art education
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You Don’t Need an MFA to Make It as An Artist

Is going to art school worth it? While obtaining an MFA is the pathway some artists take to further pursue their career, it’s not always a crucial part of developing a distinct and successful artistic practice. Influential contemporary artists have found success in the art world after transitioning from other careers or by fervently pursuing their artistic practice post-BFA in lieu of pursuing a Master’s. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all career move for emerging artists. Whether you’re weighing your options before plunging into higher education or looking for key ways to advance your practice aside from pursuing an MFA, here we’ll examine some alternative art education structures that can replace a more traditional MFA.

First, a look at some considerations discouraging artists from pursuing a higher art education. Debt awareness organization Occupy Museums noted in the 2017 Whitney Biennial the impact that student loans have on artists, an issue compounded by the high costs of attending graduate school in the arts: 68% of artists hold significant student loan debt, with much of that debt being a consequence of obtaining an MFA. As early as 2014, The Atlantic commented on the growing infeasibility of sustaining an artistic practice in the wake of debt accrued through these programs, noting that, “artists have little hope of dependable returns on investment.”

However, it’s worth noting that some programs do allow affordable inroads into future career opportunities: Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, offers a scholarship for MFA students who also teach undergraduate classes. Programs such as these generally occur at larger schools and provide small stipends along with waived tuition. Erin Treacy, an artist and University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth MFA graduate, notes that “if offered [this type of] award, you teach one class per semester. I find that during the MFA program I had more time in the studio, benefited from critiques and critical readings, and [gained] teaching experience which allowed me further opportunities to teach post-graduation.” These types of programs are worth investigation, although – again – the costs of higher art education without scholarships, contrasted with the benefits of art education, also have to be weighed in the case that an award is not available.   

Below, we review the strategies to consider when pursuing a career in the arts without holding an MFA degree to ensure that curators and critics will nonetheless value your work and expertise.

Incurring debt to pursue an art education isn’t necessarily the best course for an emerging artist.

Situate Your Work in a Greater Context

Have you ever seen an artist with a discernible body of work and a style so unique that their work is instantly recognizable on museum websites or magazine covers? Try a fun experiment and look at their earlier work online at early exhibitions and/or on their website: odds are that previous bodies of work looked more like other artists or fit into trends that were dominating the art market at that time.

When breaking into the art world, gallerists and dealers often seek artists whose work stands apart but still holds relevance within the current appetite for art. Political art, so apropos in our current era of sociopolitical change, is relevant again in a way not arguably seen since the AIDS crisis peak during the 1980s. This argument – that work should fit a contemporary artistic climate – is not a call to make your practice bend unnaturally toward the prevalent patterns of today’s trends. However, the key point to consider is how you might educate yourself on the origins of the work you aim to present: What have other artists explored in a similar visual and conceptual space? How does your work deviate or stand apart? Inform yourself of other artists working in a similar vein, from both contemporary art periods and considering previous generations, so that you will be able to engage in a meaningful conversation with visitors to your studio. If you make work exploring gender-laden imagery as a female artist, for example, but have no knowledge of Cindy Sherman or Lynda Benglis, it will limit your ability to place your art within the context it deserves.

Continue Pursuing Opportunities Outside the MFA Track

Forgoing an MFA degree is no excuse to stop learning! The best opportunities available to artists who are not committed to the rigors of an MFA are residencies. Artist residencies come in many forms, but there are some constants: Studio space to work for a durational period, visits from influential curators and critics, building relationships among other artist peers, and critiques or dialogue with program staff and faculty. While the financial burdens of these residencies vary, some residencies have become so renowned through the years that their appearance on an artist’s CV hold significant weight. Two examples of residencies offering significant professional development, along with significant competition for entry, are the Ox-Bow residency and the Skowhegan School for Painting & Sculpture. Both are viewed as rigorous art training programs offering unparalleled insights for artists developing their practice.  

If not able to pursue residency programs that demand relocation, look at grants programs and part-time art education opportunities closer to home. Some low residency programs also provide flexible schedule opportunities, generally requiring a number of days onsite (often in the summer months) before transitioning to more remote or part-time requirements to complete the program. By adding to your CV through different opportunities which will challenge your work in new ways, you’ll be demonstrating a serious approach to evolution in your artistic practice.

alternative art education
Making sure you’re considering the greater context in which you make work can function as a stand-in for higher education.

Engage in Dialogue

Attendance, attendance, attendance. Like location for real estate, attendance is key for gaining new insights into contemporary art trends. Using social media or other online tools – in the New York area, is one reliable resource – look up opportunities to engage with other arts professionals in diverse settings. Art openings, artist talks, panel discussions, public presentations, and conferences: all of these settings are opportunities to extend both your professional networks and gain a new perspective on contemporary artists making waves. New artists can emerge in a few months through word of mouth and recommendations between curators, dealers and museum professionals; it’s crucial to stay knowledgeable and engaged with the wide community. While substantial time is spent creating new work in the studio, attend events and engage in dialogue with other attendees to understand how your work fits into the greater context of contemporary art. Your relationship to the greater community can change depending on artists whose work has gained more recognition so it’s important to stay updated in order to not fall behind in making valid contemporary art references.

Finally, reassure yourself that not all artists showing on the international stage hold an MFA, or, in some cases, any degree at all. In today’s interdisciplinary creative environment, being able to explore one’s artistic practice within a wider context and through multiple disciplines and subjects generally, bring a wider exposure and awareness of an artist’s work. Some artists such as Mel Chin have established a practice spanning art and other disciplines – science, technology, human rights – while other artists, such as urban art phenomenon JR, have risen to prominence through becoming social media stars. MFA or not, by situating your work effectively within a space authentic to your concerns as an artist you’ll be bringing a unique perspective to the greater art world – an indispensable key to artistic prominence.

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant, and editor based in Sunnyside, Queens, where her Chi-Spaniel puppy graciously allows her to cohabit.

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