For Artists Who Can’t Afford the $100k to Get an MFA, Alternatives Now Abound

Hilarie M. Sheets
Jan 12, 2016 10:42PM

Copy of Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur at Columbia University. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust via Wikimedia Commons.

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 Black Mountain College, 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.

Sean Joseph Patrick Carney talks to the New York Arts Practicum at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. Photo by Arts Practicum via Flickr.


In the fall, BHQFU will launch a new year-long program called MFU that will offer five artists shared studio space with Bruce High Quality Foundation in Brooklyn. “We’ll give no degree—it’s not accredited—but we’re going to offer everything an MFA offers including visiting artist critiques, studio visits, and an opportunity to teach, and it costs zero dollars,” says Carney. “It’s not for everybody. Some people really want to do an MFA. For the few of them that get scholarships, I would never tell them not to take that opportunity.”

In the cost-benefit analysis of an MFA, name can matter. “It still makes sense to pay a lot of money if your degree comes from a place like Yale or Columbia,” says Alexi Worth, an artist who has taught at Yale and currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. “Those names have a kind of cache in the gallery world and the networks of people from prior years include lots of big-name artists. People still believe it’s meaningful and that perception may make it true.” Well-known artists today, including Barnaby Furnas and Dana Schutz, were scouted by dealers while still at Columbia and given their first shows right out of school in the early 2000s. The collector Bernard Lumpkin regularly visits Yale MFA students and has bought works off their studio walls, including a painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who graduated in 2011 and this month has her first solo museum show at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

Still, those are the exceptions, not the rule. The current price tag of a Columbia MFA is just over $110,000. “People are all super-conscious of the craziness of the amount of money that they’re shelling out,” says Worth, who sees the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the intensive nine-week summer residency program for emerging artists, as a possible alternative for grad school. For the MacArthur-award-winning artist Whitfield Lovell, who credits his stay in 1985 at Skowhegan as “the major turning point artistically and professionally,” it certainly was. “Skowhegan pulls amazing faculty, and the people who get in there are at the top of a big pool,” says Worth. “It has some of the same qualities as Yale or Columbia. I don’t think there’s any other residency that has quite that level of selectivity.”

For others, whether faculty or students, moving away from the big brand-name programs is a better option. Kara Walker, who had taught at Columbia for many years, recently joined the faculty at Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Kara was attracted to Rutgers’s being a more democratic space to work in,” says Gerry Beegan, chair of the school’s visual arts department, which annually receives about 250 applications for up to 15 spots. “Because we are a state university, there aren’t the pressures that you might have in a private institution.”

In the spirit of creating an environment apart from the commercial demands all too prevalent in the art world, every student admitted to Rutgers’s MFA program beginning in fall 2016 will get a scholarship equivalent to out-of-state tuition for the first year (approximately $14,000) and in-state tuition for the second year (approximately $9,000). “It’s establishing an equality between the students and making a community in which everybody starts at the same point,” says Beegan, noting that in the past, some students got generous scholarships while others received no aid, a typical educational scenario. The new model is being funded by a redistribution of existing funds.

“We all know that some artists make a lot of money and many artists don’t,” says Beegan. “But artists are making art for other reasons than commercial reasons. As an art school, we’re trying to create a space outside of the pressures of the market.”

Hilarie M. Sheets