Tuesday, November 9, 2010

So you want to be an artist... By Ilana Stanger, Guest Writer

Over the past ten years I have been asked about Graduate school - here is a pretty good article for you to check out.

Here are few things to consider when choosing an MFA program:

1. Consider how many years you want the program to be.

MFA programs usually take between one to three years, depending on the resources and the philosophy of the school. Danielle Taylor, who is in her last year at the University of Iowa's painting program, was drawn to Iowa's three-year MFA. "I wanted to do a three-year program because I worked at Penn's [the University of Pennsylvania] Graduate School of Fine Arts and saw what the grad students went though," she says. "The first year they're just realizing what it is to be in grad school — to work independently. The second year they would get into a groove and then have to graduate in the middle of all this momentum. I've had a third year to prepare to enter the job market. I can still go to my studio every day, but I have a lighter class load and a year to make the transformation. So professionally I think it's been really good." Abigail Cohen, who studied photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design, had the opposite take: "Two years was a great amount of time. It was perfect. I didn't want to be in school forever, I just wanted to get skills. Also, I was leaving a relationship behind, so I would've found it difficult to go to a three-year program. But two years were manageable." Whenever you embark on a new phase of life you have to consider both your personal and professional goals. Think about both in terms of the amount of time you'll spend in an MFA program.

2. Check out the facilities.

You should be given your own studio or a shared darkroom, as well as whatever equipment your discipline requires. One of the reasons Danielle chose Iowa was the private studios it offered its painting students. The studio has been crucial to her art; "a space where you can close the door and make a mess encourages risks because you're less afraid to fail." Abigail also found access to new equipment one of the most important benefits of the MFA program: "the equipment was amazing: computers and excellent labs. The types of things that I could use when I was in school were great."

Find out, before you apply, what sort of facilities and equipment you'll have access to as an art student.

3. Check out the community.

How competitive is it? How diverse? Although Danielle praised the general resources offered by her MFA program, her fellow students and faculty disappointed her. "There is a community, but I'm not a part of it. It's incredibly competitive. Everyone is fighting for scholarships, reputation, shows, attention. Social politics can be very difficult. There is a clique of students who really relate to faculty work, and they get much more supportive critiques. There are people who rip down posters that call for shows and hide them in their studio so no one else can enter." Abigail also noticed competition in her program, but found that in the end the community was more supportive than competitive. "When you're working with a group of people who are out there trying to get the same opportunities as you are then there's definite competition, but at the same time you have to rely on each other for support. It's such an intense period, when you're working on creating art, and no one else is going to really understand where your brain's at."

Frances Hahn, a second year Environmental Design major at the Ontario School of Art and Design, has found the community to be both the best, and the worst, part of her program. Says Fran, "25 people are all doing the same assignments and classes, so a real dialogue builds from critiques and assignments that continues outside the classroom. And the way you learn is mostly through conversations with your peers." But, on the other hand, "the community can be stifling, and there's the threat of all our work looking the same."

Once you're admitted to a program, request the names and numbers of a few students in different phases of the program. Call them and ask about the social atmosphere.

4. Think geography.

Danielle purposely picked a safe city, " I wanted to be able to work in my studio late at night and walk home. There's no distractions here [Iowa City], there's nothing to do except work." But there's also advantages to being in a more vibrant city. Fran appreciates that OCAD is "one of the centers of what's going on in the art community of the city [Toronto]. We always hear about openings and exhibits." Abigail chose SCAD, in part, because "the South was a different place-something I could explore using my camera." Danielle adds that it's best not to go to school with anyone from your undergraduate college: "It eliminates your chances of meeting people and expanding out."

John Moore, Monroe and Edna Gutman Professor of Fine Arts Chair at Penn's Graduate School of Fine Arts, also stresses locations as one of the most important things to look for in an MFA program. Moore favors art programs on the East or West coast, "Because you want to be close to New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco. New York is the center of the art world. It's important for graduate students to have access to New York in a direct way. The same thing goes for Los Angeles, or, to a lesser extent, San Francisco. You can see new work in magazines, but with visual art it's at the actual presence of the work where the significant interaction takes place."

Take into account where your school is located, and what will that mean for your outside-the-classroom education. Also consider the cost-of-living in your new region: chances are you won't have much spending money, and while the idea of the starving artist may be romantic, real-life participants tend not to recommend it. Which leads to:

5. Look into the financial aid situation.

Danielle chose Iowa, in part, because it is a state school and offered opportunities for TA-ships. In the end, she feels that the opportunity to TA was one of the most important. "It makes you responsible for the education of people coming out of art school who will be your peers, so you start thinking about what an art education should be, and how you can make your own art education better."

Many art schools offer TA opportunities; some even provide tuition remission and stipends. Think hard about cost before accepting an offer. Remember that this isn't law school-it could take an artist many lifetimes to pay off art school loans.

6. Inquire into the conceptual background of the school.

Danielle is grateful for the time and space she's been given in her MFA program but bemoans the lack of connection between her work and her peer's. "I really suggest that prospective students look deeply into the conceptual backdrop of each school," she warns. "If you paint figures, you want someone else who paints figures so that you have someone to talk to. People here don't relate to my work, and that's very difficult."

Figure out how theoretical you want a school to be, or how hands on, and don't be afraid to ask admissions counselor and faculty members about their conceptual stance.

Once you're admitted to a program, request the names and numbers of a few students in different phases of the program. Call them and ask about the social atmosphere.

7. Be prepared to teach.

Danielle suggests that, if you're not excited about teaching, you should apply for residencies instead. "A residency program can do as much as the MFA, in terms of giving you time and space to work." Abigail, who teaches part-time, stresses that the MFA degree does not lead to lucrative careers. "You pay all this money for an advanced degree so that you can get a teaching job that pays nothing. The reason the job pays nothing is that you're in love with your field. So they know that they don't have to pay you anything--you'll do it anyway."

The MFA is considered a terminal degree-meaning, unlike say an MA, there's no other degree (Ph.D.) that might follow. The MFA qualifies you to teach. That's it. Think about that.

Once you're admitted to a program, request the names and numbers of a few students in different phases of the program. Call them and ask about the social atmosphere.

8. Study faculty work.

Fran appreciates that all her instructors are all active artists. "They're all working artists and designers, so they know the business side as well as the art side. There are ten instructors in my program, and I know them all." Abigail found the faculty informative and supportive: "I think as a graduate student you're always going to be closer to your professors than as an undergraduate. I felt I was joining their ranks as a grad student. In the end I felt that the professors were my friends and colleagues."

John Moore also stresses the importance of familiarizing yourself with faculty work before accepting. "If you're a conceptual artist there's going to be a group of schools with faculty who do that, and those will be more attractive to you than others," he says. Indeed, when Moore, a respected figurative realist painter, took over as chair at Penn, applications from realist painters increased noticeably.

Before accepting, make sure there's someone whose work you admire, and make sure that they are accessible as a professor. Often the less-famous artists are the better teachers: you want to work with someone who values teaching, not just their own work.

9. Take some time off.

Consider taking a few years between your undergraduate and graduate degrees. In their time out of school Abigail worked in a photo store and struggled to build her own business, Danielle worked at the University of Pennsylvania Visual Arts program, Fran was a teacher in Trieste, Italy. "I would encourage taking at least 3-5 years off between graduate and undergraduate," says Danielle. "The students who just came from undergraduate feel their social life is so important and that bleeds into the program. The older students really care about their professional careers, not partying. The ones who came straight from college are also more formulaic. They do what they did their senior year-they haven't expanded. They also don't want it as much, because all they've known is school. They don't know 8 hour work days and trying to get to the studio afterwards. They don't know how valuable time is."

Before you decide you need art school to be an artist, try being an artist while working. Some aim for pay-the-rent jobs-waitressing or working in a coffee shop-to free up their minds for their art. Others try to work within the art world: at a gallery, as an artist's assistant, or in an art shop. This can be a good way to learn the business side of the art world-although, as with all business, be prepared to be disillusioned.

10. Be prepared to defend your choice.

Fran bemoans the funny looks she gets from some people when they hear she's at art school. Laughing, she recalls how "at dinner parties when someone is in law school everyone will say, 'Ooh, law school,' and then when I say I go to art school there's just this silence, or an 'Oh.'" Danielle notes that "making art is so integral to your soul that you're really vulnerable. You need to prove that its worthy of your time, your money, and the lifestyle you're going to live. And you need someone outside your family and friends to recognize its value. It's psychologically demanding."

Why endure the funny looks and the inherent insecurity of the MFA life? John Moore, who, before coming to Penn, worked at Boston University and at Temple's Tyler School of Art, praises the MFA option. "Graduate school is attractive because it's a gateway to the profession," he points out. "An MFA is pretty much a necessity for teaching, unless you have a dramatic reputation in your field. But teaching's not the main thing. People go to graduate school as previous generations of artists might have gone to Paris. It's seen as the capstone to a career. Right now, it's the only kind of forum where ideas are in the air and being constantly shaped."

An MFA is only a good career choice if you are committed to a life of art and teaching. If you think art is something you'd like to do on the side, then by all means do so. And skip the MFA.

If, however, you want to put art right smack center in your life, then an MFA program might be just the thing to give you the skills, training, connections, and resources to be a fine artist.

This article was originally created for TheArtBiz.com. It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library.

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