The Value of an MFA

In an interview with John A. Parks, Deborah Bright, Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute, makes a case for an MFA degree. (This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.)

Having completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, many students face a pivotal career choice: go on to get an Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree or simply launch a career right away? The prospect of two years spent focusing on one’s own work, mentored by professional artists, has considerable allure. Moreover, an MFA is considered a terminal degree and qualifies the holder for teaching at a college level.

On the other hand, the costs of an MFA are high. At many schools, tuition for a two-year program is well over $70,000. After adding in materials and living expenses, the total cost may well be more than $125,000. Even though universities almost always offer some financial aid, most students may be obliged to take on significant debt. Meanwhile, financial returns in the art world are generally low. While a small number of art stars garner considerable wealth, most artists struggle to keep working. Teaching in college may seem attractive, but the truth is that jobs are scarce and the pay is often surprisingly low.

To discuss some of the pros and cons of pursuing an MFA, I spoke with Deborah Bright, Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. (I also talked with some young artists who have decided to forge ahead without an MFA.)

John Parks (JP): What are the principal benefits that a student can expect to reap from an MFA program?

Deborah Bright (DB): Two years of intense growth, mentored by successful professional artists and the opportunity to join a community of peers who can form a built-in network after graduation. It’s often the case that classmates stay connected virtually, if not physically, with their former teachers and peers, and lifelong friendships are nurtured. This is important because being an artist can be a lonely and discouraging business without social support.

I can’t stress enough, either, the importance of the two years of intensive focus on developing one’s studio or post-studio practice without too much distraction. 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.

JP: What counsel would you give a prospective student who’s wrestling to balance the financial risk/reward equation in pursuing an MFA?

DB: All MFA programs offer various forms of financial aid: outright scholarships or fellowships, paid graduate assistantships and work-study opportunities that pay better than minimum wage. At Pratt we also allow our students to take paid internships while they’re in school at the same time they get credit for the professional experience. We assist them in finding internship opportunities, which are plentiful in the New York area. On the other hand, the increasing numbers of international students (40 percent of our entering MFA class at Pratt) find that loans funded by the U.S. government are closed to them. Therefore international students tend to come from affluent families who can afford to subsidize them or their home government provides subsidies.

But it’s true that, as a private institution that’s mostly tuition driven, Pratt cannot offer the same kind of financial support that a state university or well-endowed private institution such as Yale or MIT can offer. We also admit a much larger cohort of MFA students in fine art (around 50) each year than most of our peer institutions. So funds are very tight for us, indeed.

JP: What prospects does a master of fine arts have in securing a teaching job in today’s job market?

DB: They have much greater prospects if graduates are willing to move out of the New York metro area! I often tell students who really want to teach to be willing to move to the Midwest or the Sunbelt for a while to build up their teaching experience. Then they can apply for jobs on the two coasts, if they wish.

Staying in a major metro area, unless one becomes a market star (and market stars often don’t teach because they have to crank out product full time), means teaching at the bottom of the food chain, perhaps for decades. That’s a hard life if you care about teaching as a vocation. There’s no institutional loyalty to adjuncts, pay is low and benefits nearly nonexistent. It’s no secret that much of the New York art world, as well as art education in the city, runs on the underfunded labor of artists, unless they’re represented by labor unions. At Pratt, adjunct faculty are unionized and guaranteed some job security after they’ve taught for a certain number of consecutive semesters.

JP: Do you think an MFA gives an artist any advantage in securing gallery representation or other art world exposure?

DB: Yes. It hasn’t always been this way, but since the days of the go-go 1990s art market, some highly selective MFA programs have paid attractive salaries to star faculty and become feeder schools (Yale, Columbia, UCLA) for the gallery systems in New York and Los Angeles, and this has raised applicants’ expectations considerably. Now every MFA program tries to build pipelines to the gallery world by inviting critics and dealers to meet with MFA students and see their work. Every MFA program in New York, for example, has open studios that are well publicized and that allow the public (and, it’s hoped, gallerists and curators trolling for new talent) to see fresh MFA work. Thesis shows are increasingly held in actual art galleries rented for a week or two by MFA programs. In New York this is a real advantage, and schools located outside of New York rent spaces here to showcase their students at graduation time. At Pratt, we exploit our North Brooklyn location to connect our MFA students directly to galleries and curators in the adjacent neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick—venues that tend to show the work of more emerging artists.

JP: Some young artists pursue ways of furthering their artistic growth without studying for an MFA. Communities based in studio situations or close networks of recent college grads provide a similar group dynamic at far lower cost. Some say that networking through gallery openings and events in a metropolitan area is more effective than trying to do it in an academic setting. Do you think these critics have a point?

DB: Networking can work for older, more seasoned and self-disciplined artists who are already based in a market city like New York—who already are connected and know exactly what they want and how to get there; however, that’s rarely the case. Most artists coming out of BA/BFA programs aren’t at this stage, nor are those who live outside the major market cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. They don’t even know where to begin to find these networks, especially in supremely competitive cities where who you know matters as much as how good your work is.
If an undergraduate student graduates with this kind of social capital, then I’d say go for it! But this kind of savvy is rare. To reach their potential, most young artists need those two years of intensive growth under the tutelage of expert teachers and equally ambitious peers. They’ll have the rest of their lives to make their way as professional artists, and two years has to be measured against perhaps 40–50 years of productivity. School is still a good investment if being an artist is what really matters to you.

Furthermore, and I can’t stress this enough, the market is not for everybody—it’s a winner-take-all system that’s very competitive and that excludes much good work. Fortunately, there are other ways to live and work as an artist. One can work within a community as an artist in residence; work for a nonprofit arts organization; build a small business that generates enough income to support one’s art, or work with kids in quasi-educational enterprises, such as Studio in a School in New York City. To be exposed to these options, one needs to be in a place where those contacts can be made. At Pratt, we have a robust professional practices seminar that all MFA students take, which equips them to make their way in the nonprofit as well as the market-driven world.

The real point of graduate education is to teach students how to keep teaching themselves—to be flexible and to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. There’s no single career path that’s inevitable or right for every artist; most artists experience many different “lives” over the course of their careers.

Prospective MFA Students’ Checklist

  • Research the programs carefully to make sure they offer instruction and support for the kind of art you’re interested in. Visit the schools and talk to the students and faculty.
  • Find out how much financial aid is offered; this varies greatly from school to school. Often high-end schools have more aid money than less expensive, smaller schools. Meet with a financial aid officer and be prepared to negotiate.
  • Take a look at programs that take place over several summers. They’re usually cheaper.
  • Understand there are no career guarantees with an MFA. Teaching jobs are scarce, and the art world isn’t an easy place to make a living. However, “name” schools like Yale, Columbia, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), or UCLA (University of California–Los Angeles) definitely confer advantages when it comes to career prospects.

A painter and writer, John A. Parks has exhibited his work in New York and around the world. He has a master’s degree in painting from the Royal College of Art, in London, which is equivalent to an American MFA. Says Parks, “I was fortunate to study in England at a time when we were given both free tuition and a small stipend to live on.”

Editor’s Note: There are a myriad of excellent MFA programs at colleges, universities and art schools located in other regions and in other countries.


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