Archive for April 2009
Another Bouncing Ball blogs about MFA degrees here, and takes a similar look at MFA degrees as I generally do. Some additional information on MFA’s seems due.
For the past 30 years the study of art in higher education in the U.S. has exponentially grown into a minor industry in and of itself. While the theory behind MFA’s is that the course of study is to get you (the artist) to be more truly you expressed in the work, everyone knows that the real reason to get an MFA has always been to get a university job that would eventually lead to tenure, meanwhile still having enough time to devote to one’s primary concern, that of creating art work. But that prime reason for taking on the expense and dedication to one’s artistic vision is becoming a thing of the past in the commonly understood art world. The market for university teaching positions in art is flooded. MFA degree holders must now travel the country for several years, taking an assistant professor position for a year, then relocating the next year to another school, until hopefully somewhere along the line a position will stick. Assistant professorship position openings are usually met with hundreds of applicants, to which only one can be selected. The supply of MFA degrees now far exceeds demand for art teachers in universities.
For those that do somehow get into a teaching position, the prospect for future earnings as a university professor do not appropriately exceed the amount of debt one incurs to get the advanced degree in the first place. The whole justification for advanced degrees is that it is expensive, but it pays off because the higher degree makes one a higher wage earner in the job market. This is not the case in the art world, where art jobs have significantly lower salaries (in general) than most other careers requiring advanced degrees.
But that fact has historically not stopped young artists from seeking out MFA degrees. MFA study isn’t like law school or an advanced research degree, where massive amounts of information are digested and repetitive exercises reassemble one’s brain to fit a compartmentalized segment of society. But it is a concentrated studio practice (along with history and criticism) that allows a large amount of time to be devoted to ones craft and intent which ordinarily can’t be achieved in day-to-day life.
Artists today are becoming increasingly shrewd about these realities and taking their works directly to market after receiving their BFAs. It’s true that investors and galleries like to see an MFA attached to the name of an artist because it shows a level of dedication and provides a salve for investor and gallerist anxiety and uncertainty over whether or not the work is actually any good (many don’t know what their eyes tell them, instead relying on written critical opinions and what other buyers say). But as artists continue to become more cognizant of the professionalism necessary in the market, and other technologies make art careers more DIY friendly, the trend of artists forgoing the MFA route will continue.
There are examples of artists who thrive without MFA degrees, and those who grew because of advanced study. What’s more important than MFA degrees is the patron, usually a family member or spouse who works to pay the bills. It’s an informal number but probably 9/10ths of all artists rely on some form of patron to pay the bills while the artist works on less economic concerns. Take away an artist’s patron, and they would not survive in the market and would have to find other work after a short time. Creating art takes time, years of time to formulate and work out. The patron is the far more important career necessity than an MFA degree. For what it’s worth.