For our Back to School Summer Session, we’re taking a look at education, pedagogy, and learning in the arts from all angles—be it through work informed by school or schools of thought, investigations into the current state of academia, or resources for those interested in either self-directed or formal education. Today we bring you an article by Shannon Stratton from our friends at Temporary Art Review that seriously considers the possibilities of creating an MFA outside of the academy. This article was originally published on May 12, 2014.
A few months ago on Facebook I posted an idea I had about graduate school for visual artists. It is actually an idea I’ve had for some time, and one that seems increasingly relevant the more that is published on the arts being a career for the privileged or art schools ranking as the most expensive four-year programs in the nation. Having attended one of those expensive schools and now making (part of my living) teaching at it, I am embarrassingly familiar with the cost-benefit analysis of an education and career in the arts. In 2001 when I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I took a gamble on my future, taking nearly $70,000 in student loans to cover my two years of graduate school tuition (made a little bit more expensive by an extremely unfavorable exchange rate between the Canadian and American dollar at the time). I was 25 and had attended a visual arts college in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, that had cost considerably less. When I got into SAIC I decided that the benefit of a larger art community, access to the American visual art world, the potential of finding better teaching jobs with a degree from SAIC, and the seemingly endless list of resources the school offered were well worth the investment. I had been hammered with the “invest in your future”/”student loan debt is ‘good debt’” rhetoric, and as the first person in my family (siblings, parents, or grandparents) to go to college, let alone graduate school, I was perhaps a little too caught up in the honor of being accepted to a “top school.” With no disrespect to the quality of education I did or one might receive at SAIC, I should have been a little less flattered, a little less starry-eyed. But at 25, hopeful that I would “make it” and filled with a kind of follow-your-dreams delusion, I felt that the arts shouldn’t be a career just for the rich, and that I would make this work for me…at all costs.
This isn’t a short article on regret, but some basic things I wish I had known: the percentage of tenure-track jobs versus adjunct positions in the job market and the average rate of pay and benefits for these positions; and the significant resources state schools had in terms of faculty and opportunities.