In the fall of 1999 I was a first semester senior at Amherst College. A double major in political science and fine arts, I never considered strongly what my future would be. I was a primed and ready academic machine built for one purpose, doing well in school. It occurred to me mid fall – far later than my colleagues – that I needed to make plans for after undergrad, so being so adept at schooling I chose graduate school. Equally divided at the time in my passion for politics and art I let the financial aid process determine which school I’d attend. This decision also happened to have been the most practical decision aswell since my family was not rich. I ended up choosing the arts and selecting the University of Michigan for an MFA in painting.
Several personal issues prevented me from doing a thorough investigation of the program, that and poor planning. This included leaving a pernicious Christian fundamentalist church. I knew though that I’d make the best of whatever Michigan had to offer. Unfortunately that was not all that much. I meet some of the best artists I’ve ever known in the program, many of whom I’m still quite close with. However, our instruction at the university was uneven, our advisors quite bluntly told us of their unavailability for consultations. Our coursework combined esoteric cognate courses that offered little relevance to our artwork with studio critique and professional development courses led by instructors with little experience in the changing art market. And the teacher training employed a sink or swim method of learning basic classroom management. I believe many of my professors at the time would actually agree with this assessment. The program abruptly changed mid way through my two year degree and a new dean was installed who emphasized everything technology based and seemed uninterested in our cohort as we were not selected by him and his new team. I mention this experience and my state of mind at the time because of the experience happening to the seven courageous USC students who quit their MFA program at the University’s Roski School of Art. I read a very compelling article about the state of the modern MFA in the New Yorker today. See here. It made me realize how fraught the state of the MFA has become and how little many programs do in training their graduates of the realities of the changing art world. To say that the market is over saturated with MFAs would be a gross understatement. We were told that there was something like 250,000 MFAs out there and a limited amount of jobs available. With times tougher now I’m sure the employment situation is even worse then when I graduated in 2001.
I felt moved enough by the experience of these seven former MFA students because I get a sense of what their going through and what they’re getting into, since I’m assuming they will seek degrees elsewhere. It’s a courageous thing to be an artist, more so to get a degree in it. The dismissive and cavalier treatment of this cohort I fear is not uncommon among art school administrators. They face pressures of making their degrees relevant in a digital obsessed world. Finding degree programs with an abiding respect in a tradition liberal arts fine arts degree will get progressively harder to find I believe. And so to my new colleagues out there at USC I send my best wishes and say keep the faith and keep running the race remembering that it’s a marathon not a sprint.