Art School Today: Fast and Loose

While I pursued graduate study in visual arts for the past three years, my perspective on what art education in the 21st century looks like is limited. There is no single, agreed-upon, method for how to teach art at the graduate level. Educational models in the arts have become more varied and expansive over time, especially in recent years.

We could trace the history of art school back to the guilds of the Renaissance but that is another endeavor. Either way, we end up in our contemporary moment where the value of art is contested in our society and the ways of teaching it are motivated by a variety of ideological views.

In her essay, ‘Lifelong Learning,’ curator and writer, Katy Siegel, deftly refers to the ‘star’ model of art school, unabashedly pointing out a tendency for institutions to admit large numbers of students on the hope that a lucky few will be ‘the next big thing’ in the art world.

Programs, particularly graduate level, located in or near big cities attract curators to student’s studios and sign them to galleries before they even finish their degree requirements. This is the capitalist art market at work and who is to say it’s a problem? Not many perhaps, but a growing number.

Despite the narrow view of what being a successful artist is, in the context of these kinds of programs, as well as the narrow success rate this model manages to produce, the star model is still the most prevalent one in art schools in the U.S. and worldwide. This is true of both Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, the latter of which must typically be completed in two years. If few students graduate and go on to make a career solely out of the sale of their work, what do the rest of them do?

Only three years ago, The Atlantic magazine cited a study from the art research and activist group, BFAMFAPhD, showing the rising number of Americans acquiring MFA degrees. The number was well over 15,000 in 2014 and the trend shows it rising.

In Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise, Gregory Scholette describes the larger structure of the ‘star’ model that we do not see. Much like stars of movies, the lead actors get all the attention. Few people pay attention to the rest of the crew that makes the cinema experience possible. Same is true of the “Art World.” The difference is that people in support roles at art institutions enter and leave art programs likely identifying themselves as ‘artists’ as opposed to crewmembers or laborers.


Even a community message board becomes a collaborative artwork.


This may sound like a negative outlook on the current state of affairs in which artists pursue higher education in the arts hoping that they too will ‘make it,’ The star model of art school perpetuates this hierarchical regime that barely hides a capitalist fervor behind the flag of a modernist ideal, but alternatives exist.

Scholette’s critique is not one to expose the art world as some pyramid scheme but to empower the majority of trained artists through collectivism. Art school coordinators are not blind to this. Progressive educational models date back to the early twentieth century with Germany’s Bauhaus school or Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina.

These progressive models have influenced art school as we know it today but younger programs are also returning to a less competitive and more collaborative model. Programs in Portland, Oregon like Pacific Northwest College of Art’s collaborative design program or Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA are some examples of how art education is responding to the shifting landscape of the creative economy and its social fabric.

‘Interdisciplinary’ became the buzz word of 21st century MFA programs with universities funding such programs while more traditional art schools scrambled to rebrand. Faced with this expanded field of artistic education across a range of institutions, the new art student is faced with a daunting task: How do I choose?

Every student is different. Some seek degrees on the path to meeting a variety of career goals. The MFA is required by accredited institutions to teach art at the college level. Other students try their luck with the star model and usually can afford to do so. Another group enters programs knowing they will not exit having secured a lucrative career but are comfortable working in the non-profit sector or supporting themselves with a non-art related job.

As a recent graduate of an MFA program, I have had my own personal experience with this choice. I looked at a number of programs, attending a post-baccalaureate program in painting at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) for a semester before switching to DOVA, the MFA program at the University of Chicago.


A student poses in studio wearing a mask.


SAIC is a school with incredible resources, faculty, and history but it definitely falls under the star model description. While I attended, there were roughly 70 graduate students between the post-baccalaureate program and the MFA program in the painting department alone. This large group made it difficult to meet with faculty who understandably dedicate more of their time to the MFA students. In talking with some of the MFA students many talked about the lack of opportunities to get teaching assistant positions since there just were not enough for everyone. This results in a program where students have ample time in the studio but if students are looking for a wider range of skill-building and professionalization from their art degree, they may want to think twice about the hefty price tag that comes with it. There is the chance they may be awarded one of the coveted and rare full tuition scholarships.

After realizing this kind of program was not right for me, I looked into the program at DOVA. Some of the faculty at SAIC suggested an interdisciplinary program might be better for me and I agreed. With a total of 16 graduate students between both years, I found the smaller student to faculty ratio (about 1 to 1) at DOVA much more appealing. The requirement of working as a teaching assistant each quarter, the opportunity to take courses at the University, and the equal opportunity for students to receive tuition funding were strong influences on my choice. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing faculty.

This brings me to my next point: critical environment. You can’t grow as an artist without having your ideas and methods challenged. A huge difference in my experiences at these two schools was the critique. At SAIC, there were fewer faculty in our post-bac critiques and they were mostly painters. At DOVA, the faculty are artists from every discipline and practice who critique your work from different angles. They also make it a point to invite guests to weekly and quarterly critiques.


Two students work in a communal work space.


At SAIC, the role of the market and its influence on process seemed to be an essential, underlying theme held by some while others tiptoed around it without questioning its authority. More often than not, I would hear the typical comment that some piece, or part of a piece ‘just isn’t working.’ No one ever responded with ‘working for who? Or what?’ It was just accepted that something ‘not working’ meant the artist needed to make a change, more or less figure it out on their own, and come back next time with a better product. Again, my experience at SAIC was limited but this was something I noticed.

Attending a critique at DOVA as a prospective student and for the two years following I cannot recall hearing anyone say ‘this isn’t working.’ What I do remember is, if similar scrutiny was given to a piece or part of a piece, it came with self-reflective analysis relating that viewer’s experience of the maker’s work rather than a vague appraisal based on a hypothetical, undisclosed standard.

I know this sounds like propaganda for the program that gave me a degree but that is not my intent. DOVA is not perfect. No MFA program is as far as I know. I chose to apply to graduate school because I was making work and questions kept emerging that I didn’t know how to even begin to answer. I needed to immerse myself in a critical environment. I found that critical environment at DOVA.


Getting back to less personal reflections, this program casts a wide net in terms of skill-building. You get studio time, academic coursework, teaching experience, and are more actively involved in contributing to the ongoing development of the program itself. If there were any drawbacks, it was having such a packed schedule. I occasionally missed the extra studio time I once had but found the rigors of the program far more valuable.

This raises the question of time. Some programs offer an answer in the form of a third year. How this additional time is used varies but, with the expanding range of job market demands and what a graduate art program’s expectations entail, a third year can provide students an opportunity to invest their time and energy into building their professional skills.

Some graduate programs use the additional year at the beginning to plan how to spend their time and form a strategy for the next two years. Others allow students to focus on completing their non-studio coursework at the beginning. An additional final year of professional development work and transitioning into a career is another approach.

Adding an additional year is a lot to ask of any educational program considering the funding it would require and the demands on staff and faculty but large institutions have accomplished more difficult tasks. More importantly, as the notions of what it means to be a professional artist in the 21st century expand, greater demands are placed on institutions to deliver value, particularly the self-described interdisciplinary programs housed in major research universities.

If institutions want to improve and sustain their programs, they need to turn out students who can look back on their education as contributing something of value to their professional life. The best way to do that is to invest time and energy into making sure students get the most out of their education. An additional year is not only a way to give students greater opportunity to invest their time and energy but also to allow faculty to ensure the students are meeting the standards of their required coursework.

I would urge interdisciplinary programs to break from this time constraint and consider how their programs could benefit from meeting the challenge of remodeling their program through the addition of an academic year.

If you are seriously considering a graduate degree in visual art, know that each passing year has a higher risk of return. Look at as many programs as possible and talk to as many people who work within them as you can. Just remember, not everyone gets to be a star.


Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.



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