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Art School – Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

By Humboldt Magnussen

I keep on thinking about how long of a road is ahead of art students, considering that it takes four to five years for an undergraduate degree, and then the pressure will be on to go to grad school to complete an MFA for another two years. And then perhaps a PHD might be the next step. I was 17 when I went to my first university level art class and I was told to paint a vase and a single red flower beside it. Looking back at that experience it is hard to believe that here I am 9 years later still creating art. It took me a while to get any good, and it may even take me several more years before I start to make a big impact in the art world. 

 I am not sure if I knew how much work it really took to be an artist back when I was just starting out, or whether knowing that now, if the time spent was worth it.   If you are in your first year of art school, or even if you are starting out as self-trained your journey from art student to respected artist will feel like it takes forever, and in some cases might never happen.  Around this time of year people are applying for undergrad and masters programs in Fine Art (you can see the posters for OCAD University “Here, Overactive Imaginations are a Good Thing” all over the city).  But should you go to art school?   Or go back and get an MFA? 

 It’s a difficult question; I was talking to my friend who is doing his Masters in Counselling Psychology, which will give him accreditation to be a counsellor.  His profession is protected with boards and regulations that state that you can’t practice unless you have this education.  Well with art, the term artist is not protected; you can call yourself an artist if you want.  Having a BFA or MFA is a title that does not always carry a lot of weight, in my program a professor stated that these days, “An MFA is as common as dirt.”  But just because it is common does not make it useless.  I am in the final stretch of my MFA program, and I have come to view an MFA as a passport.  It gives me a bit more access to art opportunities and it has opened doors.   At the same time, it is a very expensive passport. I knew that going in. I was very informed about what an MFA was like: how much work it is, the cost, and the pressure.  But I wanted it, and no one would have been able to convince me otherwise. My favourite artists had MFAs so I was going to do it to.


Now, I tell everyone not to do a Master’s, and instead to figure out a better way to spend all that money.  That being said my favourite part of my program is the cohort that I go to school with, there are 13 of us and over the past two years we have gotten very close.  Having those people around to bounce ideas off and to share in the misery of school is comforting and a valuable experience. Also during an MFA you are insulated, you have dedicated time to produce your work, get a bit a validation, have a couple of shows, and develop a community around you.  These are things that are difficult to find once you are out of school.  But an MFA is not necessarily a short cut on your journey to become an established artist. It is a valuable education, but at the end of it you are not necessarily going to be better off in your career.  

 Since I am almost out of the program I will give you some hints on good questions to ask a potential MFA program.  How big are studios? Are they shared? Do you have 24-hour access? Access and space are big ones, because you will find that there are several programs where you have massive studios, but you can’t assume that that is always the case. In my first year I had a desk in a large shared room with access to another area to make my work.  Also, are you allowed to work with your chosen materials in your studio – if your studio does not have ventilation, it might be difficult to be an oil painter or work with some glues for sculpture.  What are the alumni from your program doing now?  If the school knows and can name specific alumni doing great projects this is a good sign that the school is invested in their students even after they graduate. What are other costs associated with going to the school outside of the cost of tuition?  In a lot of cases you will be expected to pay added costs for things like late registration fees, fees to graduate, bind your thesis, and pricey textbooks, costs that all add up to a lot of money.   How important is the written thesis document? This a huge variable between grad schools, where at some schools, support papers are two pages whereas others are 50 to 100.  That is a huge difference, so if you are going to a Master’s to focus on producing work you don’t necessarily want to also have to write a large paper that will take up a lot of your time. Also with your thesis show it is good to check if the school has connections to outside galleries and how much money they will give individual students in support of a thesis show happening outside the designated gallery.  Thesis shows are a huge expense, and renting a gallery in Toronto can cost you a thousand dollars just for the space. Also it’s hard to find a space when your thesis show has to be completed in a very narrow deadline, and having to go into the summer months means more tuition. 

 I was recently in Regina for an art festival and I met other graduate students at different programs throughout the country and we all had similar issues with expensive tuition, empty promises, and confusion about why we were paying summer tuition.  Many of us experienced similar situations where we were paying tuition during the summer despite lack of access to facilities and faculty.  Of course it depends on where you go, and I know people that love their program, who managed to get 17 thousand dollars in grants to complete their program, and have a job lined up after school. But of course, that is the exception not the rule.  In the end going to art school could be the best decision you ever made. I value a lot of my experiences and eye opening conversations with professors. Then again, following the well-paved path of completing a BFA, then an MFA is not the only road to become an established artist.