MFA or bust?

Dear Artist, In response to a blog by Canadian artist Shary Boyle, someone with the avatar “Wrongtable” wrote, “I think that young people shouldn’t hedge their bets by getting a Masters of Fine Arts. MFA doesn’t imply talent. Talent comes from dedication and often desperation. Art funding spoon-feeds artkids, and the result is often wallpaper.” This response is typical and makes a comment on the changing face of professional arts. Common questions I’m asked these days are, “Should I go for an MFA?” and “Will any art degree help in my professional career?” The evidence is out there. There are now enough MFAs to fill the Astrodome, and most of them are doing anything but art. Our world is coming down off a prayer-rug that faced New York, London and Berlin. For decades, a lot of poor quality art has emanated from these centres, and the world of art schools and University art faculties have encouraged the worship. This mass delusion has undernourished countless echelons of idealistic “artkids.” Sure, some make it, often for the reasons Wrongtable mentions. Don’t get me wrong, academia has done a remarkable job of prying open the gates of imagination and broadening artistic literacy, but many of the artkids I’m talking to these days are asking for something else — how to create light, how to handle shadows, how to compose in traditional manner, how to draw. “I want to draw like Ingres,” said one. Fact is, there’s a rising class of home-workers and plein-air painters whose aims are the old fashioned ideas of quality and life-enhancement. Whether or not they have a MFA is immaterial. These days, people don’t walk into galleries and ask if there’s anything by someone with an MFA — although there are still many who would like to see it happen. Even in this distressing recession, art sales in many areas are strong, and young people who have dedicated themselves to developing advanced skills are thriving. In desperation, perhaps, these artkids decided to get good. Their reach may not always include the haughty halls of New York, London or Berlin, but they can be mighty celebrated out here in the backwaters. Is this not enough? To be happy in our work and produce daily and freely? To be relieved of price one-upmanship, star-jealousy, the welfare of grants, and the poisonous-pens that hinder progressive careers? Though we may hop in a small puddle, through the Internet we are still part of the great Brotherhood and Sisterhood and, who knows, little tads can sometimes — if they’re not grabbed by the crows — become quite remarkable frogs. Best regards, Robert PS: “If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.” (Old English idiom) Esoterica: Of all of the advice I’ve dished out over the years, perhaps the most effective and commonly remarked upon has been “Go to your room.” Aspiring artists, credentialed or not, who find it within themselves to do this are the ones most likely to get the “talent.” Sticky word, “talent.” But it’s out there. We see it every day. And it makes for a great life.   Do more work by Frank Gordon, Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, England  

“Winter afternoon”
original painting
by Frank Gordon

‘Go to your room.’ Yes, excellent advice and can’t be beat. When I was still doing painting schools and workshops, etc., I naturally had people asking me how they might improve their paintings. My reply was always the same: ‘Do more work.’ Occasionally I would vary it by saying ‘You’re not doing enough work.’ (But then, who does?) I remember seeing Augustus John being interviewed by John Freeman on the old ‘Face to Face’ programme on BBC TV when I was still a baby art student. John had had a notoriously colourful life, of course. When Freeman asked him if he had any regrets, John answered wistfully, ‘I wish I’d done more work.’ That made a big impression. There are 5 comments for Do more work by Frank Gordon
From: Anonymous — Oct 28, 2011

I love this painting.Nice organization. Really captivating.

From: Sarah — Oct 28, 2011

Ditto the above. The diagonals guide your eye through the painting.

From: Janet Summers Greece — Oct 28, 2011

Frank, this is a wonderful painting, ditto all of the above, but what makes it for me is the use of color, that evening peach/naples that is only seen in winter, great complimentary color values!

From: Elle Smith Fagan — Oct 28, 2011

MFA – one is always good to have – no one can make a clone of you but YOU. However, at 64, I love going back to campuses and to masters for upgrades still. I was gifted and at the head of the class all through school and did NOT want to leave campus, but My college was interrupted by parents’ health crises, and yet the full recoveries we won might have been the better teacher. In the last analysis, whatever your path YOU must walk it and YOU must feel it is your life, I think, to be there with it. But most human rules are instantly refuted, because what “works” differs so, from one to another ! My favorite College professor said “You can’t teach art ( implying, “by definition”).” And I suppose that’s the whole fun of it.

From: Frank Gordon — Nov 01, 2011

Many thanks for the kind comments here. This is the view from my window; the buildings belong to the public school here (private schools are called public schools in England!) and you can see a group of boys returning from their cross-country run in the snow.

  MFA doesn’t promise commercial success by Julie Kaldenhoven, Edmonton, AB, Canada  

“The Midas Touch”
acrylic painting, 18 x 36 inches
by Julie Kaldenhoven

When you say that MFAs are useless for ‘professional art careers,’ I suspect you mean ‘commercial’ art careers, i.e. art selling; therefore, perhaps you are not understanding the purpose of MFAs. If you want to “draw like Ingres,” then by all means, find a nice private school whose narrow focus is on replicating the old masters so as to foster the “old fashioned ideas of quality and life-enhancement” that you mention. Or better yet, there are plenty of artists who will take you through the ropes of becoming a successful commercial gallery artist if your aim is nothing but selling art. I can’t recall any of the MFA programs that I’ve researched ever promising such things, nor would I expect or want them to. MFAs, at least the good ones in Canada, teach a broader view of art history, contemporary art issues, and critical thinking, which are useful for artists wishing to show in public galleries, pursue an art-teaching career, or, who may actually decide to become “home-workers and plein-air painters.” Please note that the latter would then be by choice, not by default due to a lack of art education. Besides, there are infinitely more people in the world making “poor quality art” without an art education than with one! There are 6 comments for MFA doesn’t promise commercial success by Julie Kaldenhoven
From: Mike Barr — Oct 27, 2011

I would certainly like to test your last sentence. Some of the best artists in the world are those who have not been muddied by Fine Art degrees.

From: Julie Kaldenhoven — Oct 28, 2011

Thanks for your comment. My point was that there is a great deal of poor quality art in the world which is not solely produced by people with art degrees, as the article implies. People with a formal art education make up a relatively small portion of art production in North America. Please remember that art production includes that done by children, novices, people who “dabble”, and even animals (our local zoo sells the art of a ‘painting’ elephant).

From: Bill Hibberd — Oct 28, 2011

I agree with you Julie. It seems to me that my academic training taught me a great deal about history and critical thinking and offered me little technical training. My hunger for art making skills has been fed by the generosity of both long departed and living “masters”. I enjoyed my institutional experience but it did not prepare me to be a painter. Most of that which is praised by academia is about shock or cleverness, certainly not good painting. I think that will only be realized through diligent work. A person just needs to decide what’s important to them and follow the trail that gets them there.

From: Mary Moquin — Oct 28, 2011

People don’t all have the same goals in their art, and it would be so nice if we would just stop judging each other on our choice of goals. Like Julie says, a person that seeks an MFA is looking for different information than a person that is seeking to improve their technique. A good MFA program will give you technique, but also open your mind to broader artistic issues and help you find a way to put that technique toward painting something relevant to todays experience of the world.

From: Kris — Oct 28, 2011

Well said, Julie. You’ve added clarity to what seems to be a more emotional than factual discussion. People who have degrees are defensive and people who don’t have degrees are equally defensive. I see nothing but benefit from all the various choices of art education. Of course there are poor individual educators and there are great ones, too. So it seems silly to me to get bogged down in valuing one over the other, degreed or not degreed. Make a choice, follow it to the best of your ability with whole-hearted devotion. The only problem I see, is that some students are so caught up in classes and workshops that they never really find themselves and their own personal artistic expression. But that too is a choice.

From: Sheila Minifie — Oct 28, 2011

Absolutely agree Julie and Kris especially.

  Art Students League by G. Jarck, Annandale, NJ, USA   A place like the Art Students League in New York City is the kind of place one might consider if serious about being a painter. No degrees, no fake rewards… just studio space shared with other serious artists. A couple of times a week a recognized accomplished artist comes in and will critique your work. Some great artists have come out of this place. Everyone at this place is really into their work… no wannabe clowns hanging around. This is different from your typical college atmosphere. My teaching at a college taught me that it can be very frustrating because many of the students are not really into being serious artists.   Living in a much different era by Joe Hutchinson, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“Enchanted Mesa”
oil painting, 20 x 20 inches
by Joe Hutchinson

Sure, talent will always come to the top but I believe the MFA won’t hurt an artist’s professionalism. If one looks at the resumes of many four-star artists, one will find a number that have a MFA-Studio degree and many were, or are, teaching. Any art graduate who wants to be a studio instructor in higher education must have a minimum of a master’s degree, preferably the MFA. And a doctorate is becoming the hurdle these days because of the intense competition for appointments. As well, because of the glut of artists looking for employment, the requirement for a MFA is trickling down to the public schools. They, too, have a wide choice of applicants and can be selective. The colleges and universities that offer art degrees have done an excellent job in producing creative problem-solving graduates. FYI, it’s no longer your old school type of education and we live in a much different era. There are so many excellent artists out there pushing the envelope, looking for new expression, and they can create light, do shadows, compose and they can draw. Some may be doing “wallpaper” but, in a world of freedom, time will decide their fate. There is 1 comment for Living in a much different era by Joe Hutchinson
From: Kathleen Scott — Oct 28, 2011

I love the way you put that, “…creative problem-solving graduates.” I can’t put a value on my art education in that regards. We were taught the formal art history and techniques, but we were also pushed to do and redo. We were told to, “leave our suitcases of cliches at the door” on our first day. We had tasks like picking an ordinary house hold object and to do twenty drawings and paintings of it. The next week we were told to do it all over again, but use different mediums and push our ideas further. In another class we were told to take two distinct historical styles and combine them. The most valuable part of being in school, it was my job. It got priority in my life that everyone around me respected. Unless you are independently wealthy or retired, there is no other way to give yourself that gift of time or focus. Once upon a time, painting was a trade, and you could become an apprentice in an artist’s studio and work your way up, but that is not this world. I would of preferred that over being an under-employed artist with a heafty student loan, but thank goodness for access to formal art education.

  The Shape of Content by Bruce Bundock, Kingston, NY, USA  

original painting, 16 x 12 inches
by Bruce Bundock

Your letter reminded me of a long ago (1974) article in the New York Times titled “Only a Handful Will Make It.” The article explored the proliferation of MFAs and the lack of teaching positions available for newly minted graduates as a means of earning a living while they worked on their art in their available time. In the article, the idea was raised about introducing trade skills (carpentry, electrical) into the college curriculum so graduates would — if they couldn’t get a teaching position — have some marketable skill. It certainly seemed a viable idea when one considers that even now there are only a small percentage of tenure track teaching positions to go around. Adjunct teaching positions do not add up to making a decent living. They work to the college’s advantage and the pool of candidates is great. For myself, I took a different route. After years of working in the commercial picture framing business, I now work as a museum preparator and paint on evenings and weekends. My day job has clearly fed into my art. Being in the arts requires planning, compromise and the ability to take the knocks when they come. One of the most useful books I have read is The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn. There is a wonderful chapter on the education of an artist and I heartily recommend it.   Over-rated MFA by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece  

“Night Blooming Cereus”
oil painting, 20 x 28 inches
by Janet Summers-Tembeli

When I studied at the Art Students League 1976-1986 many others were working to get their MFA studying part time. Many of my artist friends finally got the over-rated MFA. Now over twenty years later they are part-time teachers, secretaries, etc. Not one of them is actively creating art full time or most even part time. While a student at ASL and for several years after I felt like I had missed the boat! However I have spent my life dedicated to exploring and developing my creative talent full time and now feel happy that I didn’t waste my time with acquiring my MFA. The art world of the 21st century is nothing more than a business run by museums, galleries and agents. It has little or nothing to do with talent and artistic knowledge and even less to do with real creativity. If it isn’t shocking, abrasive, dumb or just bad art it’s not touted by the business of art. There are a million realist painters all painting landscapes, still lifes and portraits that are the same style and content as the works of the artists that inspire them. Digital images are now considered fine art as are photographs, piles of rubbish, found objects and crumpled paper, egg crates 1000 times their size, prints of Renaissance masters painted over with cartoons, even gold-plated dog turds and urinals are fine art. Everyone is an artist and everything is art. The joy of art is in the creating and that joy is its reward, so I continue exploring my own creativity and hope it brings a bit of joy to others and sometimes I feel as if I have created an MFA — Mighty Fine Art! There are 3 comments for Over-rated MFA by Janet Summers-Tembeli
From: Anonymous — Oct 28, 2011

Great painting! And I love the Night blooming Cereus, which we have here in Tucson, Arizona. A most amazing plant.

From: Janet Summers Greece — Oct 28, 2011

Thank you! This amazing plant grew out of one of those cactus with a ball stuck on top, when the ball died I couldn’t bear to toss out something still alive, the base cactus, so I tended it with love and in a year it had one blossom. This year it went crazy in it’s new large pot and had 12 blossoms. Nature is awe inspiring and never fails to provide me with new painting challenges.

From: Anonymous — Nov 06, 2011

I don’t think anybody has addressed how the BFA and MFA came into being. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong. After WW2, returning veterans were able to get university educations mostly at government expense. The universities jumped on the bandwagon by adding art schools to their curriculum. Thus art became codified into time slot programs and given credits. Well, then there were so many graduates (after about 20 years?) they needed to up the qualifications. MFA programs were added. My undergraduate program was pretty rigorous and I felt ‘ready’ to leave after 3 years but stayed on for the 4th and the degree. Most of my friends who went for the MFA are not painting now but from their reports I do know that the elite MFA programs were visited by New York galleries, etc. looking for the newest star even in the 70s. From what I can see the codification of art education as it’s done today is not an improvement on an artist carving out his or her own education after a couple of years in a good art school of any kind.

  Purposes of a MFA by Rebecca Skelton, Tampa Bay, FL, USA  

“Red ride”
pastel painting
by Rebecca Skelton

I have a MFA and have been teaching in academia for about 12 years. You might think I would disagree with you, but I don’t. If you already are proficient at the kind of work you want to do without falling into formula, you are willing to do whatever it takes to make your art, have the confidence and personality to network on your own, and you do not plan on teaching in higher education (where, unless you are already famous, you must have the terminal degree to even be considered — and don’t get me started on that), then you don’t need a MFA. As I see it, the purposes of a MFA are… …to be eligible to be considered for teaching positions at the college level, and increasingly, sadly, even at community art centers. …to have a place to develop your work and intellectualize its process/meaning/etc. …to network for teaching jobs, shows/galleries, and other opportunities where having a connection opens a door as a “hazing” to show your seriousness of intention. Individual artists have to weigh what they need/value. The kinds of questions you indicate students are asking used to be answered when high schools taught art. All of those are basic tools that, if not learned in high school, should be part of beginning level college classes in painting, drawing, and design. Drawing like Ingres results from spending lots of time trying to draw like Ingres. Many of the students I see are immature and don’t have the patience, concentration, or self-discipline to delay the gratification of accomplishment.   Reassessment in the business world by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada  

editorial illustrations
by Richard Gagnon

In the business world a few years ago a MBA was the rallying cry. The loftier the institution the higher the price tag. Then after a few years of business they realized that they needed employees with interpersonal skills and they started looking for BAs instead of BComms and MBAs. It was felt that number crunching could be learned on the job but the ability to work with people was not something you could learn in a business focused environment. I guess that talent is much the same. On the other hand one of your earlier missives did indicate that at least a BA would be useful and on that I agree as long as the pedagogical content involved lots of hands-on technique. Trying to figure out the mechanics on one’s own is a horrible waste of time.   There is 1 comment for Reassessment in the business world by Richard Gagnon
From: Cam Anderson — Oct 28, 2011

Agree, as an MBA from way back in 1976, when payback was almost immediate (1 – 2 years) the costs for an MBA today are so high, it appears to be puzzling that anyone would take the course. What business sense do you have to spend amounts nearing $100K on a degree that won`t guarantee big paychecks. Business is about rate of return, and I am afraid hype has pushed MBA costs beyond a reasonable payback period. Similarly some one considering an MFA value needs to assess what is considered as `value return`and how long it will take to get it.

  The value of time and focus by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Colour notes”
original painting
by Diane Overmyer

When I was growing up, my brother was sent to art classes at the local art museum. I, on the other hand, endured six years of piano lessons until my teacher finally told my mother to give me a break for a few years before re-enrolling me in more lessons. I ended up blooming in the visual arts. And we discovered that my brother could play the piano by ear, and ended up taking lessons for a few months from my former teacher. He progressed in leaps and bounds. I have become a professional artist and I can barely plunk out a few simple notes on the piano. It doesn’t matter how long or where someone studies as much as their ability to carry through with the principles they have been taught. This might come from some sort of God-given talent, but it also can come from passion or simply a strong work ethic. Instruction can be incredibly helpful, but today it can come through many different avenues. I racked up a ton of school bills going back to college to study art as a non-traditional student. Given the chance to go back in time I would have found someone whose work I really respected and begged to study with them, or to work for free in their studio just so I could watch them paint. Degrees are wonderful and they can definitely open some doors, but if an artist doesn’t put time into their work, they never will achieve their full potential.   Hacks who make big bucks by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA  

“Marigny Bike”
original painting, 14 x 18 inches
by Paul Fayard

I agree that obtaining a MFA doesn’t denote talent or guarantee a job or a future in the arts. Having worked hard for and having learned a lot from “getting that piece of paper” late in life I would like to add that not having a MFA counts for even less. Sure, the population in general is “over degreed and undereducated” but that applies to everything, not just art. Keep in mind that these days, there is a renewed emphasis on traditional skills in the graduate studio. As an art educator, I know that I stress them in my classes. However, I think it is only fair and balanced to point out that with or without a MFA, there are plenty of talented (and by talented I mean those that have worked hard to hone their skills) and determined artists who are not “successful” by current standards and plenty of “artists” that I consider “hacks” who make big bucks in the art biz. Go figure.   Will a MFA be worth it? by Rebekah Wilkinson, Westbank, BC, Canada  

“Deep in thought”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Rebekah Wilkinson

Seems to me a MFA is great if you want a job in a gallery and, frankly, is the only way to go if a gallery job is what you are looking for. Being a “starving artist,” I find myself applying for jobs in galleries to pay the bills. But I have found that my Bachelor in Fine Arts or BFA doesn’t seem to cut it as the competition is awfully fierce these days. My BFA seems redundant and useless. If you are going down the route of schooling, I think you are better off to see it to completion with a MFA. In my experience, I find I am getting beat out for the 20-hour-a-week job at a public gallery because I don’t have a MFA. It does seem ridiculous to me, though, to return for another 3 years of university just so I can actually get that 20-hour-a-week job. I guess, in the long run, it would be time better spent to return to my studio to produce art worth selling. Before embarking on investing the years and finances it takes to graduate with a MFA, be sure to understand what side of the coin you want to end up on. It will all depend on your end goal. A MFA isn’t necessarily needed to produce your own art as long as you have a person with a MFA to sell your art on your behalf. Go figure! There is 1 comment for Will a MFA be worth it? by Rebekah Wilkinson
From: Kathleen Scott — Oct 28, 2011

I would say, No. First of all, I just got layed off my 20-hour-a-week gallery coordinator position due to funding cuts. I was earning less than my last job before I went to university, but it was my favorite job this lifetime so far. Hanging shows for artists turned out to be something I am especially talented at, I never saw that coming. I don’t have the MFA. What got me in the galleries was all my work studies in school were in the on campus art gallery. I just wanted to know what happened to the art after it has been signed. My degree also included creative writng, particularily publishing and editing. I hate to tell you this, but the skills required to run a gallery, to put up shows, to procure funding or promote an artist, are not the same ones that go into making an artist. Artists rarely make good gallery owners unless they have some formal training, experience and/or ‘talent’ in business management and, excuse the terminology choice, anal retentativeness. If being an artist is your true desire, stay with that, and find a day job that doesn’t use your creativity. Save it for your own use.

  Passion trumps a MFA by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada  

original painting
by Phil Chadwick

Passion drives a lifetime of creativity. Don’t get me wrong. Education is great but not everything and in some cases, not anything. Professionals have a piece of paper as witness to education but it is nothing without passion for the profession. Many professionals stop learning with the receipt of their degree. Learning blossoms with the degree for the professionals blessed with passion. These people become the true experts in their field and live a life full of wonder. Every day is a chance to learn while practising their profession. That’s why they call their work a “practice.” This is true for the clichéd professionals like doctors and lawyers but also for artists and even especially for meteorologists. Your passion for creativity will spur you to learn, get better and maybe even be appreciated by your peers. Nothing much else matters — except for family. There are 2 comments for Passion trumps a MFA by Phil Chadwick
From: Phil the Forecaster — Oct 28, 2011

Just to clarify this Tom Thomson composition, I painted this for the Algonquin Art Centre show concerning climate change. I wanted to highlight the impacts of a drier and warmer climate for Algonquin by using iconic Canadiana. Tom’s boats would be largely high and dry by 2050…

From: Kristin Rymoen Ellstrom — Nov 04, 2011

reg the comment on the painting… hahaha I didn’t get the point of the boats on dry land, where I come from we’d pull them that far form the lake every winter to avoid storm and ice damage :-D. And I agree in your article, its not as simple as to argue for or against a degree, it’s what it’s for, what a degree actually is – the substance of education, and what the student comes from and to. Some of my co students actually did not have the ambition to become practicing artists, but just filled their sack. Despite I was in the studio model type, that is much hands on and assessments . Other degrees is same name different content! xx

  Qualifiers for teaching art by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA  

“Monhegan Moonrise”
oil painting, 36 x 24 inches
by Nancy Bea Miller

I am in the first semester of a MFA program. It took me a few years of dithering before I decided to go for it. I think there are two different goals here. For someone who wants to just dive into their work and follow their artistic inspiration, a MFA is not necessary. A MFA is only necessary as a qualification if the artist hopes to teach in a college or university level art program. This wasn’t always the case. You’ll find plenty of people (usually over age 50) teaching without a MFA and they sometimes turn challenging faces to me (I am under 50) and declare proudly, “Well, I don’t have my MFA and look at me!” So, I do look, and each time I see that this person… …has been “grandfathered in.” They started teaching long before the MFA became de rigueur and are now part of the fabric of the institution. …has serious connections. They are either from a well-known family or are married/partnered with someone well-known or connected to the institution. … is famous, or extremely well-known and far along in his/her career, i.e. having museum retrospectives and/or being asked to show worldwide. Or, in some cases, ALL of the above! For those of us who didn’t start teaching soon enough and aren’t well-connected or famous, we need to have a MFA — if we want to work in higher level art education. If that is not your goal, of course, no, you don’t need a MFA and get back to your studio!    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for MFA or bust?

From: Susanna Lambeck — Oct 25, 2011
From: Rene — Oct 25, 2011

You pretty much hit the nail on the head, Robert. A MFA is a the ultimate prize in academic version of fine art. It means you have achieved a level of competence in the various aspects of art but not an expert in any one of them. Academic studies in art no doubt help open doors for many people; especially in the education field. Like you say, Robert, no one asks who in a gallery, competition or exhibit has a degree in art. Having that precious degree really does not matter if you have talent and passion, does it?

From: Laura den Hertog — Oct 25, 2011

My comment is so simple…BRAVO!

From: Shirley — Oct 25, 2011

No one walks in looking for the artist with a MFA however, some galleries require that you have one to be considered for representation. I don’t have one but I am going to my room right now.

From: Sari Grove — Oct 25, 2011

Saw this yesterday when I was looking through the exhibitors’ webpages from ArtToronto… “The Elaine Fleck Gallery Gallery Artist Submission Who should submit: Artists who graduated from school within the last 3 years with a Honours BFA / BFA/MA”… Honestly, I would not work with a gallery who has these parameters…That rules out pretty much all the good artists…

From: anon — Oct 25, 2011

It really must be work – if trying to sell something as “truth” even if the idea is specious and not wholly thought out, then repeating it and reiterating it over again if done often enough will make the most illogical idea into the “Truth”, or convince enough people that it is. Then of course, one must also utilize such incendiary terms as “artkids”, and “wallpaper” and also mention the Meccas of Contemporary Art such as “London, New York, Berlin” and make reference to an Art God such as “Ingres” and the Art Fundamentalists are provoked into thinking that great pearls of “Art Wisdom” and “Finally, the TRUTH” have been cast before us unanointed (no MFA) swine (many labouring in our rooms churning out “plein air” gems). Must be a slow day for blog topics, Robert, for you to have tried to breathe life into such an old chestnut of illogical, and badly reasoned argument.

From: Eva Gallagher — Oct 25, 2011
From: Monika — Oct 25, 2011

Whoa! let’s not get into BFA or MFA bashing as the evils of the art world. These degrees offer more opportunities to work in the art field than just being an artist. Only 5% of graduates are still working in any art field related to what they studied after 5 years of graduating — that BFA/MFA allows you to work for galleries, arts organizations, etc. I know many BFA and MFA students who have added greatly to cultural institutions and promotion of the arts. I know BFA and MFA grads who are brilliant artists and have wonderful trajectories to national and international standing. Graduating means credentials and a very high level of knowledge about a lot of things. And being tested, over and over during school. It doesn’t mean ‘better,’ but creates standards you can meet, exceed or ignore. The marketplace is still the final test. If nobody buys or shows your work or you can’t find teaching opportunities, well, something isn’t working. Perhaps one of the most valuable ‘take homes’ as a BFA, was having my work criticized over and over — and paying for this privilege. I’ve learned to take and understand critical criticism that helps me test myself and explore further. If anything, it made me much tougher and I have a better appreciation about the art world and how it works. Do BFA and MFA granting bodies work together with galleries, provincial and funding bodies, collections, to ensure that those students excel? Of course. That’s how the world works. That said, many artists have made it without academic degrees. Galleries don’t have guns held to their head to accept work just because the person is a grad. And, you can always create your own gallery. That’s the the real world at work too. But, to stay in business, galleries have to sell their work and they do want resumes to be impressive, the art to have great technical qualities, and show something that is different, interesting, challenging. So, make your own opportunities, create great resumes if you want the opportunities that grad students seem to have. The work still speaks. But make no mistake, hard work, diligence, brilliance, intelligence, good work, and good marketing is still the basis of success. BFA and MFA education cost a lot, but you have to use it well to have a greater degree of potential success than not having one. Monika

From: Dwight — Oct 25, 2011

Education is never wasted. For a young artist looking for a direction, it might be true that an MFA is not that useful. Doing art is, as you say, the way to success. But real education that is broad can make you a better artist (or anything else for that matter.) I have two graduate degrees. Neither in anything directly art related. They are in psychology, theology, social ethics and related subjects. I don’t directly use any of that in my art. But the broad education makes a huge difference in my life, artistically and otherwise. Never stop learning!

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Oct 25, 2011

These last three words from Dwight (above) are most important. Better to do it on our own terms, than those of all the various institutions.

From: N. K. Sims — Oct 25, 2011

Have you ever noticed that the ones who most frequently honor the credentialed are the also credentialed?

From: Fred F Holmes — Oct 25, 2011

Certainly it’s brilliant and worthwhile to learn a lot about the history of art, the isms and schisms–but what are the advantages of learning to paint poorly from instructors who also paint poorly–instructors who, for the most part, have shaky art careers themselves and are teaching because it’s the only way they can use their MFAs?

From: Terrance McIlrath — Oct 25, 2011

I tell my friends that a college degree at any level does not indicate intelligence or talent. It means that you can set your sights on an abstract goal which is years away and jump through all the hoops and take all the B.S. necessary to achieve that goal. Not bad credentials for anyone.

From: John Ferrie — Oct 25, 2011

Dear Robert, I am not entirely sure I believe in talent. Nor am I sure about “natural ability”. But there is an inherent curiosity about approaching a canvas, squeezing paint out of a tube and smearing it on a surface that makes us artists. There has to be that spark that makes us want to communicate. Maybe we are trying to strike the chord of beauty, or maybe we are trying a vocabulary of painting our inner voice. Every artist is different. The problem with some MFA students is when they graduate, they think there should be a contract for fame a fortune waiting for them. I am a graduate of the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. While I loved the freeing time spent there, my career started the day I graduated. I always tell young people, when they are wondering about school, that they will only benefit from more education. But being an artist is about the works. It is a jagged pill to swallow when looking at shit art and hearing “oh, they have a degree in painting”. Who cares? I am just interested in the work. I want to follow an artists journey and while having a good foundation in study can help, it is the quality and quantity of their work that is important. I know more “artist” who are schooled up the yingyang who are “waiting”. Waiting to hear back from a grant and waiting to get signed by a gallery. They may as well be waiting for the bus that never comes. No matter what education you have or lack of representation, artists need to be in their studios creating everyday. Paint like nobody is watching and do it like you don’t need the money. John Ferrie

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 25, 2011

Some highly trained and evcen educated artists/designers get paid a lot of money to design things like textiles and wallpaper… I’m sure…

From: Douglas Kincaid — Oct 25, 2011

All an MFA does is prepare you to teach at a college, since you’ll probably never make a living selling what you learned to make while getting your BFA (or more precisely, what you learned to talk about while getting your BFA, since making things is pretty much frowned on in schools, especially if you’re concerned with making them well.

From: Scott Kahn — Oct 25, 2011

So true about the abundance of MFA students out there … and the proliferation of schools offering these degrees. For the younger generation it has now become ‘respectable’ and ‘fashionable’ to be an ‘artist’ … and maybe, who knows, become Famous! You can even tell which MFA program these students attended by the work they produce. What these schools don’t teach is that becoming an artist cannot be taught. To be an artist boils down to be given a gift. A degree and diligence is not a guarantee that one can become an ‘artist’.

From: Katherine Harris — Oct 25, 2011

How about the old adage “great Art is ten percent Inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”- or something to that effect

From: Lisa Chakrabarti — Oct 25, 2011

While I can certainly appreciate that in some fields formal study is critical to understanding – medicine and engineering come to mind first – liberal arts, (including fine arts) can be approached from a more independent direction. One benefit of this is that you don’t have to go deeply into debt as a result. I think we have made the notion of higher education quite skewed in favor of teachers, administrators and unions, but against students. There are many things one can do with one’s life, and figuring this out should be the most important consideration in every young person’s mind. Not everything requires a college education. My time at university (I dropped out after 3 years) were hardly a bulwark for independent thinking. Creating art requires sets of different skills, not so different from other tinkerers – or plumbers, cabinet builders, designers, etc. In these fields one learns by observing and doing, staying dedicated, not giving up. Being armed with a college degree is no guaranty of ‘gainful employment’ and you may well end up with the thrill of becoming a paper shuffler. O joy! And to think you might have borrowed $50,000 or more for that luxury. If you have set your sites on being an artist, it isn’t going to be any easier when you wake up each morning knowing you are deeply indebted and, rather than focusing on the challenges of making art, you have to worry about how to pay off your student loans.

From: Corinna Taylor — Oct 25, 2011

Not all MFAs are created equal! I don’t know what an MFA in painting would involve, but I have one in theatre – set and costume design. Although I no longer work in that field, the skills I acquired have been enormously helpful to me. I now work as a calligrapher, including formal engrossing, illustration and illumination. My knowledge of drafting tools, colour systems and mixing, historical styles, and a variety of mediums and materials make me far more versatile than the average addresser of envelopes.

From: Lynne Hurd Bryant — Oct 25, 2011

I have the BFA from 1983. While I would not trade it, I spent most of the last 28 years not painting and making anything, but art! (I was making babies, making beds, making dinner and making a living as a single parent.) For the past two years and five months I have been a dedicated painter, pouring in my knowledge of the discipline, and putting discipline into my knowledge. It isn’t just about knowledge, education or talent, it is about dedication and hard work. When I gave those two things to my work, I became a better artist than I ever thought I would be, ever and no matter what I did. The only reason I can see for getting an MFA at this point is the opportunity for artistic immersion with other artists, and social media has given me that without the cost of tuition. NOTHING replaces hard work. There is also nothing wrong with being well known a “back water.” In a small fish seems large in a small pond.

From: Anneke van der Werff — Oct 25, 2011

Thank you so much for this letter. It gives me courage to go on.

From: Mark D. Gottsegen — Oct 25, 2011

I taught drawing, painting, and materials of art for 32 years to both undergraduate and graduate art students. Don’t get me started!! LOL!!!

From: Helen Howes — Oct 25, 2011

Like many artists, I am an autodidact, and proud of it. However, a few years ago I went to do a whole year of Saturdays with a local art teacher. I had a great time, but two things struck me quite forcibly. When we sat down on the first day and were asked “Why are you here?” the answers were almost all of the “Well I got an Art School place but couldn’t go” or “Now I’m retired, so…” This seems to me like Art as Secondary to Life. My answer? “I want to make stuff I don’t have to finish” (I work for myself, unfinished is no good for the bottom line). The teacher laughed, and we got on really well for the whole year. I learned a lot, not least that I could already do all this stuff, just needed to understand that I could. The second thing? So many students started timid (tiny drawings on huge sheets of paper) and expanded, but almost all returned to their cozy comfort zones at the end. Oh, and Life Drawing is the best thing ever.

From: Louise Francke — Oct 25, 2011

As an artist, at times I feel I have been penalized “grant wise” because I didn’t have an MFA but an MA in Art History. Years ago, I advised a close relative, who had gotten a high school education at the NC School of the Arts and a BFA from Maryland Institute, not to pursue an MFA and more debt. He is an excellent portrait painter and had already gone through many courses to hone his skills. He is not a scholar and being dyslexic would be spending too much time studying art history and not enough time painting. I don’t think he has regretted it. He has had to work free lance doing many design and physical labor jobs; but, he does make enough to survive and even set aside times when the jobs are slim to paint. His life is one of dedication to his art which hasn’t permitted him to marry or have children. I imagine his life is lonely at times but full. I guess it depends upon what one’s priorities are. If you want to teach at the upper levels, you need an MFA. I have known less than 10 professors who became major painters or sculptors and taught at the same time. Academia has its own restraints on ones time – yet one is expected to exhibit or publish. Only you know if you can do it on your own without the MFA.

From: Margie Cohen — Oct 25, 2011
From: Carmen Beecher — Oct 25, 2011
From: Jean W. Morey — Oct 25, 2011

I am currently in an very fine MFA program on line from Academy of Art University San Fransisco. I have a MA in illustration and have had 59 books published prior to taking it. I’m 84, and old enough to know what I don’t know and find a school to fill in these gaps. Check my web site : My experience with galleries has been so-so. I prefer dealing with the publishing field (its going through a major change right now, however). Good time to develop new skills. I love the classes and the many fine artists I can associate world wide.

From: Elsie Siskind — Oct 25, 2011

Forty years ago I arrived in Indianapolis, no contacts, no “ins”. I had excellent lessons in another city through Jr. High and HS with a private instructor as well as good HS art departments. I began to enter shows with paintings I made in a spare bedroom. Now I have provenance with work in four Indiana Museums; State Museum just acquired a second piece. Yes, I had a supporting family but apparently talent trumps MFA in my case.

From: Cindi V. Walton — Oct 25, 2011

I thought that my BFA was the time to experiment and learn all the techniques and all the rules. It also meant breaking the rules according the way the professor wanted it broken. But, upon graduation I was thrown into the cold, cruel world to find out what rules I wanted to break and how. Any degree gives you knowledge, but workshops and classes taken from other artists give knowledge, as does reading and looking at art. I agree that degrees don’t make an artist. What makes an artist is what is in your heart and how you define that with all the mediums and techniques available. Not even dollars make you an artist: Van Gogh never enough money to support himself. One of the quotations I remember from college was one Professor said to me when I kept diddling around with a design: “Just get to work!” Kind of like “Go to your room.” A lot of being an artist is just showing up and doing the work.

From: Paul deMarrais — Oct 25, 2011

Back in the 70’s, my father did a stint as a temporary dean at Pratt Institute in New York. Way back then, there were about 300 applicants for every art teaching job. I’m sure it is worse now. What few jobs that were available were going to gallery artists with established reputations. The MFA was then and probably is now, a worthless degree. Hundreds of students leave art schools with them every year and there simply are no nice university teaching posts available. Galleries could care less about that degree and collectors care even less than they do. It is really unethical for universities to continue to offer this degree as it has no real value for the incredible expense involved. Does hanging around an art department for an extra year or so make anyone a ‘master’ of anything? It’s nice to see the renewed interest in classical art training in the United States today. Training, followed by years of practice is the only way to mastery.

From: Loretta Puckrin — Oct 25, 2011

There are a lot of people out there who are looking for art instruction. Many will never sell a single painting and are happy with that. I think it is encouraging that there is such a desire to create – even if the government has decided that the arts are no longer an important area to support. One of the drawbacks of intensive art training is that you loose yourself in the learning. There is a pressure to achieve certain marks, impress teachers and complete the course that is counter to self expression. Sometimes it takes years to get back to who you were but now with the understanding of composition and colour that allows you to be more than where you started. Art is definitely one of those areas that you can become famous overnight – after 10-20 years of working at it! You should paint because you have to – something inside just has to get out or it festers in a depression. What you create is up to you. The value judgment, of whether it is good or not, should also come from you. Do you like it? Is it what you wanted to say/create? If so it is good, if not it is ‘not right’ – no matter how many people think it is good. Paint to enjoy life – what happens after is not a current concern. If you want it as a job – then paint what people want, perhaps become an illustrator, and get paid for every piece. It is your choice.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 25, 2011

The Art field is one of those professions where a degree is not a guarantee of success or even talent for that matter. The problem with education in art is the fact that in the end “art isn’t an intellectual pursuit” not does it appeals to the intellect of the viewer. Most great art of the past has wonderful undertones of intellectualism but was created to fill the soul and strengthen the heart. To make great art doesn’t mean the artist is dumb or stupid. On the contrary, to be an artist one has to be intelligent but the work must not rely on the intellectual to be good. When art is intellectual, the point it makes is quickly assimilated then leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s sleight of hand, a trick. Art based on emotion is ever lasting. It continues to intrigue and appeal to future generations. From what I see of emerging MFA’s from art schools is they are learning the business of art. Many don’t learn the techniques and method to produce traditional art. They are fed that anything they create is art worthy. When the work they eventually produce doesn’t work, they are left with nothing to fall back on to help them overcome the setbacks. They have little concrete skills in the basics of what it takes to make art. Schools have thrown out the rules in favor of spontaneity and inventiveness. Art has and will always be representative of our realities. Good art reflects our surroundings as well as our feelings about those surroundings. When an artist gets “abstract” they have narrowed the view of the world to one point. Their point. “Traditional” art opens art to all. We can see what the art is saying and in some case commiserate. It relates and touch something universal to all. “Ism’s” will come and go and the face of art will change with each generation. But we must not lose touch with what has come before and learn all that can be learned from those who have laid the ground work.

From: John Hyde — Oct 25, 2011

I agree that if you want to be any kind of artist, musician etc. then an MFA is not the path to becoming one. Universities traditionally had a different function and it was not to train people to get work. My experience in 30 years of teaching at university conservatory environments was that students who didn’t practice could use the course work as an excuse to not practice. A large percentage of them felt that just attending lectures and hearing from an accomplished teacher would somehow energize their brain and fingers to spring to life. In his early days the famous guitarist Pat Metheny taught at the U. of Miami and was fired for telling graduate students they had many hours of work ahead of them to correct problems they had embedded in their musicianship. However the Universities have a function and that is to make people think. If someone chooses to go there to do this they should not be discouraged. Not everyone can see a clear path to the future. A University should them get there. Then the work begins.

From: Lynda Pogue — Oct 25, 2011

I’ve re-read MFA or bust over and over to see if I’m misinterpreting something. Surely you and Ms. Boyle cannot, ever, be suggesting that ANY form of education/learning about both traditional and non-mainstream ideas is a waste of time? Getting a Liberal Arts degree in any subject is to broadly educate and stretch the mind/ thoughts/ ideas/ knowledge of learners… not to train them. How narrow our thinking would be if we didn’t have scholars in this world. Such things as community colleges, apprenticing, workshops, the internet, and excellent/experienced mentors like you are “trainers”. If an artist or artist-wannabe is asking for something else–how to create light, how to handle shadows, how to compose in a traditional manner, how to draw …are you suggesting that they don’t learn about light, composition or drawing in the 4 or 5 years it takes to get an MFA? Also… New York, Paris, Berlin, and London have historically offered, and continue to offer a great deal more to this planet than “haughty halls”….. wow……. you sound a bit defensive and parochial/provincial. You’re too damn good for this kind of narrow thinking! Perhaps you might take a moment to learn the “Yes… and” philosophy of Second City and let go of the “Ya… but” philosophy you seem to be preaching from your ‘prayer-rug’. E.G.: Yes… New York, Paris, London and Berlin have offered the world incomparable museums and galleries of art… and… here in what we euphemistically call ‘the backwaters’, smaller communities have always known that brilliant artistic talent is thriving on the kitchen table next door!

From: Cathy DeWitt — Oct 25, 2011

Your current letter has kind of an interesting parallel in the world of music. While the commercial business of music flounders, searching for footing in the vast sea of industry changes brought on by the Internet, social networking and home recording studios; the creative world of independent musicians and music is in some ways thriving. Never have so many been capable of making their own recordings at home, and distributing them themselves through so many channels. Songwriting camps and song circles are happening everywhere, with people sharing their techniques and tips as well as their own music, in amazing new ways. This is not to say, of course, that one does not have to be extremely creative and talented to be able to make a real living with their music, or art. There are different levels of artistic excellence, and it takes a unique combination of skills to find ways to take your art to another level — artistically, professionally and financially. But it does appear that more people are getting in touch with, and being able to express, their own creativity. This is our mission in the Arts in Medicine program; as artists working with patients we are always moving towards that moment when they can proudly proclaim, “Hey — I AM an artist!”

From: Debbie Baer — Oct 25, 2011

I am an acrylic artist who has struggled with the fact that I lacked a degree. A few years ago I realized that I shouldn’t let that hold me back. I continued to paint and found the courage to start entering national shows. I won’t talk about the rejection letter, but soon my work began to be accepted into juried shows. Last year (on my birthday) I received notice that I had been accepted as a member of the Salmagundi Club, NYC, which is one of the oldest art clubs in the US. I was humbled and thrilled to be included among this group. A month later I was invited to become a member of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic. I also recently became a member of the Wyoming Valley Art League, a long standing local group. I have a number of framed documents on the walls of my studio. They are inspirational quotes which help keep me motivated……and there isn’t a degree among them.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Oct 25, 2011

Once again I say that dealing with a public that is uneducated in the humanities, an MFA or 100 has no significance. A degree in art doesn’t make an artist. It only teaches the evolution of the history of art and artists, styles and techniques. That is assuming the teaching incorporates such curriculum beyond one semester. However, museums, the so-called art-worthiness deciders love a degree glued to a name. After all would you go to a doctor without an MD after their name and a dozen certificates of achievement on their walls? These of course are not the ones made by the Gagosians and Dick and Harry of the art world who sell to the unsophisticated rich anything they can make money on. Every USA major artist of the last half century has been an artificially-inseminated-made artist. In addition I must add that the socio-political status of a country had much to do with it. To re-iterate, an uneducated public seals only with apple and potatoes art.

From: John C Gabries — Oct 25, 2011

Its good to hear that things are changing but I still struggle to get into shows when I leave the space on the application blank that relates to my level of art education. My mosaics struggle to get respect when painters are involved in the application and judging process.

From: Linda Saccoccio — Oct 25, 2011

A really good reason for going to graduate school is that it offers intensive time to focus on your work. It echos the line you said Bob, “go to your room”. Even in grad school artists have to develop discipline and focus. Having two years dedicated to taking your work to another level, to delving deeper into questions about your own creative impulse can really be a fruitful endeavor. You may or may not bond with your comrades, but they are there and you are in an atmosphere of art. It is important to attend a graduate school that supports what you are interested in, even if that may changer during the course of time there. Having an MFA may not be necessary as a credential, but it is not a hindrance, and sometimes it helps people take you seriously.

From: Carol Worthington-Levy — Oct 25, 2011

Recently I was asked to become a teacher in a university , about a topic (creative strategy and design for marketing) that I’ve been not only doing for 30 years – I’ve also been teaching it in Extension schools and conferences, and have won dozens of international awards for it. So imagine my disappointment when at the last minute they asked, where did you get your master’s degree?? And I said,”I don’t have one.” I mean hell, I’ve been too damn busy to go back to get a master’s and I might not have even known what to get it in. The offer for the job was pulled! I get a feeling from speaking to some that one gets challenges as a painter and artist in an academic environment that would drive me to new creative heights. But others tell me I’ll spend the whole time writing theses and so on – not that writing is a problem. But I want to paint, not write. I’m from an educated family and high value has been placed on degrees…but what would I gain from it except a feeling of completion? What time would be wasted? Would I learn or grow?

From: Joan Polishook — Oct 25, 2011

Isn’t it a crying shame that an award winning, credentialed artist, with years of private teaching experience, whose sought after work has appeared in noted galleries and museums, major publications, covers and TV commercials, cannot get a teaching job because he lacks a Masters? So much talent and expertise to share.

From: BJ Bjork — Oct 25, 2011

I totally agree! I have never seen or heard a buyer stop and ask, “Does this artist have a MFA”? Many years ago I asked my teacher, who had an MFA among other degrees, if I should save my money and go for a degree. He told me I already knew more than most of them and what I had to do is just ‘go to my room’ and keep painting. He was right! I love your comment about the crows, but I have always gone with, ‘It’s hard to fly like an eagle if you hang around turkeys’.

From: Sylvia Hicks — Oct 25, 2011

Oh, yes. Go to my room and stay in my room! I worried over the lack of an MFA for years until I finally decided to just become happy with what I did and just keep on doing it! I earned my MA the hard way and continue to be grateful for all the times I said, “keep going” instead of “quit”. Now I have the time to be myself, the artist I am and am so happy with it!

From: Peter Lloyd — Oct 25, 2011

Yes, by all means go ahead and study for an MFA. No, an MFA will not teach you to paint or draw well. I have never seen a contradiction here. A Master’s degree in any subject, Arts or Sciences, can only teach you about the subject – if you will, the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, to enable you to understand and communicate effectively within that specialty. If, like me, you have no talent but a deep and abiding interest in painting and drawing, a MFA (if you can afford it and spare the time) is an enjoyable thing to do and will teach you a lot about painting and drawing . You will learn about the development and history of the visual arts and the theories of perception and colour. As well as being fascinating, it will enable you to better understand and enjoy visual art from any time and culture and make you appreciative of how frustrating trying to to ‘get it right’ can be. Of course, you can learn this yourself, without formal education, but perhaps less thoroughly. You might even get some of it wrong! To become a skilled practitioner, you do not need an MFA, though having one will help you to understand what you are doing and to overcome mistakes. You must have an innate talent for the subject, intelligence and, most of all, enthusiasm and unrelenting hard work. The good part is that if you truly love the subject and have the enthusiasm, however hard the work is, it won’t feel like hard work, so much will you be enjoying yourself.

From: Christine Ritchie — Oct 25, 2011

I have an MFA and don’t regret it, nor do I think I am better than someone who doesn’t. If a person wants to get an MFA great, if not, don’t. Its almost like asking for a guarantee that if I make this painting will somebody buy it? Either paint it or don’t …there are no right answers…accept that you should follow your instincts and your desires as you make yourself into the artist you want to be.

From: Andy Wooldridge — Oct 25, 2011

I personally think that only Art History warrants a degree

From: Gary Godbee — Oct 25, 2011

Currently in the US, you cannot get a position teaching art at the college level without an MFA degree. Show record, ability, and non-university teaching counts for nothing without that degree, which is the absolute minimum requirement for finding a teaching job at a University. However, even the most nationally recognized, talented, and successful artists hold teaching positions in Universities because they need to weather the vagaries of the market, have a dependable salary, and provide health care for their families (why can’t we have National HealthCare like Canada?!!). Yes, it’s generally true that no gallery cares a whit if you have that degree or not, but if you actually plan on making a living in your profession, suck it up and get the stupid degree. You might actually make a connection or two, and while you’re looking for a teaching job you can start actually learning how to paint by taking classes in a good atelier somewhere.

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Oct 25, 2011

I’m glad people were encouraged by your letter. I was kinda surprised by the strength of it – nothing politically correct here! You sounded like Daddy Robert telling the kids to eat their spinach. And so true, of course. I used to hate going to a gallery and seeing some “abstracted” and ugly pieces hung there that had not been worked on – just overworked. A “waste of paint” is my favorite thing to say. Now I’m used to seeing a bunch of Photoshopped things hanging in galleries – not even a human hand involved there except as it held the mouse – but no real ideas and lots less ‘talent’. I think talent is a combination of things that include 1) practice & skill, 2) intuition and 3) a vision. I’ve tried working without one of those three and it hasn’t worked too well. Or I made nice wallpaper but nothing to write home about. A good vision can sometimes make for an interesting painting/picture. And skill can, too, but both put into the right composition (intuitively) is the best combo. And you can’t get that stuff from going to school. They hardly even teach technique in schools but I think they do teach composition elements and also let someone get used to the tools. I don’t know; I’ve never been.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 25, 2011

A MFA gives you what? To do what? Define what you want and apply that to accomplish your goals. No degree will make you a better artist … those skills are agonized over in years of application, untold hours of personal study, and hopefully, the serendipital fruition of talent, labor, and applied skills into a magical product – a work of art. If one desires a career in an art related field a MFA is almost a necessity. You won’t appraise, sell, manage a gallery, affiliate with a museum, or have a similar association without it – but to become a competent artist? No. In years past the monetary investment for any credentials wasn’t near as costly. But securing a degree today is ridiculous … should an artist stack up a mountain of education loan debt in the hopes that investment will cancel out and be lucrative? Hardly. The general anemic benefit of any art school must be weighed. Again, define what you want. If becoming an artist skilled in technique to produce a work of fine art … don’t bother with a degree, but instead apply those academic hours to intense study of your craft. Investment/benefit/knowledge/skill/satisfaction/goals/cost … that’s an analysis only the individual can assess.

From: Linda Erickson — Oct 25, 2011

You can get those specifics you are talking about in the MFA program at Laguna College of Art & Design in Laguna Beach California, at least I was able to.

From: Kelly Leichert — Oct 25, 2011

Excellent topic. Recently I heard a seminar on ” what is art? ” The professor with an MFA said that there is a need for gatekeepers to determine what passes as art. That not all of what is made is an artwork. That placement in a formal established (non commercial) gallery by a qualified curator is what determines an art work. He went on to say that there is a protocol to determine what is considered art based on the academic training, art history and curatorial experience. That art was elitist and that an artist must be willing to go through the process of examination by the establishment in order to have the work deemed as art. At first it was difficult to accept this. Yet, upon reflection it seems reasonable to have standards even if the standards are disagreeable to some. In my field, architecture, only a select few (the architect) are able to design buildings to have them built. Many may disagree that what they see is good architecture yet, we maintain qualifications and standards for the profession. Perhaps, this is the value in the MFA degree – that there is a regulated body of professional guardians of the profession. I work as a technologist in architecture but I am responsible to review my work with an architect before my detailing is allowed to be built. The analogy is that the work in the gallery is the equivalent of the built building. Anyone can draw up a plan of a house or building but it must pass the scrutiny of an architect and engineer to be made official. There is much nowadays of everyone is an artist and art is what you think it is. Perhaps some rigor is necessary along with an academia to protect the calling. Where it gets tricky is with the artist not the art professional. Again, to my comparison to architecture, the draftsperson is given technical training primarily with some theory. It is a practice not a academic profession. An MFA in studio practice seems to aquaint the practicing painter, sculptor etc. with the process of making his craft into a formal art. As the seminar leader I spoke of mentioned, he stated that one must be willing to play – to involve oneself in the historical and ongoing field of exhibited art. The degree is a commitment to engaging this – though it is not a guarantee of entry into the calling. That is determined by your work. Many are content to work on painting, drawing and so on as a hobby, a commercial vocation, for personal growth, spiritual expression and even vainglory. This is creativity not art, at least from what I heard from the seminar leader. I was really swayed by the arguement – I liked the idea of standards even if my likes or work did not meet the criteria of the professionals. The process is long – longer than an artist’s life. Work may be accepted after one is gone. The value of this discussion for me was in that one can simply do their work and occasionally place it forward for review. It is for others to decide if it is accepted into the canon of art. If it is accepted and carried forward through history by academic and museum acceptance, one becomes not simply a painter or sculptor but an artist – a higher goal to achieve. If everyone is given this status how can we determine quality? Many argue that the professional art world has gone astray. It may have. To me, it is for the critics and professors to debate and adjust the standard. Painters paint – whether it is accepted or not. This is why many seek refuge in the commercial gallery. It is a place where one is accepted by sales and popularity – a pluralistic environment. To me the great challenge for those that do traditional art is to do it so well that it transcends any bias which the arts professionals may carry. If you do meaningful work, it should move them from any fixed ideas they have. If you can do this, you too can become and artist. Perhaps it is not the MFA crowd which is the problem – but the artists which cannot convince them, with our work, that our work is worthy, in these modern, technical times, of being art. I am waiting for a painter who can challenge the overwhelming power of the photographic medium. So are the “gatekeepers”.

From: Mary Wood — Oct 26, 2011

As the late Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock, said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work the more of it I have.”

From: Wes Giesbrecht — Oct 26, 2011

Never made it art school as planned. No degree of any kind. I got sidetracked. But back when I was a teen, I doodled and dreamed of being a pinup artist. Now in my sixties, I’m finally getting around to it. Finally realized that not having a degree is no reason not to pursue a road not taken. I dabbled in a bit of free-flowing abstract work recently, not using brushes but kept wondering if I could actually, maybe, become a real painter at this late point in my life. This last summer I went out and bought some brushes and a few tubes of better grade paints and got started. I figure I’m about as likely to make the big time as I am to get struck by lightning or win a lottery. But eventually I hope to make a few paintings that other people who enjoy this genre, will actually be willing to buy for a few dollars. Not sure how I’ll find my market but I’m confident that I’ll figure that out. No CV to speak of, just eye appeal. BTW, Robert, Painter’s Keys and your letters of encouragement have been a very real part of this happy decision.

From: Susan Wilkinson — Oct 26, 2011

What an amazingly timely letter! At 47 years of age, I have recently been giving thought to applying to a nearby university with the idea of earning my MFA. Or, possibly, a MA in Art History; both have their attractions for me. For many years, I have indeed “gone to my room” to create in private, away from the current trends and ideals of academia and big-city galleries. Has my art become better or worse? Hard for me to say, but it is certainly evolving in its own time. Your words have encouraged me to be careful about discarding my old-fashioned methods just to do something new. I will consider those words as I look at the options available out there, beyond my country home. I read your notes with delight and great attention. Thank you for including me in your audience!

From: Len Humber — Oct 26, 2011

What many of you are missing is that MFA also supports Interior design, Arts Admin, Art History, Multimedia and other useful fields. The real question is, in the MFA Fine Arts Department, can we afford to keep on these government workers (subsidized by often crushing student loans) when the end result is the rise of the few from the graduate pool to perpetuate the teaching charade?

From: Dwight — Oct 26, 2011

I’m in here again…and really put off by all of the anti-educational comments. Maybe an MFA is not the answer, but for crying-out-loud get as much broad education as you can!

From: Pauline Lorfano — Oct 27, 2011

Here in the USA it helps to have a Master’s Degree when you teach art in the public school system…the pay is better.

From: Lawrence Sparks — Oct 27, 2011

I can’t help but think Mr Genn is wanking us a bit here as evidenced by the kind of discussion that makes this forum so excellent. Here’s one for you: Julie Kaldenhoven, in the featured comments above, states, “there are infinitely more people in the world making “poor quality art” without an art education than with one!” Is it possible that in many cases these “uneducated” artists are simply trying more difficult subjects than the “educated” ones typically try?

From: Phillippa K. Lack — Oct 27, 2011

Those snotty folks who think their degree gives them the right to look down their noses at us poor folks. I have seen more talented folks without any letters after their name, than I have seen MFAs. True talent and sometimes genius, will out, regardless of the letters.

From: Charles Peck — Oct 27, 2011

This letter hits on an important issue for all Artists but particularly for new Artists. Even when I got out of Art school (BFA on the G.I. Bill,1973) the MFA was only good for teaching at the University level. I did profit much from Art school but mostly from exposure to other painters, printers, and sculptors as well as in depth Art History. The profs were great at FSU and were my first contact with Artists who had shed provincialism…which is a mind set not a style. It is important that the individual do something to get away from their home grounds and experience different cultural aspects I feel. Personally I stuck out my thumb and rode that thing for the better part of a couple decades…and drew everyday. Painted several times a week. Read and thought about Art all day everyday…even dreamed about it sometimes. Hardships must be learned about and figured out how to be dealt with (ethically or with fine aesthetics). It has been my experience minimalism is the surest way to make time for doing Art. Do not take on bills that require one to submit to time consuming indentured work that leaves one too tired to do Art to pay for the shiny things. Eventually one must pick a spot and stay there to get the ball rolling, so people know who you are, so you can sell more often for better prices. In my opinion the most important thing though is to get your hand on some paint and squeeze it out of the tube. Really, just squeeze it out. The rest will take care of itself if one just paints…and has the courage to trust their instincts. The instincts will sharpen just like one’s drawing and painting skills will with use…if used. Thanks for this letter, it got me banging on my keyboard again.

From: DM — Oct 27, 2011

If one is going to obtain an M.F.A. so that they can teach in a college-I would think twice. In my opinion from what I see and read the “golden” age of college level teaching fine arts for state colleges is coming or has come to an end. Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the economy was different and state colleges were expanding. One has to think of where they want to end up. Does one want to paint or does one want to add to the burden of paying back a student loan? I do think that depending on the program selected an M.F.A. may be of value. Ideas may be stretched , contacts may be made and growth can take place. Then again one could find a fine artist to study with or become involved with furthering their art education in other ways.

From: Julie Kaldenhoven — Oct 27, 2011

Mr. Sparks: My comment was simply a statistical fact: MFAs/BFAs are but a tiny fraction of the general art-making population (good or bad). N.K. Sims: The opposite is also true.

From: Joan C. Thompson — Oct 28, 2011

In retrospect, my MA in art history, MFA in Painting/Printmaking in the early 70s, was worthwhile, both to my teaching career as well as personal expressive development. To anyone who even considers doing it, just do it! Don’t waste time weighing the options; you’re already thinking about it, which means you should at least try! Opens up avenues and opportunities you never anticipated. No second thoughts, or regrets! Put it on your Bucket List and get busy!

From: Myron Rogers — Oct 28, 2011

Half a century ago I went to school with someone I considered to be, essentially, a dullard. He learned all the right stuff and could parrot it back to a fair-the-well. His papers were loaded with formulaic synthetic research. But, he was ambitious and worked hard, whereas I hardly worked (and occassionally indulged in hackneyed puns). I ran out of money, left school, went to help fight a war, went back to school, ran out of patience, got married, and found employment in the manufacturing sector. (My love of art was an early acquisition, but my practice of it followed by thirty years.) More recently I was told that the supposed dullard had just retired from a full professorship at a well known university. I have searched for his published works, and not being interested in purchasing specialty journals (in English literature) have not found any to read. What I suspect is that he was an uninspired scholar, but an enthusiastic teacher, probably better with the undergrads. So, what do I take away from this? Well, it takes all kinds. Hard work will probably bring rewards, but perhaps not the expected sort. There are many ways to be brilliant, not all of which are “creative” in the standard sense. Sometimes it’s enough just to be enthusiastic and dogged. The MFA (or PhD) will avail one of something, but it will not be an entre to the form of creativity that results in the plastic or literary arts. But it might be worth considering that it might be evidence of academic understanding, and that academic pursuits, and teaching, can be very creative activities.

From: pat — Oct 28, 2011

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

From: Monika — Oct 28, 2011

Actually, referring to an earlier comment, you don’t need a BFA to get an MFA. I know two who got there without one. They got in on merit of work, a portfolio a meeting.) When I was thinking of doing an MFA, I interviewed the chair of the Fine Arts department. The professor was incredibly supportive and positive. The key message I was left with was this: it’s not about your past work, it’s about your potential, building on it, trying new things. Maybe working in clay is different. There is an institution in the USA who evaluate and critique art colleges–there is no requirement that instructors must have an MFA to teach in colleges or universities (that was stated in 2008) when they reviewed ACAD in terms of standards–they couldn’t grant anything as they are US based. That said, that’s what colleges demand now. Maybe you need an MFA, maybe you don’t. As the late great Stephen Jobs stated: Let’s go invent tomorrow! He didn’t graduate and was decidedly an odd figure educationally. But, who cares? his work speaks and to me is the ultimate outlier and ‘Black Swan’. Not too many really get there. Enjoy the journey! Monika

From: Dottie Dracos — Oct 28, 2011

I must comment on one of the Donna Dickson workshop photos (featured at the opening to the workshop calendar section). Note the little drama going on in the left photo between the German shepherd and the little guy. Funny what you see in the backgrounds sometimes.

From: Elizabeth Brandt — Oct 28, 2011
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Oct 28, 2011

I think the value of a good MFA lies not in the arena of technique, but the participation in the intense critiques and learning to defend your ideas and your work in the harsh professional market place while in a (somewhat) sheltered environment.

From: Kristin Rymoen Ellstrom — Nov 04, 2011

well I read it all, and sort of agree to all…. not because I don’t have a mind, but because this is not a NO versus YES question, or it shouldn’t be! Funny the people not having a degree know the disadvantages of it and the havers are believers in their way. First, what is a BFA? Not the same… as if bread is just bread, one get it with and without fibers! Satistic doesn’t prove anything, as ” men run faster than women” is true… but some women run faster than most men! I don’t compare running with art here, I compare the way of polarized thinking, the either or way. A good education don’t hurt, it’s gong to be some eye openers that one cannot anticipate. I went to artist boot camp, marinated in studio work three years, then an art school detox is necessary – sometimes. Then one is way ahead of the point left before education. Not all the students at art school went there to become practicing artist, so looking at the rate of successes isn’t fair. In today’s media society something called star quality is asked for in the pop businesses, it helps having good looks or charisma even if you are a violinist or pianist… part of the unique sales points. I saw that tendency in the loop of openings as well, the show…

From: Liz Reday — Nov 14, 2011

So many comments on a subject that I often muse upon. I have a MFA from the Royal College of Art, London, graduating in 1976. While I wouldn’t change that experience as part of my life, I certainly would not go into debt to repeat it. I was lucky, I had a scholarship part of the time, and it wasn’t expensive once accepted, which wasn’t easy. Did it help me as a person and as a learning experience? Yes. But I have learned much more about the nuts and bolts of painting in the years since. Most of the value in that time was in interacting with the other art students! The teachers were good examples of successful working artists, and we were exposed to all the happening art scene in London’s art galleries. I could have picked up the same experience if I had been hanging with artists in Paris during that time, availing myself of the wealth in their museums and galleries. I was a solo student of the world at that time, picking up all that was cheap or free, crewing on boats in the Mediterranean, hitching in Italy & Morocco. When I finally returned to the U.S.A. with my MFA, it was next to impossible to find a teaching job, so I joined a printmaking co-op and made prints for the interior decor market, a fine cry from grants, museums and cutting edge galleries. It all goes down to paying ones way, paying my dues and not ending up in debt or producing cringe-making rubbish for hotel room walls! The MFA has not done much but produce chuckles from art dealers and gallery owners (who have their own MFA’s, but now sell the paintings of others). You’re either hot or your not, and to get there you need to have charisma and contacts, all of which can be developed with hard work, a hard body and a thirst for schmoozing 24-7. Easier done when young, I may add. My most success was achieved when i spent my energy in connecting with the right people despite the fact that my work was forgettable and derivative. Location, proximity and the veneer of youth and success. But what about the art you may well ask? That came later, on my own, by going to my room. Now that I’m older and prefer the company of my studio and close family, my work has matured and I really feel that I’m getting somewhere creatively. But as far as artistic success like Gagosian solo shows/Basel Art Fairs/Berlin Museums/giant 10,000 sq. ft. studios/ a team of art assistants and five years of international retrospectives stretching into the future in prestigious locations, well, I’m not there. If the price for all that success is sacrificing my time painting/dreaming about painting in order to pursue my “brand” and promoting myself to the “right people” (a time sucking soul destroying occupation)….well, maybe the price is too high. The MFA doesn’t factor into any of that at all. All great experiences that broaden our vision of life, like having a family, travelling the world, studying under a great zen/yoga/art/music/dance master…: priceless. Going into debt is not a useful,worthwhile experience.

From: H — Apr 21, 2013

This article slamming MFAs is really very puzzling. Could the writer really be so unaware of the real reasons why artists pursue MFAs and what goes on in the process? Generally, people pursue MFAs because they are absolutely dedicated to their craft and humble enough to allow themselves to be educated. How could an intensive period of study in a community of others with the same interests, a huge pool of resources, and highly respected professionals as teachers be useless? The habit hobbyists have of calling themselves professional artists is a real shame, and it harms the people who sacrifice everything to go to university. Don’t slam professional artists just because they generally reject boring, unimaginative realism and you don’t understand their work.

     Featured Workshop: Donna Dickson
102811_robert-genn Donna Dickson Workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Colour in motion

arcylic painting, 30 x 24 inches by Ethel Rossi

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Jim Pallas of Detroit, MI, USA, who wrote, “‘Why get a masters?’ ‘It shows everyone that you can hold your breath for two more years.’ But one of the best reasons I’ve heard is, ‘Think of all the time you’ll save in the rest of your life not having to explain why you don’t have it.’ Personally, I pursued the MFA because I recognized that this was a special place and a unique time in my life and welcomed the chance to enjoy it for a few more years.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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