anslow (I think this is how you spell his name). He spent an entire semester of direct study helping my hone this essential skill. I learned from Gail Stack, who often made me cry, that a body of work was only as strong as its weakest link. David Brauer, Dr. Gunther and others opened my eyes to artists and movements I had only heard about in passing, and in doing so broadened my ideas of what it meant to create. I gained invaluable knowledge from fellow students such as Liz Ward, Rachel Ranta, Nestor Topchy, and others whose work inspired me and who could look at my work objectively. In graduate school Liz Ward and I collaborated on two major installations and projects, mostly something neither of us would have not thought of doing, if we had not been in that creative environment. I was inspired by the creative minds that surrounded me, and graduate school gave me the ability to devote a great many hours to experiment, and make work.
While in graduate school I made friends and collaborated with writers and poets who were getting their PHD in Creative Writing. I found out about the Orange Show in graduate school, and worked there for 12 years. I learned how to write grants while in graduate school. I could go on and on and on. I am a pretty good damn artist, but I would not have been or it would have taken me longer in life to reach this point, had I not gotten my MFA.. Sure maybe there are a lot of young artists who are selling kabillions of dollar worth of painting without further their education, so what. Donald Trump makes kabillions of dollars. I may not make much money from art, but graduate school made me a more thoughtful, curious, intelligent human being

H October 1, 2017 - 14:13

Smart navigation around an uncomfortable subject. LOL to “thin the herd!”

H Schenck October 2, 2017 - 16:14

Hi H! I don’t know if this is your full name, but I’m putting this comment here in case someone mistakes you for me. 😉
H Schenck

H (but not H Schenck) October 4, 2017 - 11:14

LOL! Masquerading as an agreeable commentor…how dare she!

HKG (formerly H but not H Schenck) October 17, 2017 - 08:38

Sorry about that! Didn’t mean to confuse anyone!

Loli Fernández-Andrade Kolber October 15, 2017 - 10:39

An artist in Venezuela told me once “if it is money one is interested in, then art is not it”. One could take that statement and take it to pieces with pros and cons. The variables are so many, but we can narrow it down to the person and his circumstances. Are there formulas for anything in life? Not hardly. What you are, what you do with what you have, what you decide, determines the outcome for the most part, but no guarantees. One thing is for sure, if you did not go to school with bills paid, you’ll come out with a monstrous bill to pay. Two, life costs money, one does not live of nothing, “donde no hay harían todo es mohína”, Where there is no bread, there is no laughter, more or less. Then there is fulfillment , hard to taste when one can’t pay the bills. Assurance? There are none, weather you study art or something else. But, I forget , we are talking about the benefits of graduate school. However, I think the question is more study art or not. You learned a lot in graduate school? Of course, one hopes so and, doesn’t anyone in any circumstances? Oh my! If only one could have, should have? A few years ago a friend ask me to talk to his daughter who wanted to go to art school. I asked her to look at the brand new car her dad just bought her, the summer villa they were living in, her life. That would probably be the last car you can afford I said, forget the beautiful home, trips abroad and so on, if you can live without all of this for the sake of art, then go for it. Nothing tops working on what you adore. She became a lawyer. Graduate school does not make you an artist, educated or not, it will give you another perspective on it and, given today’s society expects it, go ahead spend the money and hung the shingle at your door and the best luck to you. (The very few happy, successful, well off and rich artists not withstanding )

G.Camfield October 1, 2017 - 15:31

Should you get an MFA for the financial benefits, or because you might have an advantage of a good artist mentor, or because it will help you get a teaching job to support your habit (making art)??? I don’t think so! Though it might help you with all those things. Instead, make that decision very carefully, based on whether it will contribute to making you a better artist, enrich your mind as you continue to do your art, teach you about your craft. It goes without saying that you choose your MFA program very carefully with those things in mind, not just the financial benefit. In the end you will be a better artist, or a better teacher, or whatever else you end up doing. (Do apply for financial aid, too!)’

Anthony Shumate October 1, 2017 - 17:32

What we all need to do is say this out loud – “ART is entertainment.” Like a musician at an open mike night so is the young artist who is hustling their wares. Once we establish the context by which the market is going to consume the creations, then we can understand why we need to work. Survival is paramount, and paying your mortgage always forces the reality as to why we do what we do. In a vacuum, Art is the intellectual pursuit that fills our dreams and salves the creative addiction that haunts us as artists. But, to be sober, the economy does not support Art currently. Entertainment is left to crappy TV and other steaming services. I always said, if you make Art in your “cave” it was for therapy.

Cam Schoepp October 1, 2017 - 23:11

TCU accepts 4 new graduates each year into our 3 year MFA program. Each student receives full tuition, a stipend, a studio and 3/4’s of their health insurance cost.
An MFA is not the only path and certainly not for everyone but “crippling debt” doesn’t have to be the reason not to go.

H October 4, 2017 - 11:10

To tag onto your plug…TTU offers assistantships and a plethora of awards- I think one year I actually had to pay back taxes on my scholarships. (But, even before I received awards, my tuition was only 800 a semester.) That said- to do an MFA means you won’t be working another, well-paying, insured job, and so there are other finance-poor areas to consider.

But, it is do-able without “crushing” debt. That’s not an endorsement as the MFA as the only route, but merely a free promo for TTU and other schools that are reasonable- but with good alumni networks and relationships, that bring in visiting artists, have good professor/student mentor relationships, etc.

Brandon Snow October 2, 2017 - 00:30

If we’re lucky, this lack of education from our modern day artists will surge an era of art history to repeat itself and the Baroque Rennaisance period will be born again.

Kate Mulholland October 2, 2017 - 11:06

Twelve years of bartending is my equivalent of an MFA. I cant say i recommend it, but I deffinitely learned a lot. The most valuable lessons ive learned so far is that you can’t buy respect, the people who make the biggest scene in how much they know usually know the least, and that your future does not depend on what you know (but who you know).

If anyone feels like 20k+ for a MFA is worth buying the knowledge and connections explained above… go for it. If it’s free, especially go for it. I can’t agree that the MFA program at UH was any better circa 2011 than undergrad at a private artschool. Maybe a little cheaper. When I was taking grad and independent study courses as a junior at UH it was just a continuing of the dialogues I was having as a sophomore freshly out of the CORE program at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (a tiny little museum school that taught everything from glassblowing to stone lithography and fresco). The undergrad courses in painting were sub par although some of the professors were admittedly great- I thank the dean for signing off on my taking grad classes and the two professors I took for independent study for keeping me sane. I was not a traditional student as I left artschool for UH to pursue a degree in geophysics with a minor in mathematics as well as finish what I started with art school. I had a few more years to be angry about stuff and a little more life experience than some of my classmates.

However, my personal assessment is that quite frankly no one cares how certifiably educated you are. Not even your gallerist. If you want to teach because you love it and make a crapy competitive salary without benefits, it’s the way to go. Maybe you will get lucky and land a non teaching job that has benefits. In the end I haven’t met a grad student at any 3 institutions I’ve attended that knew exactly why they were there other than that it’s what they they were told to to, expensively avoiding jobs, and for the expensive free studio space & even more expensive connections. It really doesn’t matter what my opinion of other’s reasonings is… I am just illustrating that none of those reasons were ever convincing enough for me to go get MFA. I always believed you can do all of those things in the real world without going into debt, it just takes a little more effort, discipline, a lot more reading and research without someone telling you to do so, and recognising the importance of writing daily. Turns out you can.

At this point I’m unsure how anything but trade school (aside from research universities for science/med major) after highschool is relevant anymore when you can learn anything from the internet in underneath an hour. I dunno about you but free sounds pretty good after knocking out $120k of debt for two degrees in 12 years of babysitting oddballs, alcoholics and junkies. I had a blast doing it tho.

Rachel Cox October 2, 2017 - 13:09

The entire conversation is quite topical at this very moment with my BFA and MFA students as well as other artist friends who never went to MFA programs. Just to quickly summarize, I went to the University of New Mexico and graduate in 2013 with an MFA. I have less than $5,000 in student loans and was fortunate to study with Libby Lumpkin and Dave Hickey. This program selection was not easy. I got accepted into California College of the Arts and MICA. However, and this is something that should be addressed when having this conversation with students or really anyone, undergraduate teachers should be advising these MFA hopefuls about the reality of a future with an MFA. Once I wrapped my head around the price tag of these art programs, actually visited the campuses and met with current students, I realized I could do almost all of the things I wanted to at any MFA program.

What Michael pointed out beautifully is that if you are already an artist upon entering you need to be savvy about what you are using the 2-3 years for. How can it serve you in more than one way? I went for the studio time, essentially a completely funded residency is how I looked at it. The networking side is tough at the southwest schools but if what you make is good than you work harder to get the right people to see it.

I review MFA and BFA portfolios around the country at various photography conferences. The art school kids walk right into every opportunity, its handed to them. But sometimes they lack the tenacity and self reliance (ingenuity!) that is necessary once you’re out in the world. Unless you are rich or have got a shiny offer from one of these top art school programs I usually advise state programs that offer funding.

For the right person, I think graduate school is necessary to making better work. There are few situations where you can have critical dialogue with with a group of thinkers multiple times a week, over the course of months or years, and all the while have access to a private studio space. There are some fabulous residencies right here in the US but many have costly fees (Skowhegan to name the top one) and you have to already have some tact for self discipline in the studio considering they are only a matter of weeks.

Understanding the reality of the degree you are getting, factoring in the cost, and figuring out your plans B and C before you leave are “duh” type nuances. As an educator of BFA and MFA’ers one integral part of my job is to offer total transparency about the likelihood of landing a FT tenure track gig, as well as being picked up by a gallery or having a publisher put out your first monograph. In the photography community myriad of conferences, portfolio reviews, and festivals are extremely beneficial for young artists, especially the inevitable hotel after parties where professors, bloggers, and students alike share the same shitty beer =)

Moe Profane October 2, 2017 - 20:30

I got mine simply because I got an assistantship. I quickly found out adjunct wasn’t for me. I could web design way easier with more pay.

Glad I went though. Letting go and opening myself up to criticism made me stronger. Much stronger. It made me a better self critic and thus a better defender of my work. My work has progressed way more than if I had allowed myself to believe I always knew best and could learn from anyone questioning me.

I'llnevertell October 2, 2017 - 22:45

Those that have graduated with an MFA understand it’s worth. Those that didn’t try, or didn’t get in, think it’s “dumb”. Most undergraduate work is shit, more concentration is needed if you are in the top tier. If you are not in the very top tier of undergraduates in your field (in your region), don’t bother. You are not good enough to make anything happen, and it will waste time and money. If you are top tier, and you have the will to work harder than anyone else, an MFA program is for you. Bust ass though, or you will just end up being another grad student who is coasting and hoping it will all work out. Only a very select few are chosen by top regional galleries, if any at all are chosen. It’s nearly impossible to be chosen, and then have a successful career being represented by a major gallery. It only happens to the very best. If you truly believe this will be you, and you are ready for the work and alienation to consume you, then apply. If you get picked for a grad program, you might have a 1% shot. If your thesis show gets some heat and your work can sell, you might get a studio visit. If the gallery takes some pieces and shows them to clients, and they sell, you are rolling. If you get a solo show, and you kick ass, and continue to sell and get good press, you might get represented. If you get represented by a top gallery finally, toast yourself, you are elite. Now you have to compete with the other artists in the stable, and all the other top galleries too. In other words, hurdles are always there for you to transcend. What are you made of? If it’s steel, then you are ready for the competition. If it’s something else, don’t bother, you are an undergraduate artist who will swim in the sea of wannabees in perpetuity. You either have it, or you don’t. Know who you are first. Then make the choice. Water finds it’s own level eventually, so will you.

I'llnevertell October 2, 2017 - 23:03

p.s. … MFA is an insane career plan, yet it has worked out wonderfully for me. This goes to show that exceptions are made every single year. If you are trying to figure out if you should apply for an MFA program based on a “dumb” article like this, you don’t belong there anyway. If you are meant for an MFA program, you will know it. No need to ask, or ponder the question. If you are asking, you are not a suitable candidate and you will fail. If you don’t give a fuck about failure, and you know your life’s meaning is to become a professional artist no matter if it kills you….you are perfect for the program. Get an air mattress, a studio toothbrush, a studio coffee maker, and buy some clamp lights. Time to go to work. Forget your life, friends, wants. All that is gone now, deep concentration is all you know.

Cary Reeder October 4, 2017 - 08:08

This is a timely essay as my niece has just enrolled in an MFA program after graduating with her BFA 5 or so years ago and working at a couple of non-art museums. I encouraged her to do it because she is an artist and what the hell else is she going to do? She hated working in museum administration and had no time or energy to make art after working long hours. Also, the program she is in is 2 years and her tuition is covered if she gets a job at the university (which she is in the process of). I don’t know what her plan is after she graduates but this is a much better plan than staying in a job she hates and not making art.

Now for me, I’m making art without an MFA. The reason I have not pursued one is that I have been to graduate school before (MSP in Urban Planning!) and do not want to relive that hell because I’m older and tired-er now and both the loss of income while I am in school and the cost of tuition are daunting. However, there are times when I lament connections and opportunities, especially since I am an introvert and all that connecting does not come naturally to me, but I have managed to finagle a wonderful group of artists friends and teachers through Glassell and my studio, and curators/gallerists through showing up to shows, talks, etc. so I’m good.

So, in summary, I say get an MFA if you have the energy, if it’s free, or if you can afford it, but don’t bank on it getting you a “job” as an artist.

becky R Soria October 11, 2017 - 14:05

it is always a good idea to pursue as much knowledge you can get in any subject matter, having said that, pursuing your MFA does not necessarily open you all doors into the art world, if you are doing art, and the art is interesting and strong, you probably do not need any thing further.
Art specially in our times is very fickle and depends on groups of people making decisions about what kind of works should be considered avant guard. The rich art collectors, The Museums, as well as friendships, love affairs, and what makes money within the interested parties who are making crucial decisions in favor of a styles or specific artists.
So, Do Art because you love and it is in you! and do your best to share with the public.

Dan Fabian October 12, 2017 - 14:14

An MFA in sculpture or painting seems to have as much utility as an actual sculpture or painting. Exactly what does one get out of an additional three years of art school that wasn’t available in my BFA program? If the plan is to plug-in to the art market, it might be a better path to take classes to become more extroverted and personable. If you wanted to just make art full time, then you should have won the genetic lottery with it’s attendant trust fund. Ultimately, I chose to get a post-baccalaureate degree that would permit me to reliably support my family. Although I continue to make art that no one cares about after the kids are in bed, I’m still skeptical that it could have turned out any differently from my MFA graduate friends’ situations. I can live with the fact that that my work is mediocre, and that it is not essential that I make it. I just do it to bring myself pleasure, and keep relatively sane. If I had it all to do over again, I might have studied horticulture instead. I daresay that the world could use more plants than another 40,000 MFA grads per year churning out casual sculpture.

Colette Copeland October 22, 2017 - 09:53

I really valued my grad school experience. I had been out of art world for a decade and needed time, studio and instruction. My end game was to teach, which I have been doing for 16 years—both in a full time and part time capacity. I’ve had a lot of my students (primarily from UPenn and Uarts) go on to grad school and all of them would do it again. My advice to students is to look for funding. No one ever gave me funding advice. At one school–I received one half stipend and then ran for graduate student advisory council, which paid the other half of my stipend. At another school, I counseled art students on academic probation. Teaching assistantships outside of my respective department. There are creative ways to fund the MFA. Happy to hear that TCU offers so many stipends. If students want to make art, find a school that offers funding and has teachers that they want to study with. Grad school was the last time that I was paid to make art. Paid quite well. Better than my current adjunct pay. Texas pays about 2/3 less than the northeast for adjunct courses.

Melissa E. Noble October 22, 2017 - 13:12

Making art involves critical thinking, discipline and thinking out of the box while pushing the envelope..It IS a very import subject that is not recognized in our education system..If anything it is marginalized hence the reduction of govt. funding for grants and programs. From the few conversations I have had, it appears the artists who teach are exploited with pay, shorter hours and no benefits by the systems they work for as well. There is scientific evidence that it actually helps the students be better students at what ever they choose to do professionally as well as broader thinking. I happen to know of a geologist who is an artist and very talented jazz vocalist whom I met through artist Tierney Malone..She now has left her job at Brit Petrol. to pursue her music. It helps to have a partner that can support that.. This is why when S.T.E.M. came out there was an uproar to put the A in it as S.T.E.A.M..
I wonder how many scientists are artists and/or musicians and would like to hear how this has helped and influenced them..I also have stated that this topic of scientists who make art would make a good curatorial exhibit.. Maybe if all the local exhibition institutes made this a collective exhibition some pretty fantastic discoveries and discourse would be had as well as making a political statement for those who support those who are making those cuts in funding..

Hong Hong April 25, 2021 - 12:00

Hmmm. Reading this three years later. Sometimes a career happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes an MFA matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes an object comes into being, and sometimes it fails to. Shrug. Both perspectives (and prolly all of them in between) are somehow equally valid and true. At the end of the day, all we can hope to do, is to reckon with ourselves. To anyone who’s reading this: just do whatever you wanna do. Best wishes to all xx


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