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The Price to Pay: Artists Weigh in on Getting an MFA

We talked to two painters, a sculptor and a sound artist about navigating the New York art scene, with or without a master's degree.
Gregory Hayes, Untitled (GTDp), Detail, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the Nancy Margolis Gallery.

For any artist, two years of uninterrupted work among an engaging community of mentors and peers can be a dream come true—but when the dream comes with a price tag oft exceeding $30,000 a year, it calls for careful deliberation. There's no question that if your sights are set on teaching at the college level, getting an MFA is non-negotiable. Those who aren't so interested in teaching, however, are left to decide if the personal and professional gains are worth the cost.


Ultimately, the right path, if there is one, will vary for everyone. To help us see a little clearer, we asked around for individual stories. Below, four New York-based artists take stock of their academic choices, and reflect on how these have impacted their artistic practices thus far.

First up: 35-year-old painter Gregory Hayes, who received his MFA in Drawing & Painting in 2011 from The City University of New York, Brooklyn College. Hayes currently supports himself fully with his practice, with his second solo show coming up this September at Nancy Margolis Gallery.

The Creators Project: You graduated from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in 2006, three years before starting your graduate program in New York. What were you up to during this time?

Gregory Hayes: I was a professional snowboarder and coach, and lived mostly in Colorado. The last year before moving to NYC, I built houses and did remodeling work as a carpenter. That was also the year I faded out of the snowboard world and made a much bigger commitment to my art. I was represented by Rule Gallery in Denver at the time, after the gallery owner saw my early drip paintings while I was an undergrad.

What were your primary motivations for going to graduate school?

I wanted a change. I was confident in my art practice and had a pretty solid idea of the trajectory for my artwork, but I felt Denver was limiting. I wanted more and thought it to be in New York. I was just hoping to plug myself into the NYC art world and see if I could survive. I wanted to make my art for a living and thought school might improve my chances. So I just jumped and hoped for a good landing. The reality is, grad school happens so fast. By the time I felt settled I had to leave.


Do you feel like the MFA helped with your career?

It's interesting, because the more I slide into the "professional art world," the less and less people care about my education. In a way, I don't care about it either now. I did it because I thought it was my only option… Now I see it much differently. But the time and space really helped me advance what I was working on.

How did you pay for graduate school?

I grew up in Buffalo, so I was a New York resident. The in-state tuition was key. I only applied to Brooklyn College because I could only afford one application fee. I paid for school with government loans.

Do you feel like there is a difference in the quality of public versus private graduate education?

The private grad schools were so highly priced it was intimidating. I'm not sure the quality is better when it comes to faculty. My professors at Brooklyn College were very talented and knowledgeable. I owe a lot to Vito Acconci who teaches there. And my studio was huge, with 24-hour access. Though I've heard about the facilities at other private schools and they sounded far superior.

Do you think an MFA is necessary to succeed in the art world?

I don't think going to school makes you a better artist. I think you get better if you keep working, learn about yourself and what you are doing, and keep making, no matter where you are. If there is a level of commercial success you wish to achieve, it's more about being active in your art community, going to see art and talking with other artists. Then, I think, if you are doing something interesting, people will notice. But I don't want to be down on education. I think if you can find away to lower your costs or cover tuition fully, it's not going to hurt you.


Next up, Diane Carr, 41 years of age, and 2002 graduate of the School of Visual Arts MFA program.

The Creators Project: What drove you towards graduate school?

Diane Carr: After graduating with an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from American University in Washington, DC, I felt that I needed the time to focus exclusively on my studio work. At the time, I thought that being enrolled in an MFA program was the best way to do this. I had never attended an art school and was looking for an environment where I would be surrounded by people who shared my interests.

Did you apply more than once? Which criteria did you consider?

I did apply more than once. The first year, I applied to Columbia only. The second year I applied to two more programs and chose to attend the Pratt MFA program. I studied at Pratt for one semester and felt like it wasn't the right fit for me, so I stopped going, worked on my own again, and then applied the following year and chose to attend SVA. I was looking for a school in New York that wasn't too large, one that had artists in the faculty whose work I related to, and one that provided individual studio spaces to each student.

How did your original vision of the MFA program compare to reality?

I used the two years to experiment. So even though I considered myself a painter, I actually made sculpture for my two years of graduate school. In hindsight, maybe it would have made more sense to use the time to really focus on one aspect of my work, but that's not what happened.


All in all, what did you get out of the program?

The graduate program provided me with two years of uninterrupted time in which to focus on making art. The artists and students that I studied with made the program worthwhile to me.

How did you pay for school?

By working as a freelance copy editor while in the program, and also with loans.

Do you currently support yourself with your artistic practice?

Recently my studio practice has provided roughly half of my income. This varies from year to year.

Do you think an MFA is necessary to succeed in the art world?

I don't. I think the programs serve a purpose. It's one path to figuring out your own work and how you fit into the larger scheme of things. It seems that there are plenty of other valid ways to achieve the same thing, especially if one is already making work in a city like New York or LA.

Ranjit Bhatnagar, Stone Song. 2014 installation at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. Video by Caryn Waechter.

Next up is Ranjit Bhatnagar, a 46-year-old sound artist who maintains an active practice with no formal academic training in art.

The Creators Project: What's your academic background? Were you making art in school?

Ranjit Bhatnagar: I went straight from undergrad at UC Berkeley into grad school for engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. I was on the academic track in engineering: BA to PhD to postdoc to professor or industry. I discovered that I wasn't good at the academic track, and was fortunate to escape with a masters degree. I had no thoughts of an art career at the time. I had a show of visual art and a few tape pieces in concert in my senior year, but they seemed like a diversion at the time.


All in all, what did you get out of your graduate program in engineering?

I was exposed to a lot of fascinating ideas and techniques in math, linguistics, and cognitive science that I have used in day jobs and in my art practice, but that has no relation to my goals back then.

How have you since gone about navigating the art world?

Mostly by accident. I've engaged much more with nonprofit galleries, festivals, and unusual institutions like Flux Factory than with commercial galleries, museums, art fairs, or the rest of the mainstream "Art+Money" world.

My work also overlaps quite a lot with the community of experimental music and contemporary classical music (New Music), which—being on the performing arts side—has a very different feel from the world of exhibited art. NYC has great low-budget, grassroots communities in both those worlds.

Do you currently support yourself with your artistic practice?

In the last eight years or so since I gave up my day job, my income has varied from about 10 to 80 percent art (commissions, festival and exhibition fees, speaking fees), with the rest being from commercial consulting that often has at least a little bit of overlap with my art practice.

Do you think your art career would have gone differently or more smoothly with an MFA?

I'm sure that the connections, learning how to navigate the art world, etc. would have been helpful. I've slowly built up a network of personal and institutional connections which I imagine would have been given a boost in the incubator environment of an MFA program.


Last but not least, we caught up with sculptor Esther Ruiz, who is just 28 and has managed to exhibit widely without an MFA. She holds a BA in Studio Art from Rhodes College in Tennessee and lives in Brooklyn.

The Creators Project: What has your strategy been for getting your work out there and navigating the art world?

Esther Ruiz: I just keep an active social life which includes going to a lot of openings and meeting a lot of people. And then there's always social media… I post studio shots quite frequently on Instagram and keep my Facebook events linked to my calendar so I know when openings are happening. Is that a strategy? Maybe you could say that.

Do you currently support yourself with your artistic practice?

While I have been selling exponentially over the past few years, it doesn't cover my cost of living. It barely covers the cost of having a studio and buying materials. I maintain a full-time job and sculpture sales are less than ten percent of my income.

Do you feel like not having an MFA has limited your opportunities in any way?

Not really. I think about maybe teaching later in life when I have enough experience to share with others, but right now I feel like things have been going well without an MFA. A lot of my artist friends with MFAs tell me I don't need one…

Yet you're still considering grad school?

Yes, I am. I really just want to go. I want to be immersed in the studio and rigorously pushed by my peers and professors on a regular basis. I've always loved school; I love feeling overwhelmed by the demand to learn and grow. But as an artist, an MFA doesn't guarantee anything and it's so expensive. I also feel like I'd lose momentum on what's happening with me in the studio right now.


Any other thoughts you'd like to share regarding MFAs or academia in general?

One of the most surprising things I've noticed while being out of school is the number of MFA-holding artists that don't have basic hands-on skills. I think every painter should know how to build stretcher bars and stretch their own canvases. And every sculptor should know how to use a drill. If you choose not to do so after schooling, that's fine, but one shouldn't go through a Master of Arts education without these basic skills.

What's your take on fine art graduate programs? Tell us about it in the comments.


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