Freese

Blog featuring artwork of Wes Freese

MoFA

with 3 comments

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.

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Written by Wes Freese

April 22, 2009 at 11:40 am

3 Responses

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  1. I am a painter who received a MFA 41 years ago. I have taught in universities on the west coast, mid west and for the past 21 years at SVA in New York. Many times I have questioned whether a MFA was really worth the time and money that I put in and played for a number of years. The experience was wonderful and I think I developed work ethics, which have continued central in my life. However if I had become a carpenter or a plumber and continued to paint I might have been just as far ahead. Very few years have I been able to support my family and my art from teaching or my art alone. I have sold shoes, worked as an illustrator, designer and have even managed a restraint in order keep solvent.

    Most of my time teaching including currently has been part time, partly because I need time to paint and partly because I haven’t found work in academia. My wife has been my primary patron making our life and my art possible. Though I still question my higher education’s contribution to my career I end up, most of the time, feeling good about it. It was not the instant solution to having a career as an artist I once thought it might be.
    I paint because I don’t know any better not because I know a lot, but I am still glad I do know a lot of things I would not have known had I not gone to graduate school.

    James Van Patten

    May 2, 2009 at 6:03 am

  2. […] Paintings « MoFA […]

  3. […] Published June 2, 2009 Painting , Washington 0 Comments Keeping my MoFA blog post in mind, I went to the University of Washington’s 2009 MFA show at the Henry Art […]

    UW MFA « Freese

    June 2, 2009 at 11:28 am


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