Artists Answer: Whether you have one or not, in your experience, what is the value of an MFA?

We've invited former Featured Artists to answer a series of questions about being an artist and to highlight a new work made since the time of their interviews. Some questions are practical; some are philosophical. These compilations will be interspersed with new Featured Artist interviews every month and will include links back to older interviews. And don't forget to sign up for the monthly blog digest if you prefer to get all your Featured Artist action in your inbox once a month.

Sara Holwerda | Read the Interview

Chair Dance (Adagio) at RP13 from Sara Holwerda on Vimeo.

Chair Dance (Adagio) at Rapid Pulse '13, 2013. Performance. Viola accompaniment by Johanna Weisbrock

As an artist living in Chicago that did not go to graduate school in Chicago, I feel that the value of an MFA, at least in the city, is directly linked to the art community that it was obtained in. There are many artists who have developed a strong community here out of local MFA programs, and as a result it is often difficult as an "outsider" to have the same access to opportunities as someone who got their MFA from a local program. I have had great experiences with several local performance and video venues, and have found that this subset of the local artistic community very warm and welcoming. In a bigger city with a deluge of MFA's, maybe it becomes more about finding your niche and making a few great connections within that.

Coy Gu | Read the Interview

Just Not With A White Girl, 2016. Oil, acrylic, charcoal on bristol board, half smoked joint, silicone, Wonder Bread plastic bag on canvas. 30 x 35 inches

In practical terms, an MFA allows for teaching, which is the most stable form of income for an artist. If that MFA is a name brand one, it'll open doors and provide access you otherwise wouldn't be privy to. Of course, one will meet a network of artists through an MFA program and learn new things from professors and peers. However, one could join an artist community and/or studio building and experience similar things.

Anna Jensen | Read the Interview

Was A Supply; Now A Return, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 16"x12"

I dropped out of college six times. There is something about the smell of an institution that is very inspiring at first and then ultimately sends me into a panic of feeling trapped.  It’s not that I lack discipline or the respect of learning from those with more experience.  I’m sure art school benefits many people when it comes to learning technique and making future professional connections among other things. But, I think self-motivation and  development via the school of hard knocks are just as key.  Also for me it felt like a waste of time to pack up all my supplies and strap a 5ft x 6ft painting to the top of my car several times a week just to go in and discuss my work with bored, unfocused kids who brought in their projects on sheets of notebook paper.  Not that they were ALL that way, but I was in my twenties and the other students were fresh out of high school. I had a gut instinct that I knew what I wanted to do and could do it without a traditional school environment.  So I ended up using my public library card a lot!  And I'm proud of the career I've had on my own terms.

Jacinda Russell | Read the Interview

Room 107, Boise State University, 2015. Archival Inkjet Print. 20" x 30"

Obtaining an MFA was a life-changing event in my career. I did not attend graduate school with the intention of teaching. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my relatives who had acquired a terminal degree, and it was an important goal in my early twenties to achieve the highest level of education in my field. Its worth is greatly contested today due to the debt that many students accumulate. I fully realize that my circumstances may not be warrant the price that many people pay now, but I would not have exchanged the experience for anything. I learned how to speak about my work and how to research and defend every aesthetic and conceptual decision. These are skills I use daily as a professor of art and lecturing artist. My peers at the University of Arizona—twenty years later—continue to be the ones that I turn to for advice. I took advantage of every opportunity with visiting artists and scholars (as a research assistant to A.D. Coleman in the archives at the Center for Creative Photography and as a studio assistant to both Barbara Kasten and Judith Golden). I have never found a comparable community in the art world since graduate school. It is also providing background for many of the stories that I photograph for my current series tentatively named Art Department. I would not hesitate to say to the MFA is a gift that keeps on giving.

Megan Stroech | Read the Interview

Catch and Release, 2016. Digital print. 24 x 36 inches

For me, getting an MFA was integral to my further development as an artist and gave me the confidence and motivation to continue pursuing my work. It really forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of making the work and most of all talking and writing about the work which becomes incredibly important in the evolution and progression of the work. I attended a smaller state school with a program that came with a tuition waiver, modest stipend and allowed for us to gain a good amount of teaching experience over the course of three years. However, MFAs from those very notable institutions often come with an incredible amount of debt that is seemingly impossible to ever pay off especially in the beginning stages of an art career. Because those programs do have so much stature and clout, they have the power to propel some artists to the next level of their career path, and can often seem like the most lucrative option even with shouldering all of that debt. In many ways I'm grateful for the path I chose, and feel that more emphasis should be placed on the actual work that artists are making versus their pedigree.

Travis Townsend | Read the Interview

Painted Boatstack, 2016. Wood and mixed media.

I don’t think that an artist with a degree is automatically a better artist than someone without a degree.   And I find it frustrating that the MFA degree is considered “expected”.  With that said, I do have an MFA, and my experience was quite positive.  I feel confident that I would have found a way to be an artist without the MFA, but in my two years of graduate school I progressed quickly, learned lots of theory, looked at and considered a wide range of challenging work, and expanded my circle of artist friends.   And met my wife!
However, there are some crappy MFA programs out there that don’t seem to do much for their students. And some that are far too expensive. Crippling debt is no way to begin your career!  Young artists should not be convinced that the MFA degree is some sort of golden ticket to artistic success. 

Molly Springfield | Read the Interview

Chapter IX, pages 246-247, 2015. graphite on paper. 16.5 x 25.5 inches

I have an MFA and I can't imagine being where I am now without one. The graduate programs I attended (I also have a post-bacc certificate) gave me the time, space, and resources to become a professional artist. And, most importantly, a cohort of artist friends who know and understand my trajectory as an artist in a way no one else can.

I don't think you can talk about the value of an MFA program without talking about how much they cost. My advice for anyone thinking about applying to MFA programs: Go to the best program you can get into that costs you the least amount of money. Like anything else in life, what you get out of something is determined by what you put in. Getting an MFA from a trendy, highly-ranked, expensive program isn't a guarantee of art-world success. But, unless you have a full-fellowship, it is a guarantee of burdensome student loan debt.

In my experience working with MFA students, I've come across people who probably should have waited before starting their program. They aren't used to working independently. They haven't had the life experiences that fuel productive art-making. So they spend too much of their time catching-up rather than moving their practice forward. Don't be in a rush. The experiences and opportunities of your MFA program will be all the more valuable if you're prepared to take full-advantage of them.