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Debating an MFA? The Lowdown on Art School Risks and Returns

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For aspiring artists, December is the cruelest month, when thoughts of pursuing an MFA must turn to action or be cast to the winds. It's grad school application time -- and what a time it is to undertake such a commitment! Never has higher education been more of a discursive battlefield. Politicians, parents, pundits, and provosts argue daily in the press over what it's worth. Given the skyrocketing cost of tuition, mounting student debt, high interest rates on loans, and a tough job market, you'd be crazy not to measure your education's value against the risk involved in paying for it, especially if you are considering a master's degree in art or design. According to an article published earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal, students at art-focused schools rack up the highest debt, and the odds of their striking it rich right after graduation are not in their favor. That may not stop you from applying, but if you are going to invest large sums, you'd better look closely at what you will be getting into.


A feisty crop of debt-savvy activists are blowing the whistle on what some call a degree-dispensing game of diminishing returns. This past summer, Occupy Museums sent an open letter to art school deans, calling on them to fess up about the educational products they peddle to young people by disclosing each school's association with predatory lenders. Which leads me to some thoughts about grad school.

Caveat #1: You could easily end up paying three times your original loan amount if you choose to repay slowly. Living with that sort of financial pressure not only imperils your ability to make art but will probably also shape the decisions you make as to what kind of art to create. While it would be admirable for art school administrators to share that kind of knowledge, you are more likely to learn about the pros and cons of pursuing degrees by empowering yourself as a consumer before you matriculate.

The darker side of student-loan debt is not what you'll be told about when you meet the professorial pied pipers whose job it is to fill spots that keep their costly programs afloat. Instead, you will see lots of slick marketing for dozens of newfangled degrees, and hear many promises that art school will change your life. Not surprisingly, the MFA marketplace offers more than one means of achieving this sweeping personal transformation.

Caveat #2: While it may be flattering to garner attention at a portfolio review, some really fine schools don't chase after applicants at all--keep that in mind when you are being courted by recruiters. There will be those who tell you that you must perfect the art of talking about your work by imbibing large quantities of "theory." There will be those who claim that you will learn to save the world with your art through a range of activities outside the classroom, the lab, or the studio,that have been branded social practice and civic engagement. And there are those who will entice you with the assurance that the very act of making art is a mode of thought, and that this is all real artists need to know.

So how will you know which program is right for you? Should the current metrical obsession with determining success in higher education by the rate of postgraduation employment be translated into art world terms? If sales are to serve as the marker, then tradition-bound programs stressing craft would win. If visibility is the barometer, then the interdisciplinary programs that turn out idiosyncratic hipsters who talk big and make quirky assemblages stand out. If eligibility for teaching is what you seek--cognizant that the field is overwhelmingly composed of poorly paid adjuncts--then the statistical dominance of introductory courses in drawing and design should suggest to you that cultivating technical skills will open more doors.

Theory, whose aura still hangs over a handful of high-profile MFA programs, remains something of a double-edged sword. Some teachers treat it as a measure of worth, either of your intelligence or of your status as an upstart art world insider. Others revile it as a distraction from the activity of artmaking. It's rarely taught well in art school: All too often, it's dispensed with more zeal than skill, in intimidatingly large doses to students with little background in the study of philosophy, sociology, or even art history. This crash-course approach often yields crippling self-doubt and distrust of intuitively motivated creation on the one hand, or overdependence on discursive rationalization of every aesthetic act on the other. The purported supremacy of theory over other approaches to thinking and talking about art doesn't stand up to scrutiny--a quick perusal of artists' statements from thepast century about their own work will demonstrate the existence of a wide range of approaches to aesthetic interpretation.

Learning experiences, however informed by high-minded ideas, have to happen somewhere. As you consider where you might want to be, think beyond the name of a school or the allure of the city it's in. Most of your waking hours as an art student will be spent at school, in your studio, or in classrooms and whichever communal work spaces you need to be in to produce. If you suddenly discover that you desperately want to weld an armature for a new video installation or print wallpaper, will you be able to access a state-of-the-art metal or print shop right away, or will you get on line behind a hundred other students and lose sleep for a week? How will you fare in a studio without a door or a ceiling or a window versus an enclosure with all three? What if you have to share a work space with dozens of others? What you are told is a "community building spatial arrangement" could drive you nuts if you can't find a place to leave your work in progress overnight, talk privately to a visiting curator, or escape your neighbor's music.

These scenarios may seem improbable-and in truth, there are lots of art schools, especially outside New York City, that are quite generous in their allotment of space to students. However, the cost benefit to art schools of low-residency programs and "post studio" curricula is that they allow them to charge you without providing pricey real estate. Leave it to neoliberal college administrators to try to use conceptual art to rationalize the elimination of studio space and the downsizing of facilities for traditional media production. Rather than training your hand and eye while cultivating your mind, you can now pay to learn to talk your way into the field of art. Before you allow yourself to be convinced that you don't need to know how to make anything anymore to succeed in art, consider what it would be like to work with language and ideas as materials, after learning about centuries of history of physical engagement with materiality and being left with nothing to play with but language as a result of the de-skilling of art education for institutional profit. In the real world, even conceptual artists like their studio space.

If you studied art as an undergraduate, you probably didn't know that much about who your teachers were, but astute grad students tend to be more concerned about the people who mentor them. The art press reduces this issue to which schools have the most famous artists on their faculty, but the reality is much more complicated. The majority of those who teach art are not stars, and many of them wield more power at school than in the world at large. This is why visits by high-profile artists and critics, a key selling point of graduate art programs, can become a point of contention while also serving as a crucial balance to ideological uniformity within art departments and schools. Advancement in art fields relies heavily on professional networks, and your contact with influential figures while you are in school is likely to play a significant role in your survival once you get out--they talk you up, recommend you for gigs, curate you into group shows, and introduceyou to people you need to know. This has little to do with the content of courses you will have to take, but everything to do with the mystique that elite programs enjoy. So as you decide which programs to apply to, find out whether you will meet a broad array of working professionals in your field or be trapped in a hothouse with teachers who are a bit too concerned about your loyalty to their views.

The promise of a life-changing learning experience is only as good as what you actually get and how that sizes up with what you need. It's up to you to ask, ask, ask in advance: your teachers, your mentors, and other art students. Instead of getting into tense conversations with recruiters about financial aid once you've been admitted, find out before you apply if your school of choice is endowed with resources that allow it to provide adequate support. And don't be surprised if you have to pressure schools to cough up financial aid when recruiters cry poor. Most sharp-witted applicants do, using promises from one institution to force others to better their offers. Make sure to ask about hidden costs because if you don't, you may find yourself facing all sorts of unanticipated lab and materials fees, or you may discover that you must foot the bill to mount the exhibitions you need to graduate. Compare this to the learning experience of art students whose tuition is subsidized, whose departments boast dedicated gallery space, and whose summer research trip or residency at Skowhegan or Ox-Bow is financed by their alma mater. You may be lured into paying for a lot more than your peers while getting a lot less. It's up to you to find out what your money will buy.

This article is published in the December 2013 issue of Modern Painters.

-Coco Fusco, ARTINFO

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