Get Visual is the proud recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Monday, March 2, 2009

Whereto the MFA programs?

Ever since the recession became a firm reality, people have been talking about the value of the "secure" occupations that provide a lot of jobs in our area, making it somewhat recession-proof: government, health care, and education. But it's starting to look like the latter sector, outside of union-protected public-school jobs, may not be so secure anymore.

My aunt, who has had a long career as a visual artist and workshop teacher in Dutchess County, told me the other day that she had returned part-time to nursing. Surprised, I asked why. She said, Well, nobody's enrolling for my classes anymore. And I said, Oh, the recession! I wouldn't have thought that her students at the Garrison Arts Center or Women's Studio Workshop were suddenly short of cash, but that seems to be the case.

That's nothing, though, she went on. My friends who teach in the art department at Bard College don't have students now, either - they've all dropped out. Another moment of enlightenment for me: The parents' investments have plummeted and they can't afford the high tuition at fancy schools like Bard.

So, a few days later I asked a friend of mine who works at Skidmore what the scene there is like (figuring it's probably similar to Bard) and she said, Oh yeah, the school is working hard to get kids to apply for financial aid before they drop out - after all, some tuition is better for the college than none. In other words, the college can't suddenly replace these potential financial mid-year dropouts with full-paying students on such short notice, so they're willing to deal.

To all this, I have a few thoughts to add. My first reaction was to sort of nod knowingly and spout, almost gleefully, Well, it's about time they lowered tuition - it couldn't keep up at this pace forever. But of course I know that even the most expensive schools operate at a deficit in terms of tuition, so it's not that simple.

Then I began thinking about the schools that would eventually close, because if students can't afford to go, there will be less demand, and shrinkage will be a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the schools that are a better value, such as state schools and lower-priced private schools, could experience increased demand, may very well increase tuition, and also very likely will become better schools (hence, more desirable) because they will attract more qualified students who will expect more from faculty and will challenge each other to higher achievement.

And overblown, overpriced institutions will have a new form of competition.

So, what of the nearly countless MFA programs that have sprung up around the nation (and the Capital Region) over the past two or three decades? It's hard for me to imagine that demand will keep up - after all, those degrees didn't necessarily lead to good-paying jobs in better times, and they sure won't do that now - and as demand for MFAs decreases, so will the very jobs they lead to (i.e. teaching the next generation of MFAs), in a never-ending downward spiral. The snake may be forced to take its tail out of its mouth and slink off to another sector looking for a more secure career.

Still, a certain dedicated few will pursue a career in art no matter what; this could become a healthy shaking-out period, in which the ones who go to grad school because they don't know what else to do or to stave off for a couple of years their almost certain departure from artmaking will skip that phase altogether and only the dedicated few will remain. This could considerably improve the quality of art made by MFAs, a development I wouldn't lament. And the reduced number of higher quality artists coming out of these programs year after year may even find themselves more employable again as the competition thins.

I hate to think of entire colleges going under, and I am acutely aware of how much the local schools - big and small, private and public - provide in the form of jobs in the arts and a fresh annual crop of graduating artists to fuel our scene. But I also wonder just how many such schools, and how many artists, we really need. I like quantity, but I prefer quality.

Will the recession potentially deliver us less of one and more of the other?


N. Sukumar said...

It is happening in the sciences too; just replace MFA with Ph.D. For generations professors have endeavored to pump up graduate enrollment, often importing cheap labor from other countries, in order to generate data for more papers and yet more grant applications and, of course, more Ph.Ds -- who are trained to produce more papers and even more Ph.Ds. I hate to sound like a free-marketer, but ultimately the "market" will set the demand for both MFAs and Ph.Ds.

Anonymous said...


I think you are right on the money here. I am hoping current financial conditions have the effect forcing the issue of personal intent. Why in the world would someone seek higher education in the arts? One would best have a clear reason for embarking down such a path, right? I think the path of wayward, non-committed, academic exploration is a luxury most will not be able to afford. We will see a shrinkage in the number of students who sort of fall into the arts because they don't know what else to do. Hopefully their seats will be filled by those who choose art because it is their imperative.