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.

Alice Case. Studio Fold. 2009 MFA candidate, University of Washington

Alice Case. Studio Fold. 2009 MFA candidate, University of Washington

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?

~ by emilypothast on May 15, 2009.

6 Responses to “Husky Pride, Denied: Where Have All the MFAs Gone?”

  1. Two things get me spitting-mad.

    1] the suggestion/pressure/inclination for artists to strive for expensive and elitist terminal degrees to advance in a career which is supposedly less about ladders and more about personal growth.

    2] Seattle has only one option for such a pursuit.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for academia. I love to learn, I’m in love with theory beyond reason (semiotics rule!<–my next t-shirt), I dream about art history. And what I miss most of all is the idea of academic art studio as incubator/science lab for process and ideas. But these aren’t inaccessible things.

    I think it should be brought to the forefront of the art “industry” that equally valid types of exploration and resume building can be found in other ways such as artist residencies or entrepreneurship.

    I’d also like to see fewer artists fall prey to the system and find a way to insert their own system-within-a-system. Kick some shit. Etc.

    Unfortunately, we live in a society where a BFA is the new high-school diploma, and as much as I want to kick shit I feel pressure to get my own MFA before I’m 40. Time’s running out. I guess I’m spitting-mad about three things.

  2. The tension between your (1) and (2) are hilarious.

    If I had it to do over again, I’d probably still get an MFA, but not the one I got when and where I got it. Back then, with only a BFA from a backwater Texas college and the vague idea that I wanted to do something “more”, I definitely wasn’t equipped or prepared to self-motivate to make the most of my grad school experience. (Add to that the collapsing morale of a program that’s being dismantled around you!) If someone gave me the time and freedom of a graduate program now that I have a much better idea of what I’m interested in and what kinds of things I want to be making, I would get a lot more out of it. So my advice to those who would take the plunge is that a little maturity goes a long way. Undergraduate degrees may be for kids, but if you’re gonna get anything out of grad school, you really need to be an adult.

    That said, I’m actually pretty happy with where I’m at right now, and since I had to go through all that to get here, I really wouldn’t change a thing.

    • A dash of salt for your UW wounds? You forgot to mention that you are one of the last of two human beings to receive your MFA from the now defunct UW School of Art’s Printmaking program that was, for all intents and purposes, run by a beautiful and larger-than-life human being called Larry Sommers… who has now passed on. Double whammy. As you and I have always agreed, our grad school education came not from UW faculty, but from the esteemed Larry Sommers who is now in heaven necking with Joan of Arc.

  3. It’s true, the maturity is key. In many ways, I’m glad that I didn’t get my MFA until later on for the same reason. I knew what I wanted, and maybe in some ways I approached my undergrad education as if it were an MFA.

    I think if I had the chance and a quarter of the debt (from undergrad), I would feel much less resentful. As it is, the inaccessible nature of MFAs along with the elitist pressure to have one are my biggest obstacles. Oh and apparently, the dwindling existence of the only option in the city. Harumph.

    (the tension between 1 and 2 being oh so real)

  4. Er, that should read that I’m glad I didn’t get my B with a capital BFA. I don’t have my MFA. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a reason to yell so loud.

    So many letters!

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