Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Finances: What We Aren’t Supposed to Mention

I’m taking a brief break from discussing studio practices to talk about the thing I wish didn’t matter in art-making but certainly does: Money. Because it matters, and because I value my art practice very much, I’m breaking up with the MFA. I bring this up because grad school is obviously crazy expensive. My hope is that post-college artists from any background—people with studio/life experience that stands in as a BFA, people with limited resources, anyone!—can make their own MFA experience if that’s their thing. I believe it’s possible to access the components that make a quality visual arts graduate education, and it can be had for free. This MFA won’t exactly duplicate an art school or art department MFA, but I’m working from the assumption that it can be approximated, depending on what I want out of it. There are all sorts of pressures, broadly cultural ones & specific conversational ones, that keep people from talking about money. But the MFA conversation can’t happen without addressing it.
Ruiz-Kim, “Redacted”, 2010 
gold leaf on redacted text from
New York Times art market column
Sep 2010

Artists’ stories like the ones in Living and Sustaining a Creative Life remind me how artists all over are really just piecing together the art + life experience, day after day, year after year. It’s a book I first read last year and I’m coming back to it again. I met the editor, Sharon Louden, last summer at the International Encaustic Conference. I’ve also met several of the artists featured, via social media and/or in-real-life. The more I listen to artists as they talk plainly about how they actually live, sharing generously about the ups and downs of this thing, the less alone I feel. I am committed to blogging this self-directed program of mine, being as clear as I can about my resources so that there aren’t unknowns, so other people are enabled to construct their experience out of whatever resources are available to them. I’m sharing my free graduate art school education experience here. This is my Studio MFA.

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MFAs range in cost from $30K to $70K. I don’t have that kind of money. My household income is too high to qualify for need-based grants. Even if I had grants, I wouldn’t have enough to pay the balance of what’s left of the tuition, along with the associated costs (supplies, after-school childcare x two) without taking loans. Student loans would permanently change my creative life; it would take me years to pay back the money. When artists don’t have money to spare it doesn’t just dry up options about what to make because of lack of access or supplies; it takes up actual psychic energy that would otherwise be invested in art-making.
exMFA.StrattonThe Studio MFA expenses won’t be much more than what I already spend on my practice. By taking into account all I like about an MFA program, I can craft an education that’s perfectly fitted to my needs, while avoiding more debt. The only new MFA cost would be possible fees paid to committed tutors/mentors, if I choose to consult via contract with an established artist. The costs I pay already are: studio rent, supplies, books, some travel, and occasional non-college artist classes. Now that I’m working at this MFA, my current “take it a day at a time” plan, I seek to dig deeper and really plug into the art community where I live here in the San Francisco Bay Area– that’s definitely a piece that’s been missing.
I don’t expect to waste energy worrying about money on this Studio MFA experience since I already have enough money to support my art practice. I have middle-class financial resources with money, time, and the extra help that comes with that. (I really don’t like being this specific but it’s worth telling for full disclosure’s sake.) My spouse works a full-time, flexible, stable job; it covers all our expenses. My day-job is being the at-home parent to two children. We have good health insurance, without which both my youngest son and I would struggle. We have some funds for travel and we have the financial freedom to make choices.
I’d be a very different artist if I had different circumstances. Without the resources I have, my art life would be slower. I know I’d feel small compared with what I’d wish I could be doing (because I remember what it felt like to work less at my studio practice when I had less resources). But it wouldn’t be any less important to me. It would take more grit to keep it going, but I’d work at it anyway. Still, I’d invest time, effort, energy, and desire into my art practice, no matter what resources I had, despite the slowness, despite the smallness.
Choosing to remove an accredited MFA from my plans as an artist acknowledges my reality. When I spoke last year to grad school administrators, both of them questioned my commitment to my practice if I didn’t consider myself worth the investment of an MFA degree. Obviously, I know I’m worth it. Choosing my own path isn’t devaluing my art practice. It’s a practical understanding that: education is getting more and more expensive, an MFA doesn’t lead to a higher career income (but gives me debt), and I have two children that will need undergraduate education funds in 10-15 years. I don’t live in a bubble. I know money funds are finite.
I don’t need an accredited MFA, because I don’t plan to be a college level art teacher. There are not enough of those positions to go around anyway. And I don’t have the internal energy to teach, be an artist, a parent, and a human. I’m not that kind of artist. Besides, colleges are paying less and less for professors, hiring adjuncts, keeping them poor, so why would I make myself poor (going into debt to get an MFA) in order to be poorer? There are a set number of available art teaching positions at the graduate level. Most current professors aren’t in a rush to retire. The existing art professors will still have plenty of students even if more artists rebel and hack their own education. So I’m not worried about art teachers losing enrolled college students; I just don’t plan on being one of them.
exMFA.MooreAs an artist, I think about creative output vs wage compensation because the jobs I have experience with wouldn’t pay enough to make the costs worth it. It would either be very little money for moderate time/energy output (part-time art teacher or part-time office assistant), or slightly more money for intense time/energy output (full-time art teacher or full-time office administrator). Working a job isn’t worth it in my case. I’m not trying to get rich as an artist by any means. I’m letting my life be rich. As I consider how to think about my art practice vs income, I think about the art practices of teaching artists. I believe there are more options for income streams as we each seek to find financial models that support our creative work.
Are college artist-teachers fairly compensated? Private art schools charge, say, $1,859 per graduate class unit; if it’s a three-unit class, and there are ten students (I admit I don’t know average units & numbers of students)… that’s $55,770 in tuition going to that class. How much is going to that artist teacher? For how much of their time––3 hrs a week for 20ish weeks–not including out of class time–for attention/energy spread out to ten people? I know the school has overhead. Is it possible, instead, for one “student” artist (not enrolled in any program, but, say, doing a Studio MFA like my plan here) to independently pay this artist teacher more per hour via a better model? While it wouldn’t provide health insurance or job security :(, maybe for some working artists out there, it could help ends meet without a large time commitment, leaving more time for the studio.
This Studio MFA is my two-year plan to supercharge the energy I already devote to my work. I make the most of all my available time. I don’t need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get myself to learn how to be an artist, have a studio practice, get quality studio time or make connections with artists in my community. There are so many resources (especially now online but many books, too) to learn the professional aspects of being an artist. Any radically committed artist can do this without life-sucking debt. I already do this, and to whatever extent I need to do it better, I will do it for free.
Being an artist is who I am. I will do what I do as an artist whether or not it gets seen, whether or not anyone notices. I’m not doing this Studio MFA for proof of anything to anyone. I’m doing it for me, to answer questions, to push myself. It’s what I want.
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exMFA.SyjucoI hope that as I go along, I start finding more artists who are also working to approximate an MFA experience, be it by following this Studio MFA or in whatever form works for them. Already, one of my best friends/colleagues, Laura Isaac, has seen the Studio MFA as a way towards more accountability and community in her practice. She has an ongoing 10,000 Hours project that explores the ways we pursue mastery both in institutionalized/charted paths as well as more hacker-style methods (like this Studio MFA!), so this seems to fit right in with her work. As more people join us, I hope the sense of community supports us all. We’re gonna use the hashtag #StudioMFA (originally the hashtag was #exMFA but I changed the name) when we tweet about it… although… well, I’ve been lame on twitter for a while, but maybe that will change.
I’d be thrilled if this little thing I’m doing enables more artists to figure out a working path for their art life. I want more artists to get their best work seen and get their voices into the art conversation. I want people who can’t afford an MFA to hack their own graduate degree, finishing debt-free after two years of self-directed Studio MFA work. I want to create a path to bypass the MFA, enabling a broad spectrum of diverse voices to join and change the art conversation. If any of this happened and if my documented Studio MFA here had anything to do with it… well, I’d be a very happy artist indeed. 🙂



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