Re-professionalizing the MFA / Art School (Con)(Pro)fessionals
by Loney Abrams

In a recent comment in Vulture, Jerry Saltz criticizes MFA schools for overpaying administrators and professors at the expense of their students. In a self-deprecating case against the old burnt-out professor, Saltz urges institutions to fire withered faculty and charge less tuition. As a recent MFA graduate with an overwhelming amount of student debt, I'm glad he's on our side. But I also don't think asking institutions to make less money is going to work. Pushing for affordable tuition is heroic, but maybe a more practical solution is encouraging MFA programs to equip their students with more earning potential. If they can't charge less, the least they can do is help their students earn more.

Graduate schools recruit new students by promising transformative creative development with access to state of the art facilities and inspiring faculty. Unlike other professional graduate schools, they can't promise a bright future with job security and a stable income. It seems faculty and administration have somehow internalized the sales pitch of the recruiter, so that unlike any other professional graduate school, they focus on enriching the experience of being in school, rather than preparing students for what happens out of school. The MFA student is trained to prioritize creative development over professional development, making discussing the art market taboo. Students are asked to experiment in the studio, explore their intuition, and rhetorically defend their practice, but they aren't asked some pretty basic questions that could have made everything else seem irrelevant: Is this practice actually viable? Is there a market for this work, and if so, do you have access to it? If not, how will you support your practice?

Discussions that could lead to market trends, self-promotion, branding tactics, and even the art market in general, are quickly thwarted with an attitude that would make any art student stop mid-sentence in fear of sounding like a sell-out. In art school, acknowledging the presence of an art market is considered at odds with authentic creativity. As a result, students are denied the language and venue to criticize it. Institutional critique is taught as art history. Contemporary art world politics are rarely addressed, as if recognizing the current state of affairs would be a pessimistic detriment to creative development. Instead, faculty encourage students to listen to unbridled intuition, ask what their artwork needs rather than what they need, and to be uncompromising in the pursuit of self-expression. Students need to discuss the art market, not ignore it, and decide if and how they will infiltrate it.

Of course I'm not suggesting that schools help students make more marketable work (eew.) But they should help them be proactive in finding solutions for the system that isn't suiting them. They need faculty who are striving to better the system (not just who have proven success within it) and courses geared towards art world politics and economics. “Professional Practices” courses are becoming more common amongst MFA course catalogues, though this isn't really what I have in mind. These classes tend to be neither a discussion of art world politics, nor a learning-by-doing networking/professional development experiment. Instead, they tend to assume that all students have the same goals, that gallery representation is the be all end all, and that this goal is obtainable by following some bullet points on a handout. It's been my experience that these classes have a tell-not-do approach (instructors say “networking is important”, not “meet my friend so-and-so”), and the importance of social media, the projected artist-personality, and branding are ignored.

Professional practice courses encourage a passive strategy, whereby students rely on curators and critics to “discover” them. MFA programs are geared towards the white box exhibition, with degrees culminating in thesis exhibitions. But in the real world, emerging artists are rarely given solo show opportunities right out of grad school, so the ability to create a solid solo show in an on-campus gallery is probably not as important as the ability to utilize social media as an exhibition platform. In spending two to three years preparing for a solo gallery exhibition, students are conditioned to accept this model as given, rather than consider and pursue alternative models.

Not that there aren't exceptions... Sadie Halie Projects, American Medium,, Adult Contemporary, Picture Menu, Regina Rex are just a few examples of projects initiated by MFAs using social media and the Internet to challenge the traditional models taught to them in traditional MFA programs. Deconstructing the market in which they work, they offer different ways of selling, exhibiting, dispersing, marketing - and their proactive approaches not only provide new exhibition platforms to other artists, but create new avenues in which to disseminate their own work as well.

But while social media and online exposure give artists access to audiences, this attention doesn't necessarily translate to profit. Most of these artists need day jobs to support their projects, and a degree in Fine Art doesn't provide an easy route. Demanding course requirements and rigid policies make it difficult for students to diversify their education and take classes that could help them make money in the corporate world. While most student artists may hope to make a living selling their work, their schools should help them form a realistic back up plan, giving them the skills and experience to land secure jobs in the creative industry or elsewhere. Easier access to departments like design, programming, architecture, animation, etc., and a curriculum that promotes cross-discipline education would perhaps create more “professional” graduates, even if those graduates pursue non-art world professions to support their art careers.

In avoiding the inevitable, MFA programs churn out people ill equipped to enter the workforce. Most recent graduates don't make money selling their work, and compete for the same few types of jobs in the art world. These jobs are not only competitive, but are also generally gendered and under paid. From the informal, qualitative research I've done via bar stool chats and my Facebook feed, it looks like if you are a female, your best bet is working for roughly $15 an hour as a gallery assistant, or if you are male, working for roughly $25 an hour as an art handler.

It was a good thing when in the early 70s, schools like CalArts lost interest in craft and trade and began favoring a more academic, theoretical, conceptual approach to art education. As this became the status quo, art schools produced highly educated, well informed art philosophers, reflecting (and producing) the sophistication, diversity, and complexity of the art world we know today. But has MFA education gone a bit too far? Can we be too de-skilled and de-professionalized? Students contextualize their practices within framework outlined by academia, but have a hard time finding the support to contextualize themselves within the larger picture.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir and complaining about an outdated institution that has needed an update for quite some time. I also admit that my “research” comes mainly from my own observations since graduating Pratt in May of 2013, and I'm sure my observations aren't universal. Ultimately, plenty MFA programs have spawned plenty of great artists, and many of those artists teach in MFA programs. I'm just hoping progress won't always be despite the institutions that need it most.