the destroyer > the vent > Kim Largey-Soloway


America's obsession with the idea that the college degree will always get you ahead is not panning out, at least in the case of the visual arts MFA. It's essentially a pyramid scheme, trading on our aspirations and fears alike, marketing to us the things we want to hear to get us in and pay up, get us through quickly and get out. I'll be the first one to admit that I was naive to think that an MFA would solve any of my problems. I wish I had been clearer up front about what I was getting myself into professionally, emotionally, and financially. I went into my program, like so many of my peers, with grand plans to make art, get a cushy teaching gig at a university (in a bustling, lively, metro area, of course) and live out my days being appreciated by the Art World and admired by students for both my work and my inspirational teaching. I was fooling myself. A lot of people were.

Here's the truth: The odds that you will get a university level, fine arts teaching job with an MFA are not in your favor. If you do get a teaching position, it will probably take a few years and it's not going to be what you thought it would. You don't hear that for every tenured professor who retires schools are hiring one or two part-time adjuncts to replace them (tenure is a whole other topic ripe for a rant, by the way). Due to budget cuts, college and university arts and humanities programs are moving away from the tenure model and towards part-time contracting, perhaps eventually phasing out tenure all together to save money on the expenses that come with it. Out of the few of my peers who have gone beyond the MFA and into academia, both part-time and full-time, I can think of one who could qualify as actually enjoying it. Maybe. Why is teaching an optimal job for working artists and presented as more prestigious and better than other employment options? I fail to see what is so great about being abused by both established faculty and the institutions themselves, paying arts adjuncts a barely livable, slave wage.

I've heard that the draw can often be attributed to the misguided perspective that teaching is an easy gig where one shows up to class, teaches for a few hours and you're done. Oh, and summers off! The reality is that on average, one hour of class time requires 2-3 hours of prep time. You will have other obligations as well: committees, endless meetings, critiques, etc. Adjunct positions are typically semester to semester and rarely come with benefits. Sometimes they will lead to opportunities for teaching other, lower level courses at other campuses (if you do well regarding enrollment in your current classes and instructor reviews) but this is hardly a regular occurrence. The terrible economy hasn't helped, but even if it were better there would still be adjuncts struggling to make ends meet and, like one of my teaching friends, applying for delivery jobs at Pizza Hut.

There is more than one path, and not every path is suited for everyone. I have a nine-to-five that is fairly unglamorous, but it is paying back my mountain of student loan debt, however slowly. I get to leave at 5, my phone doesn't ring, and I don't have to answer emails when I'm home or in the studio. I have no grading or planning to do, or any real residual stress distracting me. I get to work on my work relatively uninterrupted. I'm not saying people should not aspire to teach and make art, because if you are passionate about teaching at the university level, I think that's awesome. But I think it is important that you know the facts beforehand. I was told that it wasn't easy before I pursued my MFA, but I wasn't told what exactly that meant and what the journey would entail. I didn't understand jobs teaching fine art at institutes of higher learning are neither easy to come by nor easy to sustain for any long period of time. It is an arduous road, and dear God, why would a talented artist such as yourself want to take that path?

If your plan is not to teach don't even bother getting your MFA. These days to get one it will cost you $25,000-$40,000, not including living expenses, and this is probably on the low end. Take a small fragment of that tuition and living expense number, do some research and think of things that could give you the same benefits as a MFA. Think along the lines of conferences, subscriptions to periodicals, journals and books, entry fees to exhibitions, residences, research trips, workshops, and memberships. All of this will cost you a fraction of the total costs to go to school. It takes a little more effort on your behalf, and there are no prescribed sign posts, but things that are worth doing rarely have these. Be creative! Isn't that why you were thinking about getting an MFA anyway? Work on your work, that's what people are going to look at. It's true that there was a time that you might not be given a show because you lacked an MFA, but this is simply not the case anymore. These days gallerists and curators don't put the same weight on where you went to school, they want to see good work and good work comes from time and effort, not a degree.

What if you get full funding for your program? That's a helpful step, but does not entirely solve your problems. I paid very little in actual tuition, but unfortunately I had pesky things like rent, utilities, material costs, food, car repairs, medical and travel expenses to pay for. There were teaching assistantships which paid a small stipend and gave me "valuable" teaching experience. However, it hardly covered my expenses, so that meant I had to get an additional part-time job. Between grading, classes and a part-time job, I was working well over full-time hours not including trying to get some studio time in. And my income still did not cover everything, meaning I had to take out loans. In retrospect I would have been much better off working one, full-time job, forgoing the student teaching (which really only exists to save a school money because they can pay you even less than adjuncts), and finding a program that would support part-time attendance. Graduate school does not negate the real world or any real life stuff that comes with it, but you are told that this does and should be possible. The notion that art making can and should be separate from our everyday lives is an illusion. It is an unsustainable and bourgeois notion.

MFA programs are not geared to nurture true creativity. If anything, many aspects of these programs have the opposite effect; students turn out cookie cutter, boring, unchallenging work. Let's face it: how many pedantic or masturbatory pieces have we seen from people who went to top MFA programs? I've seen at least two of my friends enter programs as working artists making fantastic stuff, only to leave 2-3 years later making drab, uninspiring, lifeless work. Too many voices and too much theory made them not trust their own judgment. It's kind of sad. You can't expect a degree to make you creative. Remember, most of history's most well known artists had no MFA and had little, if any, institutional training. Art is about exploring the uncharted in new and exciting ways. Following rules and established curriculum to get you to some creative end doesn't even make sense. MFA programs are the new Academy and they exist to make someone else money.

I'm not being cynical or mean, I'm being honest. I learned a lot about what not to do when getting an MFA and these were valuable, hard life lessons. I gained huge insight from all of the stupid mistakes I made. I got my MFA because I was scared and I went into it buying the illusion. I didn't plan on my experience creating a whole host of other problems for me, most of which are financial. The other sad fact is that I really enjoy teaching, but the existing structure doesn't support my basic needs. There are so many amazing teachers out there who just can't afford to teach. Give yourself some options and diversify your skills. There are some people who have been helped by getting an MFA, but statistically, you won't be one of them.