As application deadlines loom for the coming school year, artists considering whether to pursue an MFA are faced with the exorbitant costs of traditional programs and the prospect of huge debt that the majority cannot count on paying off through the sale of their work. How essential is an MFA today? And are there less costly options in terms of time and money than the standard two- to three-academic-year programs that can run more than $100,000?
“The art world today is much more professionalized than even 20 years ago,” says Paul Ha, director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. After receiving his BFA in the mid-1980s from the University of Maryland, he worked his way up as an arts administrator and curator but says, half-jokingly, that he would never be able to do so now because of the expectation that applicants starting out have advanced degrees. Indeed, job descriptions at many art schools for entry-level teaching positions, even adjunct, require an MFA, among other advanced qualifications, even though a lot of longtime faculty were hired before getting an MFA was de rigueur.
Beyond the MFA bestowing the credential to teach, “what I see now is that MFA programs create a support group,” says Ha. “The connections that artists make there remain when they move to New York, L.A., Berlin, or elsewhere.” Yet he points to
, the famous liberal arts school that brought together a constant stream of artists and students in the mid-20th century, as being emblematic of the viability of alternative tracks, “proof of what can happen where there is a critical mass of creative people with an open experimental environment.” A variety of low-residency MFA programs, residencies, and artist-run schools can all create similar chemistry and offer viable alternatives, depending on the student.
In 1981, Bard pioneered the low-residency MFA, in which students come for intense summer sessions while maintaining their personal and professional commitments wherever they live for the rest of the year. “Our students are typically older, have really committed themselves to a career in the arts, and want some intensive study,” says Arthur Gibbons, director of the program at Bard, which currently charges $58,500, and doesn’t offer an academic-year MFA. “We recommend to people straight out of undergrad that they might be better served in a full-time MFA program.”
Other schools have increasingly replicated the low-residency model, including New York’s School of Visual Arts, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The cost of tuition is the same for traditional and low-residency versions, coming in at approximately $90,000 for the 60 credits toward the degree at SAIC, for instance. “The financial difference comes from how the program is structured, which allows students to maintain work and income throughout the program,” says Michal Lynn Shumate, administrative director of the low-residency program at SAIC. “Beyond the all-consuming six-week summer intensive, students have about 20 hours a week of studio and class work that they’re responsible for during the fall and spring semesters, which allows them to work, teach, and travel for projects or residencies for the majority of the year.”
Artists who aren’t necessarily looking for the teaching credential but want the critical feedback and network that can happen in the course of an MFA program might consider the totally free, artists-run school BHQFU in New York. Founded six years ago by the anonymous artist collective Bruce High Quality Foundation as an anarchic experiment, the school now runs a full slate of artist-taught classes (there were 743 applications for 13 classes this fall and they figured out how to accommodate almost everyone in at least one class), as well as a summer residency program and art gallery. It is funded by an annual budget of $350,000 largely raised through the sale of donated artworks. “With some self-direction, you can build a really great network of supportive individuals” through the program, says Sean J. Patrick Carney, a faculty member at BHQFU and its outreach director. “But you don’t have to be paying x dollars per minute” for the privilege.