Tuesday, July 12, 2011

MFA: Is It Necessary? -- The Debate

Thanks to everyone who participated in survey I posted a few weeks ago about whether or not MFAs were necessary in becoming a successful artist. (Click here to see the results.) Your opinions were invaluable to me as I crafted my presentation.

The July 10 debate was part of
Artillery Magazine's ongoing series "Artillery Sets the Standard," and was held at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Many thanks to publisher Paige Wery and editor Tulsa Kinney for inviting me to participate. There were four debates and made for a lively and informative afternoon (the free vodka didn't hurt).

The debate was: "MFA: Is it Necessary?" I was debating the "con" side of the question. The format was a four minute presentation, followed by a two minute rebuttal, a one minute rebuttal and a 30 second conclusion. When Artillery posts the full video of the debate, I will post it here. Meanwhile, here is the text of my presentation and conclusion along with my Power Point slides.



Hello. My opponent has made some interesting points, some of which I'll address in my presentation, others will have to wait for the rebuttal.

I don't have a degree in anything -- I dropped out of college in my Junior year. I felt I was wasting my parents' money, majoring in marijuana and guitar. 

A degree is not something I look for when selecting artists for Offramp Gallery. The bottom line is always the work. I look for work that's honest, creative, original, skillfully executed and intensely visual. It's supposed to be VISUAL art after all.
Everyone has an opinion on this subject. But I wanted data, facts to back up my point of view.*

First of all -- The only situation for which you are required to have an MFA is if you want to teach studio art at the university level. There are precious few tenured teaching positions available and competition for them is fierce. Most artists I know end up chasing adjunct jobs across several counties and/or have an unrelated day job.

Then I looked at the artists I've shown at Offramp. 48% have MFAs. So, there is no advantage, no disadvantage.


But what about other commercial galleries? I spent an insane amount of time researching artists from several successful commercial galleries. You may be surprised at what I found.

LA Louver: 56% have MFAs
Blum & Poe: 55%
Ace: 41%
Gagosian 34%
If you put those numbers all together (including Offramp), only 40% of the artists have MFAs.


Next I looked at ArtFacts.net which ranks over 200,000 artists using a special algorithm based on which galleries and museums artists have shown at, with whom, etc. I looked at their top 50 living artists -- and of those 50 top living artists only 11 out of 50, or 22% have MFAs.


Typical costs for a two year MFA in studio art are: $28,000 -$73,000 and a three-year program would be $41,000 -$109,000. That's a lot of student debt to carry after graduation.


I also put together a little survey and sent it to my email list. I asked the respondents who were artists to what degree they were able to make a living as an artist. As you can see there wasn't that much difference between artists with or without an MFA.


I looked at the Pollock-Krasner Grant recipients for 2009-10. Out of 75, 40 have MFAs, or 53%. Again, no clear cut advantage.


So, from all the statistics I was able to put together there seems to be no distinct advantage to having an MFA -- for getting a gallery, showing in museums, for making a living as an artist and for getting grants.

And what are these schools teaching? I personally think there is an over-emphasis on dialog and an under-emphasis on content. We're teaching artists to TALK about art. Anything is art as long as you can justify it using the codified language of academia. As my friend Ted says, there's no good art, no bad art, just an endless dialog about art.

Finally I want to quote New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz in a recent article about the Venice Biennale and what he calls "Generation Blank":

"It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements . . . A feedback loop has formed; art is turned into a fixed shell game, moving the same pieces around a limited board. All this work is highly competent, extremely informed, and supremely cerebral. But it ends up part of some mannered International School of Silly Art. "


I couldn't agree more, and I do believe that MFA programs are largely to blame.
Conclusion:

To go over my main points again:

My research shows that an MFA doesn't give you an advantage in getting into commercial galleries or museums, making a living as an artist or getting grants.

It's very expensive and saddles you with student debt that you have very little chance of paying off by working in your chosen field.

Save your money, live your life, read, travel, pay attention, learn to think for yourself. Work hard, look inside yourself and make yourself the best artist you can be.


Oh, and BTW, I won :-)

*A word about my research: it is completely unscientific and was limited by time and resources. I included only living artists and excluded artists for whom I couldn't find enough information. I feel I just scratched the surface, but results were fairly consistent across the board.


Upcoming Events at Offramp Gallery

Benefit Art Sale Supporting Jade Bemiller's Fight to Beat Leukemia
July 17-31, 2011
Opening Reception, Sunday, July 17, 2-5pm
Closing Reception, Sunday July 31, 2-5pm


Participating Artists:

Lisa Adams, Frank Alvarado, Elonda Billera, Quinton Bemiller, Wilhelm Bleckmann, Richard Bruland, Anita Bunn, Elaine Carhartt, Marilyn Cvitanic, Joyce Dallal, Jason Dawes, Merion Estes, Asad Faulwell, Chuck Feesago, Pat Gainor, Sandra Gallegos, Janice Gomez, Mark Steven Greenfield, James Griffith, D. Jean Hester, Stanton Hunter, Kathryn Jaroneski, Denise Johnson, Myron Kaufman, Bianca Kolonusz-Partee, Kimi Kolba, Nicholette Kominos, Linsley Lambert, Pamela Lewis, Patricia Liverman, J.J. L'Heureux, Meg Madison, Megan Madzeoff, Tony Maher, Amy Maloof, Kristan Marvel, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Tom Norris, Feclicity Nove, David Pagel, Laura Parker, Josh Peters, Mei Xian Qiu, Frederika Roeder, Susan Sironi, Veronica Stensby, Theodore Svenningsen, Jackie Tchakalian, Sophia Tise, Rebecca Trawick, Ruth Trotter, Michelle Wiener . . . and more.




43 comments:

  1. Thanks for such an informative article.
    I truly believe that talent and a desire to make good art
    are far more important than anything art schools with outrageous tuitions can teach you.
    Thanks,
    Michael Hayden
    www.michaelhaydanart.com

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  2. hello
    I used to live in Santa Monica and I had the digital gallery, the Float gallery in Marina del Rey from 1999 until 2007
    Now I am back in France, in the South and I am opening a new digital gallery, htto://fsag.peekhit.com and I have artists from the US following me in addition to European and Asian artists. I will check out what's the status of the artists regarding education grade and come back with whatever I can find.
    Interesting work..
    yves

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  3. Yeah, Jane!
    How are you going to pay all that tuition back in this day and age? I know what you mean.

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  4. Although I have a degree, it is not in Fine Arts.

    Some of the most impressive artists did not and do not have art degrees.

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  5. Brava Jane...

    You did a very detailed research that I really haven't seen before. I know there are many artists pondering if to get that expensive MFA, and you gave a detailed answer. I wished there was more of a dialogue in the art world about this over emphasis on MFA and cerebral art - too much of what is created these days is art school brain masturbation. Too little talent and too much talk - it is like a joke... if you have to explain it, you have already lost the effect.

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  6. Very interesting study you've conducted Jane. I too am a late career bloomer in the art world having no degree. I think if you have talent it will emerge in one way shape or another due to a persistent hard work ethic. Not to state that it wouldn't help I guess but have personally known people with degrees that I perceived as having no actual artistic talent due to no drive. It's something also that you are born with. Thanks for sharing the data and I will most certainly be reading your blogs because this one hits home for me. I too many times have found a number of galleries that divide your success by that measure and always felt as wrong. BTW...I create in all mediums but have gravitated my talents to using corrugated boxes as an art medium of all things. If you have the time please take a look at visiting www.langanart.com my web site. Take care!

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  7. It really was a great debate between Jane and Marlene (who took the side of pro MFA). I think both sides had good points but ultimately it's been proven that you don't necessarily have to have an MFA to be a successful artist. I actually dropped out of school myself and sometimes regret that decision but now I enjoy publishing a magazine that I love....so it didn't stop me from finding a fulfilling job! Jane, thanks for participating in the event! xoxo Paige

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  8. Thanks, that is some interesting research!

    Lucas Aardvark
    www.lucasaardvark dot com

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  9. Thank you Jane - I have felt the exact same way for many years. I dropped out of grad school because I felt the only reason you needed an MFA was to teach, and I didn't plan to teach. that was back in 1974. On the success scale from 1-10 I feel I'm about 5. I've worked in museums, galleries and other misc.stuff and still making art. See my website and judge for yourself.

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  10. Jane, I wanted to thank you for sending me your blog especially with such an interesting article on the importance of the formalized education. I am a self taught artist and have been my life. I am now heavily pursuing art as my main substance and I am pleasured to say it goes very well. But there is certainly something to be said about the environment of the institute offering facilities to student to learn skills of the traditional arts. I went through massive changes in my art without those facilities and gave up many desires of pursuing particular varieties of art without those facilities. Yet dear friends of mine that went to the schools for further education were also changed and formed into the ideals that were being taught. Those once crazy creative individuals lost the free mind of creating art in their own way for there own purpose.
    I love this continued discussion and am pleasured with the findings you have shared. Thanks again.

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  11. I was at the debates and thought they were fantastic! You did a great job. That being said, I do have an MFA and am glad I got it....mainly because it has allowed me to teach and make more money/work less hours than I would doing most other jobs, so that I DO have time to be an artist as well. I also feel that I learned a lot and it made me a better artist, but it's not for everyone. Also, I went to a CSU and taught while I was there for a tuition waver, and do not owe any money. :)

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  12. Having just turned down an MFA program for the fall, I am content to see stats that favor that decision.

    My further interest in your stats would be: of the galleries you gathered information, how many represented artists were "established artists" versus newly represented with graduate degrees? I feel that there has been a trend(in the last decade) at the blue chip gallery level to represent a large majority of artists with grad level degrees, whereas in the past it wasn't a prerequisite.(ie: Gagosian Gallery representing Cy Twombly and Joel Morrison)

    Truth is good art will be sought out regardless of education level.

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  13. Jane - loved your article. As I understand it, schools (especially these days) are about standardization...when are artists known for conforming or even being part of a measurable standard? Art for me is an experience, expression of an intangible that cannot be quantified or taught. I do believe that learning and inquiry are part of being an artist...sharing, dialoguing, experimenting, and exploring for the rest of our lives...organically like connected people...sharing life.

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  14. Jane...This is superb - so well researched and so well stated. Thank you!

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  15. Jane, this is a brilliant article. Thank you! I've been making art all my life, showing in galleries, selling, all without an MFA. I have a degree in social work; and chose to do that to support myself and family. It also allowed me to integrate art as a healing modality with the communities I worked with. I have taken many art classes over the years at Art Students League and The National Academy here in NYC. There is a wealth of art educational opportunities in most regions. Now at 50, I am a self supporting artist, selling, showing, and working towards a serious art career. Art is not easy, or for the thin skinned. We need skills in business, marketing, PR, art law,...and that's not taught in MFA programs. We as artists need to support and help each other as a community. I say, seize your passions and skip the MFA...unless you want to become an academic-that's cool too. But if really just want to be an artist-no piece of paper makes you one.

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  16. This research is pointless until you do a statistical analysis of birthdate of artists shown in galleries and year of acquired MA/MFA. This still won't necessarily prove or disprove a "need" for an MFA, because that doesn't exist. You do not need an MFA to make sculptures or paintings or installations, or to have work accepted for shows, or to win jury prizes. However, the degree show is a pretty good way of being seen by a gallery- it doesn't mean they'll take you on, but at least you'll be seen if you're at a good enough school. This is why I think that an age breakdown of gallery artists with and without MA/MFAs would be useful. It is, at its most base, a form of branding that is still relatively new to the art world, and an opportunity for those who wish to acquire one to spend 2 years honing their craft and/or learning how to talk about it- never underestimate the importance of this skill. The degree is also useful if the degree holder wishes to teach in a college/university system, because you can't do that otherwise.

    Good luck everybody.

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  17. It's funny, I've been considering going back to school to get an MFA for years, but just could't wrap my head around the perceived benefits...what are they, exactly? Yes, there seems to be a lot of talking about art that goes on in these programs. I've been told that galleries look for that MFA on the resume and if tit isn't there you're not given a thought. But, the HUGE student loan debt? I payed my BFA debt off years ago and wasn't willing to saddle myself with a bill for what surely would have been two to four times as much, at least. I just can't justify it, unless I want to teach, and I don't. Thanks for the great info!

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  19. This goes for many other disciplines across the other "arts." I got a BFA in creative writing and film, and started taking classes toward an MFA, but stopped; it was too academically-focused for me, and starting that program right out of being an undergrad, at 22, I was so burned out on school and the analytical/critical side of my schooling that I just wanted to take some time to see what was around me, and not be under any obligations to complete exercises devised by my professors in order to achieve a grade. I really needed to experience regular life, and meet and work with people much different from myself to even have a unique perspective as an artist!

    Many years later, I changed careers anyway, and am now a photographer; I did not get a BFA or an MFA in photography, either. As an adult, I couldn't afford to saddle myself with that kind of debt, and so many photography programs are so fine arts-focused that actually learning the technical and business skills I needed to succeed weren't even offered at any school, save for SVA.

    I honestly feel like if you need or want to further your skills and knowledge, it's much more cost-effective to seek out individual classes that you're interested in at schools and businesses related to your field, and to join crit groups or arts organizations to keep yourself focused on goals, and amongst other people who really take their work seriously and joyfully. I can see how MFA programs can help - in terms of keeping you on a production schedule, providing critical advice, and garnering you accomplished people to network with and help you get ahead - but it's a lucky few people who can afford to just go to school full time, not have debt, and not worry about making ends meet. If you can do that - more power to you.

    I just wish that this notion that you need a 4-year or 6-year degree in order to be "considered" in your discipline would go away; I feel bad for younger people coming up who are faced with this attitude, when we all know the work and the person are what counts.

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  20. I too have considered going back to get an MFA and still plan to do so, in conjunction with some other areas of study that are of interest to me. In the process of selecting a school I have attended a good number of info sessions and art forums and I find this statement to be incredibly accurate: "We're teaching artists to TALK about art. Anything is art as long as you can justify it using the codified language of academia. As my friend Ted says, there's no good art, no bad art, just an endless dialog about art."

    Well, I'm glad to know that it's not just me! Blah blah blah... I find all the endless dialog and intellectualizing about art quite often boring, elitist, and downright ridiculous at times! The statistics you present are encouraging. Thanks!

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  21. Enjoyed reading your arguments Jane. And I get to see the graphics (which I couldn't see from my POV). I happen to love the experience of getting my MFA degree at USC. I didn't pay a dime (full scholarship), it got me out of Tulsa, Oklahoma (thank the Lord) and I met friends and colleagues that have been in my life ever since graduation (1988).
    Maybe since I came from the sticks, the MFA in Los Angeles was more valuable, introducing me to a world I would have otherwise never known.
    But, alas, your argument made a lot of sense. Especially when I know students volunteering for the Army to pay off their student loans!

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  22. Great research, Jane! I'm really grateful for this unbiased and dilligent work and wish these facts would be published in major art magazines, so that artists, gallerists and collectors would become more informed.

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  23. Bravo, Jane!

    As an art dood who has received a Pollock Krasner, an Adolph and Esther Gottlieb award, a bunch of other smaller awards and grants, and who has shown in museums and institutions--all without incurring an ass-load of student debt--I agree wholeheartedly! The thing I missed out on (maybe) was the automatic network to curators, institutions, and so on, that a school can yield.

    Good work, Girl!

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  24. Great report! - I liked it so much that I linked it here: http://waxart.blogspot.com/2011/07/do-really-need-mfa.html

    I hope your report filters through the the art industry like a tsunami...

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  25. Whenever a young, wide-eyed, optimistic, young artist asks for my advice on what path they should follow to be successful, I give them the advice I wish I had been given when I was a young, wide-eyed, optimistic, young artist; "Go to business school!"

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  26. Thank you for the fantastic research and assessment! I have long considered getting my MFA, but beyond being unable to justify the cost versus the potential (and possibly imagined) benefits, in researching programs and going to grad students' open studios, I felt so thoroughly annoyed and disgusted with what I perceived as a trend towards overly-conceptual, non-visual, visual art, that I've arrived at my own personal decision...I'm likely going to survive just fine with my BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Why would I pay a huge amount of money to learn to make work that moves people more into their heads. The world is in need of art that makes us feel and experience things viscerally. I reject the idea that art has to have conceptual underpinnings and bring us further into our heads to be valid. If I'm considered less intelligent for thinking that art doesn't need a conceptual slant, so be it. No MFA for me, thanks.

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  27. Thanks for the research, apparently I'm hip.
    Paradoxically, the first art academies were founded just as art itself was liberated !
    i ecspected that result. Jane, you brought the Facts.

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  28. Jane, great research! It supports what I have found to be the general consensus among my artist friends. I think there was one other question you could have added to your survey and that was age of respondent. I think that could have correlated highly with ability to make a living. Thanks for a great post and congratulations on winning the debate.

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  29. What's w/ the "lack-of-content" discussion??

    Remember "13 Ways of looking at a Blackbird"?

    (poem)
    http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/stevens-13ways.html

    (essay)
    http://motopomo.wikispaces.com/file/view/13WAYS.PDF

    thanks for the info/reading/research (((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((:))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

    kas

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  30. Academic art is a genre, a bag. There is lots of it out there; that it takes up over 40% of whatever slices of pie that were evaluated is to its credit. Either it is your thing or not, I don't think value judgements work here really. I am into art and technology, which tends to be academic as "media art," "experimental film," etc. Some focus areas are developed largely by academics, some not. Whatever. What about people with a BFA. Shep Fairey has a BA in Illustration I think. Andy Warhol had a BA in design or some such. That would constitute a fair chunk of the pie. (clearly those two used what they had learned) For me, I could not function without my education in the activities with which I am engaged as an organizer, artist, writer, curator, etc. For someone else it would totally fuck them up and I would never recommend it.

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  31. Excellent article -- I wonder what the stats are for having a BFA?

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  32. art schools/mfa are just tools. they help some. they dont others. they aren't the end all be all. why people want to make silly aristotelian arguments about whether you are better off not going or going is pretty ludicrous. As if the world works in aristotelian logic.

    I guess us westerners need it to feed our big ego huh? Tools.... just like the internet. Please don't make them into anything else.

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  33. Making people without an MFA or who don't have the ability,talent to get one feel better huh? It's usualy always those who don't go to school or who have never been through an MFA.

    You don't see MFA'ers attacking non MFA'ers. That's immature.

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    1. Uhh...no, they don't attack... they just immediately dismiss them.

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  34. Thanks for an important discussion- I believe an MFA is a good thing to have as it can provide the dialogue for deeper work- However it depends on a style of work you produce- good work may not need a huge explanation and it can be seen and felt- Historically the traditional artists apprenticed and went thru 7 or 8 years of art education- Art takes a life time - We become an artist our whole life thru our consistent work ethics- Everything helps but is it necessary and worth it? I always think the more you know the better- more connections and exposure to art history is important- Picasso gave up traditional painting of academia at 12 and most of modern movement rejected tradition as taught in schools- My teacher now 90 years old taught at the Repin academy in Moscow (St Petersburg) There is a lot you can learn in school - We focus our time and effort without distractions, and it can never hurt to have exposure and connection to curators, studio space, art critics & galleries- That is certainly an advantage to someone like me who taught themselves and went to design school for BFA architecture and design but then again that is art too! Thank you for your blog- having the tools of academia- I believe it helps to have these tools especially in contemporary LA! What are your goals as an artist? Do you posses the skill and language of art in addition to technical skills? Do you have a vision? Can you divorce yourself from your followers, fans and galleries and represent your true ideas & expressions of art? Art is what you make it (It is true that if you know how to intellectualize it will help win more understanding of how it is perceived... That is an advantage in my book.

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  35. Good work need huge explanation. Everyone ca follow that. IF you are doing best in that it's advantage to everything helps us. But first thing is you have not a any data or experience in that then you can gives a better result.

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  36. An excellent discussion, but one thing I didn't see (maybe I missed it) was the number of people who got the MFA but never became artists. When I got mine (1964) the number of successful artists among graduates was about 10%. That's a pretty high waste figure. My class of 5 turned out 4 professionals, which shows the program must have been pretty good. We mostly made art and didn't talk about it much. And that was before conceptualism and other such non-art mind games.

    But the main advantage of an MFA is that it allows you to at least compete for a college teaching job, and that allows you time to make art, a solid salary, health benefits, retirement plan, AND you're in the field, talking about and making art al day, whether in class or your own studio. It's hard to sell insurance by day and switch gears to make art at night.

    In my case the MFA allowed me to have a 39 year career as a professor of sculpture, during which I made hundreds of pieces of all sorts, without having to worry about what would sell.I am now retired 8 years and very successful, making large scale (life to double life size) bronze figures for public spaces with prices often in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. I could never have done this without an MFA, since I wouldn't have been able to get that great teaching career.

    So there are multiple sides to every issue.

    And we must remember Michelangelo didn't have an MFA.

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  37. Dear Jane,

    Not all people get their MFA in order to make money, or because they think it will make them "successfull". Some people go to become a better artist.

    That's what these programs are for, and that's what they should do. They vary a great deal, some are worthless. Mine was not. I'm a hundred times better skilled artist when I walked out than when I walked in.

    Sometimes that's what matters. Not whether Gagosian's stable has artists with MFA's.

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  38. I am three semesters way from my Master of Fine Art degree in Illustration, does this make me better artist, that yet to be seen, but does one need it to be an artist no. Just the desire to create something, make someone an artist. That in its self include many forms of professions out side the MFA market. If I owned a gallery, I would want a MFA degreed person for the Art Director job. Also does these numbers include all the MFA out there? Like in film, writing, etc... or just studio artists?

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  39. Grad school is an opportunity to work and grow in a community. If you know a lot of smart people with critical skills you can engage with, then there's little benefit to earning an MFA. If you go to a school that lacks those kind of people, it's also of little benefit compared to the cost. Art school taught me how to look at and talk about my work and others' in a constructive way. These were skills that turned out to be very important for my success in the non-art world. So I can recommend an MFA for almost anyone...unless you are already a talented and hardworking artist.

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  40. If you're still reading and thinking of pursuing an M.F.A or a Ph.D in Studio Art in order to study and learn critique, analysis, methodologies, etc. used to focus, reference (by comparison or contrast) and redirect your work (when necessary) and that of your peers (if any are interested), I'd suggest pursuing it for those reasons. Michelangelo didn't have an M.F.A., but he did have access to the morgue, and therein studied the human body, which was the measure of his age. He also knew the value of a contemplative life as a balance to the active one* which in its extreme, without too much contemplation, was exemplified by Jackson Pollock.
    If you want to be successful in galleries and you don't understand business, you might go to business school.
    If you want to do/make something that has never been done/made before, you're an artist, or an inventor--make/do and think/read/listen/look, then make/do some more.
    Ideas are the measure of our age; if you share a good one well at the right time, (and a lot thereafter wouldn't hurt) you'll probably be in the art history books someday.

    *See the two figures flanking Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius.

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    1. Lucien, I think you got it right.

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