MFAs Are Expensive—Here Are 8 Art School Alternatives

Isaac Kaplan
Nov 23, 2016 12:15AM

© Allyson Lupovich.

Higher education is in a state of crisis. Student debt is skyrocketing. And those looking for masters degrees pay ever-higher sums to institutions that frequently underpay the very adjunct faculty they employ as teachers. For those in the arts, the question of whether or not an MFA is worth the investment of time and money proves perpetually vexing. Enter the inaugural Alternative Art School Fair (AASF), an initiative of the educational wing of Red Hook, Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works. The well-attended fair brought some 50 alternative art schools from across the globe together this past weekend. The result? A staggering offering of educational options that go far beyond a simple replacement or alternative to an MFA.

The restructuring of education and resistance to traditional institutional models of schooling is an act that has implications far beyond the classroom. “There’s really been this reemergence, in part due to necessity, of artists taking control of the means of their education,” said Catherine Despont, Pioneer Works’s co-director of education and an organizer of the fair. She sees these alternative schools as addressing much larger issues, including a disconnect between artists and the political and even ecological world around them. Many of the panels arranged as part of the fair tackled such issues head on. As we spoke, Despont summoned an old quote from John Dewey, who once described the dilemma of arts in America as recovering “the continuity of aesthetic experience with the normal processes of living.”

Many of the schools gathered seemed to respond to Dewey’s words in the present—not directly, but rather through a shared sense of the times and desire for change. In truth, there were simply too many great schools at the fair to highlight. (Take a look at all the offerings yourself.) But here are eight that demonstrate the wide range of alternative MFA programs offered: from accredited MFA schools, to single classes in New York, to residences in foreign countries, to activist-oriented projects.

Nomad/9 MFA

Hartford, Connecticut

Nomad/9 MFA describes itself as the “MFA of the Future,” but in some ways it is particularly attuned to the present. The program is geared towards students who are looking for an accredited MFA program but find the the current offerings homogeneous and lacking in ground-up, cross-disciplinary focus. With many of the program’s teachers hailing from fields beyond art, Nomad/9 is an example of a program looking to challenge the retrograde structure of higher education from within—a difficult task, but a crucial one. After five years of planning by director Carol Padberg, the school and its 10 students is in its very first year. A key highlight is Nomad/9’s low-residency focus. It allows artists from across the world to attend an accredited program without leaving their home cities. Instead, they congregate three times a year. It’s a significant benefit for those who feel like they need an MFA for their career but don’t want to leave the city or town where they are working. Scholarships are offered, but the program doesn’t start out cheap: $55,000 for the full 26 months.

Black Mountain School

Black Mountain, North Carolina

Founded on the site of the famous Black Mountain College and building on that institution’s interdisciplinary legacy, Black Mountain School is entering its second year. Eschewing the rigidity often imposed by traditional forms of education, Black Mountain School emphasizes collaboration, experimentation, an ecological emphasis with a DIY attitude—lines between faculty, staff, and student all blur. For its booth at AASF, the school brought a giant community board from its first year, bursting with posters advertising everything from student-led embroidery lessons to a map of the school marked with rabbit sightings. Artists interested in attending can sign up for one of the school’s two-week summer courses for the relatively low price of $800, with financial aid also available. Like many of the experimental programs still in their nascent years, Black Mountain School has been adjusting and learning as much as it has been teaching students, listening to feedback as it navigates the balance of idealism and realism necessary to successfully manage a staff and students.

The Zz School of Print Media

Kansas City, Missouri

When most people think about intervening in higher education, they think of it from the student’s perspective—the cost of attending, the courses offered, and so on. But also troubling is how little adjunct faculty are paid and the precariousness of their jobs. The Zz School of Print Media was founded by Erin Zona, an adjunct herself, all too aware of the problems endemic in her trade. Located Kansas City, Missouri, the the Zz School pays more money to its teachers per contact hour with students than the Kansas City Art Institute does to its adjuncts. The school offers $80 multi-day letterpress courses, along with a pricier screenprinting classes. But it is also looking beyond the traditional model of education in which students are seen simply as consumers purchasing a skill. Instead, classes emphasize the historical and cultural importance of print and letterpress as media forms (including field trips and research projects), while also highlighting how these seemingly dated techniques can serve students and be employed in their work in unexpected ways.

Spring Sessions

Amman, Jordan

Spring Sessions is a three-month teaching and residency program located in Jordan, a country that has no MFA programs whatsoever. It is also completely free. The school typically welcomes 15 to 18 participants for a 100-day period that emphasizes collectivity, questioning, and leaving one’s comfort zone. Now entering its fourth year, Spring Sessions is geared primarily towards pedagogy over studio time, featuring workshops and other activities. But it does also offer an interwoven residency where students can put to practice the lessons learned in their courses. It would be wrong to think of Spring Sessions as traditional American MFA program just located outside the United States. Rather, it is “based on creating a space for new experiences within the familiar settings of the city, allowing participants to question their surroundings via artistic practices,” according to the fair catalogue.


Mexico City, Mexico

SOMA was originally founded six years ago in response to a lacking higher education system for artists in Mexico. Though it offers two-year courses and a workload that resembles an that of an MFA, SOMA isn’t accredited, at least partly because the institution values autonomy and experimentation over the stamp of approval from Mexico’s education ministry. The MFA-like program primarily caters to Spanish-speaking students. But SOMA also offers a more international summer program (named SOMA Summer) at a cost of $3,600. The eight-week course slated for this coming summer will focus on notions of authority—a timely subject.

Art & Law Program

New York City, New York

Expanding what arts education is can mean expanding the definition of art itself. Enter the Art & Law Program—a semester-long course that treats law as an art form in and of itself. The classes consist of three-hour seminars held weekly, featuring litigators and lawyers among the staff along with the artists one would traditionally expect to find. The program looks to treat law as a material, thinking of legal codes in the language of art in order to grapple with their complex and interwoven nature. Students also examine how the law defines property, cultural production, and how it can tangibly challenge or interrupt the kinds of broader artistic critical theories taught in other more traditional MFA programs. Though students are primarily artists, they can expect close readings of legal cases as part of the course load.

School of Apocalypse

Brooklyn, New York

A major theme connecting many of the schools that presented at the Alternative Art School Fair is an emphasis on ecology, nature, and our natural surroundings. Part of this vein, the School of Apocalypse is run right out of Pioneer Works itself and offers an array of courses from reimagining the symbols and iconography of the United States to more theoretical explorations of humanity’s continued existence on this planet. The focus isn’t necessarily as dire as it sounds—“apocalypse” isn’t synonymous with a nuclear war, for example, but rather a jumping-off point for “the fundamental questions” that the apocalypse provokes. As such, it brings together people with diverse educational backgrounds, not just artists. The numerous courses that fall under this broad rubric run the gamut from free to paid, and while the program isn’t accredited, Eugenia Manwelyan, one of the four founders, said that it “really does feel like a second masters.”

The Black School

Brooklyn, New York

Founded this year with the help of an A Blade of Grass (ABOG) fellowship, the Black School looks to enable black, people of color, and ally students to be radical agents of change. The Black School focuses on students well before they reach MFA level by partnering with public high schools around the city to show how art can be mobilized to critique, challenge, and change broken systems of education. “The purpose of the Black School is to not fit into traditional modes of education,” said founder and ABOG Fellow Joseph Cuillier. The current focus is a nine-week after-school program at the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Bed Stuy, with visiting artists, radical black critical theory, and workshops all empowering students to make social change in their communities.

Isaac Kaplan