Husky Pride, Denied: Where Have All the MFAs Gone?
Over the last few weeks, local artist, writer and Cornish alum Sharon Arnold has been blogging extensively about the Cornish BFA show: her expectations, her hopes, and her reactions to the latest crop of graduates from Seattle’s only dedicated art college. Well, I guess it’s my turn. The University of Washington MFA exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery opens on May 22, and my own mixed emotions about my illustrious alma mater have reared their hydralike heads.
A couple of months ago, I received a telemarketing call from the UW Alumni Association. The girl on the phone just wanted a simple cash donation. Instead she got an unsolicited earful about my hard luck story. Specifically, that I still owe several thousand dollars in student loans (a sum that would be much higher if not for an untimely inheritance) for a degree from a department that closed down while I was in it.
That’s right. I’m one of the last two human beings in the world to have received an MFA in Printmaking from the University of Washington. For a long time I let that bother me quite a bit. After a while, I was able to laugh it off, thinking I was over it. Until they had the gall to ask me for more money. Turns out, I still have some issues to work through.
The current MFA class has 13 candidates from four programs: Ceramics, Painting, Photography and Fibers. In 2005, my class had 22 candidates from eight programs. In the intervening four years, it looks like Metals, Sculpture, Printmaking and “Visual Communication Design” (a program whose inclusion in the MFA show I always found perplexing; their contributions always looked more like science fair projects or marketing kiosks than art objects) have all lost their MFA programs. I don’t know about all the causes and politics, but I know that in the case of the Printmaking department, a variety of factors seemed to be involved. One was a shift in the undergraduate curriculum from an emphasis on majors in individual craft-based disciplines to a broader “Interdisciplinary Visual Arts” degree that made it easier and more effective, from an administrative standpoint, to crank out graduates by streamlining graduation requirements. Other factors were political, involving the inability of faculty members and administrators to reach compromises that may have staved off the department’s demise. But I think the main reason (and this is something that is still going on, no doubt) is an overarching paradigm shift in visual arts education that is, perhaps, rendering many of the old disciplinary categories obsolete; or at least blurring the distinctions between them.
If you want to learn about printmaking in Seattle, you still have several options. Cornish, Pratt, Sev Shoon, and other schools offer a variety of both degree and non-degree based courses. Organizations like Seattle Print Arts and PrintZero Studios foster community involvement and dialogue about print arts. But if you want to get an MFA in this city, the University of Washington is the only game in town and the school’s obvious strengths are figurative painting, photography, and an eccentric ceramics program known for turning out highly conceptual artists who seldom work with clay.
That said, I’m not sure that paring the school’s offerings down to its strongest programs is a bad thing. It certainly stung some people while it was happening, and it definitely cuts down the number and variety of local MFA grads infusing Seattle’s art scene, but, as Regina Hackett asked about a month ago, how necessary are MFAs? More specifically, now that the UW’s MFA class has shrunk by nearly half in less than half a decade, how much do we actually miss all those the extra graduates?
The reality is that those who have survived the curriculum cutbacks will be emerging as debt-saddled artists during one of the bleakest economic times in our country’s history. The MFA exhibition, which opens next Friday, May 22 at the Henry Art Gallery, will be their first chance to show us they’ve got what it takes to make it work. Do they have it? Will it all be worth it? There are no simple answers to these questions, but the questions are unavoidable. What do you think?