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MFA: Money, Future, Art?

Debating the Merits of an Artistic Education

I’ll be honest. I moved to New York City with the romantic hope of becoming a published writer. Cue the eye rolls.

People’s reactions to my dream range from downright discouragment to a pause and quick “That’s...great for you.” But we aspiring writers aren’t stupid—we know how hard it is.

Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding has just compiled and edited a collection of essays titled MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. The book discusses the two “cultures” of the American literary landscape: the university Master of Fine Arts program and the NYC publishing world.

Harbach’s book is just the latest voice in a crowd of critics questioning the merits of MFA programs for artists of all mediums — literary, visual, and theatrical arts. The book, which will be released next week, discusses whether anyone truly needs an MFA, and whether it is worth the exorbitant cost.

An MFA is a two to three year creative graduate degree awarded in fields of study like visual arts, creative writing, graphic design, photography, filmmaking, dance, theater, and other performing arts. Coursework is focused on application of artistic techniques and performance, and MFAs are often required for university-level teaching jobs in the art world.

However, as Harbach’s book explores, there are numerous advantages and disadvantages to the MFA program, hence the split in opinions over its worth.

For instance, Sara Yoon, a first-year fine arts student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), is interested in pursuing an MFA because she wants to “explore deeper areas of art and expand my knowledge of art.”

But one year of tuition for an MFA in visual arts at the Columbia University School of the Arts is $51,676, housing and supplies not included. Other NYC art school programs are no exception, with the School of Visual Arts charging about $37,580 in tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year, plus an estimated $2,700 in supplies. Of course, these costs come after four years of undergraduate degrees with similar prices.

But for Yoon, the financial drawbacks don’t outweigh her interest. She explains, “a lot of my colleagues and professors have held similar discussions as to whether an MFA is worth it or not; we always seem to conclude that no one can really put a price tag that correctly defines ‘the worth’ of an education to better our understanding of art.”

However, not all are on board with Yoon. Seoyoung Kim, a first year fine arts student at SVA, says an MFA isn’t worth it.

“The very bottom line is always the work. An MFA course may help young artists develop their work, but it’s not worth it. Higher education does not necessarily mean gallery success,” Kim says.

Yet Kim simultaneously recognizes the alluring image of the degree—that it could enhance one’s résumé, explaining, “some people may take an MFA program just to build up their background.”

Victoria Loustalot, who graduated with an MFA in creative non-fiction from Columbia School of the Arts in 2010, says that the MFA helped her grow as a writer and gave her the opportunity to work on her first book, This is How You Say Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir, which was published last year.

However, Loustalot recognizes that MFA programs aren’t for everyone, especially given the cost. She mentions, “I tell people that if you have to pay for it, it’s not worth it. I had a positive experience, but I don’t necessarily think that an MFA is the right decision for every writer.”

Loustalot instead stresses the importance of knowing oneself and having specific goals in mind before entering an MFA program. “The better you know yourself, the better resource an MFA can be for you,” she says. “In no way, shape, or form do I believe that an MFA is necessary. You certainly do not need it to be a writer, but I found that it really helped me focus my goal.”

An ironic criticism of MFA programs is that many students struggle to find steady work after graduating. But Loustalot believes the programs are not to blame.

“We’ve chosen careers as writers. That’s a foolhardy prospect,” she says. “Never for a moment did I go into an MFA program because I thought it was going to be my key to success. Choosing a creative path is a long, hard road.”

Carol Becker, the Dean of Faculty of the Columbia School of the Arts, agrees. “Artists never thought they would have jobs,” she says. “They have to invent the world that they’re going out into. People have to be incredibly entrepreneurial and inventive in their own right to be successful in those worlds. They’re difficult worlds to succeed in.”

Both Becker and Loustalot acknowledge that many artists and writers find success without an MFA degree. Yet, Becker stresses that an MFA in visual arts fulfills its job in equipping students with the proper tools to master their chosen medium. As she put it, “[MFA programs] are very connected to the production of new art and new culture in the world. They help people learn how to go out and be professional artists.”

The question of an MFA degree’s worth has no simple answer: Ultimately, it’s a personal rather than a professional question. As Loustalot says, “there is no silver bullet for publishing success. If there were, we’d all be doing it. I think that an MFA program can be one tool in your toolbox that can help you along the way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the School of Visual Arts charges $57,300 per year. In fact, SVA's tuition is $37,580 plus an estimated $2,700 in supplies. The Eye regrets the error.

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