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Art School: Do you need a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree to be successful in the art world? Gallery owners know better

by Brian Sherwin on 8/19/2011 1:43:33 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

The debate over whether or not a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree is a necessity for exhibiting artists has been on-going -- and often involves passionate opinions from both sides of the aisle. Due to the state of the economy this classic debate has been fueled once again -- and there is a lot of information to gather from the flames. The question, "Is an MFA necessary to be a successful artist?" opens a plethora of counter-questions. For example, "Is it necessary for an artist to take on massive debt -- by attending art school -- in order to have a chance at success?". I am of the opinion that an MFA degree does not exactly pave the way for success as an artist -- a recent study confirms that.


I recently stumbled on some MFA research by Jane Chafin -- director of Offramp Gallery in Pasadena, CA. Chafin presented her research during a debate title 'MFA: Is it Necessary?' -- which was sponsored by Artillery Magazine. She focused on the "con side" of the question -- and offered data that she feels shows that there is no advantage or disadvantage in having an MFA degree in regards to gallery representation.

During her lecture Chafin stated, "A degree is not something I look for when selecting artists for Offramp Gallery. The bottom line is always the work. I look for work that's honest, creative, original, skillfully executed and intensely visual. It's supposed to be VISUAL art after all.". She then revealed that only 48% of the artists who have exhibited at Offramp have an MFA degree. In other words, as a gallerist she is looking for great art regardless if the artist has an MFA or not.


Chafin supported her view of what gallery owners/directors are looking for by offering data on other commercial art galleries. For example, of the artists represented by Gagosian Gallery -- arguably one of the most influential galleries in the world -- only 34% have an MFA degree. Contrary to what many assume... it appears that prominent gallerists are not looking to the MFA as some form of prerequisite for exhibiting -- or for establishing marketability for that matter. In fact, of the galleries Chafin researched the average percent of exhibited artists holding an MFA degree is only 40%. Perhaps an MFA is not as necessary as so many artists are lead to believe.


Chafin focused some intention to information provided by ArtFacts -- a site that serves as a "gallery and museum guide for modern, contemporary and emerging art". Chafin noted that ArtFacts ranks over 200,000 artists by using an algorithm based on museums and galleries that the ranked artists have exhibited at. Looking at the top 50 living artists she discovered that only 11 have MFAs. In other words, only 22% of the top living artists -- according to the data Chafin pulled from ArtFacts-- hold an MFA degree. Again, this information dispels some of the myths surrounding the MFA.


What does this data tell us? I'd say that Jane Chafin's research reveals that the Holy Grail that is the MFA may be of little value -- a mere plastic cup -- when it comes to gaining gallery representation or exhibiting art in general. Artists need to realize that gallery owners, such as Larry Gagosian, obviously place their focus on the art -- not on what degree the artist has. In other words, an MFA degree is not a magic ticket that guarantees success. It does not guarantee that the artist is creating art that captures the interest of art dealers. Chafin's data supports this claim.


I'm not exactly knocking art schools or artists who have -- or are working toward -- an MFA. However, I do think that more artists -- specifically those who are younger -- need to realize the financial burden they are taking on. Art school can cost $30,000 to well over $100,000 depending on the school. The top art schools tend to be in the $70,000 to $100,000 range. Thus, if you are attending -- or plan to attend -- an art school with the idea that having an MFA will magically land you exhibit opportunities... you should consider Jane Chafin's research and decide if pursuing an MFA is worth the burden. Higher art education is great -- but not if one is seeking it based on delusions of grandeur. Fair warning - fine art education does not mean gallery success.


Chafin's research is also a reminder of some of the excuses that artists use -- specifically those who don't have an MFA degree. It is not uncommon to discover an artist ranting online about how he or she has been held back professionally by not having an MFA. Over the years I've seen variants of, "If I had an MFA art dealers would take me serious." or "I can't land gallery representation because I don't have an MFA.". The MFA has become a professional scapegoat for some artists who don't have one -- an excuse for why they have not reached the level of success they expected. Considering Chafin's research I think some artists need to re-think what they are saying when they make complaints of that nature.


As Chafin points out -- the majority of art dealers don't care if you have an MFA or not -- they want great art. An MFA does not mean that every work of art is a masterpiece -- technically it does not mean that the artist is a 'good' artist or that the art is automatically marketable. In that sense, perhaps it is better to get back into the studio rather than complain about how not having a degree has held you back. Ask yourself, "Is it that don't have a degree -- or is it because my artwork is not currently up to par?". I realize that it is more complex than that -- and I do expect to receive some arrows from angry artists -- but when in doubt... get in the studio. Stop making excuses.


In closing, I strongly urge readers to visit Jane Chafin's blog in order to read her research firsthand. She covers more than just galleries -- she also shows how having an MFA does not offer an advantage or disadvantage when seeking specific grants. Of her research Chafin has stated, "(it) shows that an MFA doesn't give you an advantage in getting into commercial galleries or museums, making a living as an artist or getting grants.". Remember that the next time someone tells you that you must have an MFA to be successful in the art world -- or if you catch yourself blaming the lack of a degree for what you see as failure.


Take care, stay true


Brian Sherwin

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While the research is interesting, it's not particularly compelling. 4 galleries out of how many and how representative are they of artists trying to emerge as opposed to established -- this strikes me as anecdotal. Same for one grant. The museum sample size is at least large, but one wonders how it skews with age and time - the MFA/academy has been more prevalent than it once was and there are undoubtedly many living artists around long enough to have gained access before that and still have significant presence in Museums. What's the number for artists emerging in the the last 10-15 years?

I do not think a MFA is necessary, and it's certainly not any kind of guarantee. But it still may be helpful, at least at this time. Worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? For most, perhaps almost all, probably not, at least not in terms of return on investment. The question for artists, beyond making great, compelling work, is what access and connections an artist is able to make to get their work seen and into these commercial galleries and museums, known by those deciding grants that cannot be applied for, etc. Some MFA experiences provide access (to some). There are other ways to gain access.

I like to believe that making compelling work is enough, but realistically even that compelling work has to be seen and build up a reputation.

Regina Valluzzi
I'd like to approach this as someone who has reviewed a large number of mathematical papers for publication. (Dusting off Physics and Engineering professor hat ...)

The statistics presented suggest very much the opposite of your and Jane's interpretation - if there are a lot more artists in the world who lack MFAs than artists who have them. If most artists are non-MFA, then seeing equal numbers of successful artists from each category means the MFAs are much more successful at getting grants, recognition, and representation.

There is a great big information gap here. he artists getting into galleries, recognized as stars etc. are in the minority. Some would say they're a tiny minority, drawn from a huge pool. What does the pool look like?
From what I understand about the numbers of artists and the fraction of those with MFA's, the MFA's are a small portion of the total artist population.

If I were fishing from a pool that had an equal number of trout and golfish, and I caught equal numbers of trout and goldfish, it would be fair to say that my bait was equally good for both trout and goldfish.

However if there were 990 trout and 10 goldfish in the pond, catching roughly the same numbers of each would suggest something very different. I could say that I had a terrific goldfish bait that occasionally also brought in a trout (but there are so many trout that that's bound to happen)

Looking at the overall population of artists and those who would be artists (the pond), how many are MFA holders (goldfish)? How many are not (trout)? What does the pipeline look like from the bottom up?

The only graph and bit of data that comes close to addressing this is the one asking "To what degree are you able to make a living as an artist?" Even here, there is likely some self selection happening. Non-MFA's who drop out of art and can't make a decent living are harder to find and count than degree holders with straightforward alumni connections. "Making a living" may also be defined differently by MFAs who see art as a profession (and have loans to pay off) versus non-MFA's who are a more varied pool.

Kinda hoping you'll find a huge surge in MFA numbers to prove me wrong, but 'till then keep the bloggin going

I love this article Brian!

I can almost see people lining up to comment: the MFA's will find every possible hole in your information, and the rest of us will cheer you on.

Can we also guess that the cheers will be short and perky, and the other comments word-lengthy?

Love it! Thanks for the fun!

Oh wait. And I appreciate the info as well :)

Kay Rideout
Good observation, KCooper.

It is what the person does with their training once they are into their career that counts whether they have a university degree, attended at an atelier, or studied independently.

I don't have an MFA, my critique of the data notwithstanding.

Regina Valluzzi
I actually don't have an MFA. I'm a Physics PhD. There's still a big hole in the math, even if you happen to like the conclusions.

KCooper - your comment comes close to an ad hominem attack.

Regina Valluzzi
I don't see that an MFA degree is the best thing since sliced bread. However, if not having an MFA puts me at a disadvantage, I want to know where, why, and how much.

I can DO something with accurate information. As a female physicist I have NO problem with working around being an underdog.

Taking only the warm and fuzzy half of the math accompanied by the fingers in ears and loudly singing routine is as bad as making excuses for not accomplishing anything because one has the wrong degree.


I apologize for offending you. It's been a long week, and at the end of it, this article made me laugh. I simply shared my intended-to-be-funny viewpoint.

It was not an attack.

A very balanced and interesting item - thank you Brian.

I relate the content to a comment once made by the very famous business guru, Tom Peters. He has an MBA (of course!) but once remarked something like: "The problem is so many students leave with their MBA and the mistaken opinion that they know something." As with your own article regarding MFA's, Tom was not KNOCKING the qualification, just pointing out its limitations. It is after all exceptional groundwork - but that's all.

I think of both this way: As a mechanic who can strip down and rebuild a car bolt by bolt - the mechanic has even started the engine and revved it up - but has never learned to DRIVE. It's only when you get into the real world that you truly grab the wheel for the first time. So whether your intention is to poddle around town or win at Le Mans, understanding the way it works is no guarantee of success, it can only help.

I have had no art training whatsoever and have often voiced my regrets about that, but was once told by a arts lecturer (with a smile): "Be glad that you didn't. All we do is tie you down, cloud your mind and slam you in a rut with the rest." - A bit harsh, I thought.


Brian Sherwin
Dee -- I see your point. However, I will also point out that you have to consider the number of artists who have an MFA who 1.) don't have gallery representation. 2.) have not found an art related job with their MFA (Not that this info focused on jobs -- but it is something to consider.). I don't have stats on that -- but having communicated with thousands of artists through the years my gut tells me that having an MFA does not make things any easier.

Brian Sherwin
According to Steven Zevitas -- gallery owner and founder of New American Paintings -- there are close to 200 institutions in the United States that offer a Masters of Fine Arts degree. He estimates that thousands of MFAs emerge from those programs every year. Math-wise I suppose you would have to figure out the enrollment average for MFA programs in general in order to have an idea of just how many artists earn an MFA each year.

Still... I'd say that only a small percentage of those MFA degree holding artists end up with gallery representation. Thus, if you are attending a program-- or plan to-- with thoughts of instant success with galleries in general... you might want to reconsidering why you are pursuing an MFA in the first place.

Art critic Mat Gleason offers some strong opinions of MFA programs. He often points out that MFA programs are not what they once were. In other words, today these programs are not as rigorous as they claim to be. Gleason has a point... you rarely hear of an art student being kicked out of the program for not being up to par. As long as you are accepted into the program in the first place -- and tuition is paid -- you will likely leave with a degree.

That is a far cry from a few decades ago. One of my old art instructors mentioned how when he was a graduate student the MFA candidates had to link their art to over 500 years of art history during an oral exam. He and the other students had to discuss it from memory... notes were not permitted.

I recall that he said he had three chances to pass the oral exam. If he had failed all three he would have been booted from the program even if he had passed everything else. Mind you that he was not an art history student.

True, the networking one has access to in art school can be of value -- in some programs more than others-- but then, you can network in other ways. I'm not sure $100,000 in debt is worth it no matter how great the connections are.

I also know that a lot of people will mention how important art school is for having secured time to develop as an artist. That may be true as well -- it really depends on the student. That said, artists can secure their own time for study without resulting in massive debt. Yes, I do have issue with the cost of most MFA programs.

Now as for art school in general... I really think that students should wait until they are older... have lived a little. We have a lot of students in MFA programs who have not stepped outside the classroom. Many entered college at 18 or 19 -- complete a 4 year program before entering an MFA program.

Depending on the programs that can be a total of 7 years of college education with little life experience to support the work. No, I'm not suggesting that students don't 'live'... but anyone who has attended college knows that students do enjoy a protective bubble that is often void of the realities of life.

Thus, you end up with art students offering social commentary on issues that they have not experienced directly -- or have little 'real' knowledge about. Obviously that is not always the case -- but I'd bet money it is in most cases. An artist can learn a lot from the school of hard knocks. That is a topic for another day.

Brian Sherwin
By the way, the professor I mentioned had a good 'dose of life' before entering an MFA program. He served in Vietnam -- received a Purple Heart -- and afterwards did factory work for several years prior to applying to graduate school.

Thomas Hodges
Good research, the results of which don't come as a great surprise. A degree can be very helpful, but if anything a business degree is perhaps more helpful to an aspiring professional artist than an MFA. Certainly that was my path, and I find it a very valuable asset!

Regina Valluzzi
Some hard(er) numbers. The short version: 250,000 artists, fewer than 25,000 (10 percent) holding MFAs. Using the stats gathered by Jane Chafin, an MFA is ore than 10x more likely to attain any of her measures of success.

I think the key question is, why? Especially in situations where the gallerist is not looking at degrees, why do the MFAs fare so much better?

I'm popping a bit more analysis and links to data sources in a separate post. Some of the data is interesting in light of Brian Sherwin's recent posts about male/female representation too.

Regina Valluzzi

Links to sources are in the numbered endnotes.

The National Endowment for the Arts tracks numbers of artists in the workforce (including self-employed). They provide a breakdown by discipline. There are roughly 365,000 Fine artists, illustrators, photographers and animators in the workforce as of their 2003-2005 study.(1) Based on recent unemployment percent rates and totals, that number has risen to roughly 500,000.(2)

Not all of the artists in this huge pool are in niches where a gallery is a useful stepping stone. Let's estimate that 50 percent or 250,000 are people who would benefit from a gallery relationship. I have to speculate here, but based on the anecdotal picture I have from many internet artist sites this number seems conservative.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides data on degrees granted by field, subdiscipline, gender, and year. The categories change in some years, so this was a bit trickier. I found that considering studio discplines listed photography gives numbers similar to the new "general fine arts studio" classification. At the MFA level, visual fine artists hover at about 9 percent of the visual performing arts totals.(3)

Since MFA holders tend enter the workforce older than BA grads and non degree holders, I used a 30 year career lifetime to sum up all of the MFAs produced, still kicking around in art. Growth since the art degree boom in the early 90's has been pretty close to linear, allowing me to make an easy zeroeth order estimate of 23,200 MFA's produced in the last 30 years in gallery-relevant areas. This is probably an overestimate, given that artists have been dropping out of the workforce at a rate of over 15 percent recently.(2) Terminal degree holders are also better equipped to find work in arts-related fields (as designers, art directors, educators, etc. instead of as artists).

To get at MFA versus non-MFA numbers we need to first consider how the data are gathered and presented for each pool. For total numbers of artists, artists who declare "artist" as an occupation and generate income as artists are counted in labor statistics. People who find other things to do or who never achieve financial success are not. The Labor Dept number thus hides all of the artists who have given up on generating income from art - MFA's and non-MFA's alike. It's a significant UNDERestimate.

The Degree numbers for MFAs count degree holders, whether they're now driving a truck, selling computers, working as an artist, no longer living, retired, etc. The MFA number is an over estimate. The NEA stats on art workforce dropout rates line up with Jane Chafin's data on percent of MBA's making a living from art. Both suggest that roughly 23,000 MFAs creating visual art for sale is probably a significant OVERestimate.

So why do the MFAs do better? I have a few wild-a$$ speculations, but I'd like to hear some peoples' opinions.

(3) (you may have to click around for tables from different years)

Of more general interest:
Salaried artist jobs outlook:

Degree inflation (?) in the arts

Value of various degrees

Jane is not talking about art jobs though. If over 23,000 MFAs have sought gallery representation in 30 years I wonder how many have exhibited steadily since graduation?

Larry Gagosian has exhibited approx. 90 artists according to the Gasosian website. If only 35 percent of the living artists have MFAs it does blow the idea that the MFA is gold out of the water.

Statistically the MFA has a better chance if you look at each group and just the numbers of the group. MFAs make up a minority of artists. Living Non-MFAs make up a larger group. But make up a larger percent of represented artists.

The MFA has a better chance if you look at the numbers for each group alone. But if the value of the MFA were true you would not be seeing so few in galleries compared to artists who don't have one.

I looked at some art stars of the last decades. They have all made headlines. Ages from 30 to 60. Some on the list are the most wealthy living creators of art in the world.

Jeff Koons dropped out of art school. Has a degree in business.

Shepard Fairey has a BFA.

Damien Hirst has a BA in Fine Art. He studied in England so I don't know if that is equal to the MFA or not.

Cory Arcangel studied music. But he is the youngest artist to have a show at the Whitney.

Ryan Trecartin has a BFA.

Aleksandra Mir has a BFA.

Tracey Emin has an MA.

Wafaa Bilal does have the MFA.

Anish Kaapor studied at art schools but did not receive a degree.

Thomas Kincade. Had to throw him in LOL. Not clear on him. He has art degrees but I don't think any are MFA.

Jonathan Yeo has no formal art training.

Andres Serrano = art school drop out.

BANKSY = has said he did not attend art school.

Julian Schnabel has a BFA.

I'm seeing tons of BFAs, art school drop outs and selftaught.

There are different cohorts being lumped together when you look at the number of living artists who have made it. The MFA grew in importance and prevalence over time, which gets mixed up when you look at living artists who made it entering 30-40 years ago and those entering 10-15 years ago or now. My years may be a little off but I think there is a difference between whether the MFA matters(mattered) for the cohorts. Heck, the MFA wasn't needed to teach once upon a time. Gad, there's even talk now about PhDs in studio art. That said, it may well be waning -- I suspect it has since pre-recession art star hey days -- because of some of what Jane points out; the academy tends to make a lot of work look like the flavor of the day.

Even with the MFA, it still takes a lot of continuous drive, etc. while obtaining the MFA and post MFA (and for that matter, pre-MFA). The MFA is not a necessary degree or for the vast majority a life changer in terms of art career trajectory. Also, one always can leverage success, connections, financial wherewithal, and celebrity, etc., in one field into art.

Even artists getting noticed (getting shows, grants, etc.) are not necessarily making that much money from their art -- and at $100,000 plus price tag for the MFA degree, that matters when you think about whether it will give you a return on the investment you are making.

I don't think most dealers look to see the MFA on a piece of paper and say "no MFA, no way". Same for curators and others nominating artists for grants that cannot be applied for (which is a lot of the grants, btw), jurors, etc. If it were that simple, you'd see a much stronger case that not having one was a true barrier to entry. I think they look at the work if you are able to get it in front of them and they may watch to see how it develops over time. There's a penumbra effect to the artist and the artists' work being out there and among them or among their circle to be noticed, seen and looked at. The access and community gained from an MFA experience, depending on the program and what the artist makes out of it can help get them to look (most "are not taking unsolicited artists submissions"). Also, the MFA helps artists speak the same language as curators, dealers, etc., which is bound to help even if dealers, etc. are not looking for the piece of paper that says MFA on it.

I think external validations help, whether it's that you've been selected from however many for a prestigious MFA program or for a residency or for a grant, etc.. Selection into New American Paintings, for example -- you don't need an MFA for that.

Regina Valluzzi
So 16 art stars or the top .003 percent of success in the artist population - how do their credentials predict success for the other 99.997 percent?

The talk about the necessity of an MFA seems fairly new. I remember that around 20 years ago - not really that long, the MFA candidates were looking at the degree as a teaching credential (income while establishing their art), and a BFA or BA as perfectly adequate for an art career.

How many of the sixteen mostly baccalaureate all-stars are recent grads, establishing themselves in this market?

Brian Sherwin
Blaze -- I think it is better to look at 'art stars' that have risen in the last decade. So out of the list I'd say that Shepard Fairey (after all, he did not reach the big, big time until the 2000's), Cory Arcangel, Jonathan Yeo, and Ryan Trecartin are worth looking at.

I believe these are all thirty-something artists -- well, Fairey is early 40's I think. Also note that Arcangel and Trecartin work with new media... aspects of technology and so on.

These artists all have one thing in common -- that being controversy. They have been really good at nabbing press due to controversies -- be it due to their opinions, edgy art or use of medium.

They also all benefited from having friends who are journalists or influential art bloggers. In other words, they were able to tap into social media virally in part because of connections. That appears to be one trend that is common among artists who have been successful -- that is, if you base success on media exposure and exhibits at influential locations.

I'd include Dash Snow on the list if he had not died. I don't think he had an art degree -- but, but, but... he had celebrity on his side. He also had family wealth on his side. Wealth also plays a role.

Fairey was born into a well-to-do family... father a doctor, mother a realtor. Perhaps not rich -- but I'm sure he never had financial worries. Not exactly the background common with street artists in general. Yeo's comes from a very influential political family -- and it is fair to say they are most likely extremely wealthy. So these two artists always had support.

I'm not saying that wealth is bad -- but I think it is clear that artists from a wealthy background have 1-up, or is it 10-up, over artists who were not born into wealth... or at least prosperous families.

Off topic -- but have any of you noticed that we don't see many rags-to-riches stories with artists who 'make it' today? As in, artists born into extreme poverty who somehow rise above to become cultural icons -- or at the least, extremely influential within the larger art scene? What we do see... well, artists who say they had it hard... but if you dig deeper it is clear they had it better than most.

Just thinking...

Brian Sherwin
Also consider that many of the artists that appear to soak up the spotlight today had publicists working for them -- either for pay or as a friend -- prior to, and after, 'making it'. That is another trend I'm seeing. Most of the highly successful artists that I can think of are all very business savvy individuals.

Brian Sherwin
Another thing these artists had in common -- they built friendships with curators. Now I know people always suggest making friends with gallery owners -- but good rapport with a curator or two can go a long way. One could say they are much easier to get to know than gallery owners.

I bet if I asked artists at random if they could name curators who have connections with museums and colleges near them few could drop a name.

Esther J. Williams
Brian, this is a very interesting article. I knew early in my years that I wanted to be an artist. I went to three colleges, but kept changing majors. I am forty-one credits short of a BA even. Still, I love one comment of yours that describes my outlook on getting a MFA, "That said, artists can secure their own time for study without resulting in massive debt."
I have self studied the art books for a decade, to the point of serious study. I am not a math wizard, but I think I have earned an MFA at this point. I did it on my own time investing into books purchased from library discard shelves, estate sales and swap meets. There are so many books one can read on the fundamentals of art, it is overwhelming. It is best to pick what path the artist wants to guide themselves towards. Knowledge is nothing without practice with all these books. Visiting museums and taking notes from the masters paintings or painting them helps greatly. After all this soaking up of the knowledge and inspiration, one must practice like a piano player or a ballet dancer, a strict regiment to become a master.
I do not want to be famous, I just want to live, paint and be content with who I am, an artist. I do not have official gallery representation but sell through social media and art shows, meeting people that see me paint in public. Gallery representation will come someday, it is a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right influential person. Oh yes, and having great art.

Michael Slattery
More and more, I find myself repulsed by the thought of getting a degree in art. The ones I have seen pursuing a degree are doing things they find abhorrent, but they need the grade, so, they do it anyway. Why do I need some mad at society person telling me what I think of art. I can see a piece of art and have my own thoughts about it.

Phil Kendall
It's not the qualification it's the experience and the application that people put it to.

Goes off and checks..oh my degree was in nutrition and Toxicology [err? good and bad eating]...followed by a post graduate certificate in education [err the 25 year career thing]...I taught basic sciences to the masses.

From an early age I could draw and I loved using colours...useful on the chalk-board.

Today I'm an artist and I have the best job in the world.

ultimatley it depends on your goals or definition of "successful artist"
but if we are talking about just exhibiting and selling art... i don't think MFA's are necessarily better.. right now the trend for galleries is street artists who bucked the whole traditional education system.

Sari Grove
Regarding the MFA I see:
Time: It was not relevant in the past, now it is becoming more relevant...
Results: The work produced by MFAs in the market is spotty- some truly talented and others obviously pressured to be great seem to fall back on tracing from photographs or other easier methods to get a realistic image because the degree they now have seems to impose requirements of them that they cannot muster...
Philosophy: There is something about paying large amounts of money to learn art that is anathema to many artists...This is where the MFA can be contradictory...
Space: How good is your art going to be if you spend 7 years confined in a classroom? Take the same 7 years in your own puddle of nature and the art might be better...Might...
Subservience: Bowing down to a master, a professor, a university program, is also a problem for those with independent spirit...Not to mention the possibility of diluting your own vision, or being assimilated by your classmates or just becoming derivative...
Thoughts: When I went to university, there wasn't much happening in art schools that was respectable enough across the board for me to go...It just seemed a more solid path for me to go to regular universities...I think that those who are getting or already have an MFA are helping to increase the respectability of artists in some way or another...But I don't want one myself...

Dave White
I have an accounting degree! If I could go to college again, I would probably go for an art degree, but I'm not even convinced of the monetary value of that... The accounting degree did give me a great business education, and after all, we have to market and sell our artwork. Thanks for the article.

Hamian Dirst
The best thing an art school can do for a real artist is to kick them out

ha ha ha ha ha ... smile... ha ha... (lol laughing out loud softly cause my cat is sleeping on my lap)!

Russ Martin
I am 64, have an MFA in Fine Art Photo, hold permanent art certification, have a CAS in public school administration, have taught on the college level, exhibited in New York City, and retired from a career of teaching art in public schools. I know of many people with and without MFA degrees. Some have no degrees at all, and others have a variety of college degrees. From all of this experience, this is my opinion. A MFA degree is no silver bullet. It may be a leg up on some people should you apply for a teaching position in a public school, but not necessarily. If you want to teach on the colleg/university level, you may need the degree, but you will be up against many many other applicants. Both with those positions, and with gallery representation/shows, it will come down to your work. A very few have what they are looking for. Most don't. You will definitely need to have something else as a fall back career, should the art thing not work out. Fortunately, as an undergraduate, I also majored in education. I didn't plan to be a public school teacher, but when I realized that I could be full time in a public school, and have all the benefits, it was a no brainer to jump down to the HS level. I spent 25 years teaching in public schools and now have a pension and full medical insurance for my wife and myself. Few artists can save much of anything, and when it comes to buying a car or a house, the banks will decline you unless you can show that you have had 3 years of steady income, you are meeting your obligations, and you have the money to pay the loans. Bottom line, unless you are very hot, forget the art thing and to the traditional job route. You probably won't need an MFA for that, and you will save yourself a ton of money. If you want to pursue art, there are workshops, social media, blogs, publications, and many many ways to pick up the knowledge at a fraction of the price. I have a number of very successful artist friends who never set foot in a college. Don't let the colleges delude you into thinking you will be a big success if you just get their degree. A good analogy is American Idol. Tens of thousands audition. In the end it comes down to who has the right stuff. One out of 100,000 might. The odds are very bad. And one more thing. I have been featured in top national and international publications, won top awards, and am in a number of prestigious collections. Could I support myself on my art? NO! And, I'm not alone. Be forewarned. I wish someone like me had warned me before I went to grad school, but then I wouldn't be denied. Also, because of my financial status, I was able to have all my tuition paid by the state of NY, and later I had a graduate teaching assistantship. I finished only owing about $4,000. No way would I do it if my final tab would be $50K or more. Not unless I have family money and can afford to do anything I want, and I also have the option of going back to grad school if the art thing doesn't work out. Which it probably won't.

an arts degree helps to inform one's work and to inspire one. Introduces people to what sort of art sells. worth having, but the cost is huge.

Russ Martin
There are good MFA programs and bad MFA programs. Some will prepare you well regarding the issues to be faced and the process whereby you obtain representation. However, you can take a workshop with Mary Anne Lynch one weekend and save all the money. She's the best in the business and few college professors have her depth of knowledge or experience.

Brian Sherwin
Shona -- You said, "an arts degree helps to inform one's work and to inspire one."

It depends on the student. MFA programs are not as tough as they once were. In the past it was common for degree candidates to face an oral exam that involved connecting ones work to at least 500 years of art history. Students who failed had 2 or 3 chances to pass the oral exam before being booted from the program. That is not so common today.

I've known MFA graduates who openly admit that they did not give their 100 percent while in school. The same can be said of many students with other degrees in art. You get what you put into the experience.

You said, "Introduces people to what sort of art sells."

That depends on the department. Most don't explore the business-side of art. They may tap into current marketing trends... BUT one culd argue that art students should be developing their own path -- not trying to fit into a 'system'.

You said, "worth having, but the cost is huge.".

Indeed it is. It is extremely HUGE... some MFA programs are more expensive than programs involving law or medicine. Yet there are only so many job paths that require an MFA. They can't all be art professors or art-focused non-profit directors. I personally feel that the price of higher art education should reflect that. The staggering cost of higher art education is absurd.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- You have made some excellent points. I think the expense really needs to be looked at... there needs to be a study that reveals just how many students end up in an art related job OR have found success with their art directly after graduation. There have been some studies... but it needs to be looked at closer.

Many of these schools receive government funding in some way. Thus, the government could step in and say, "Hey, this isn't adding up!". Honestly, how many artist are earning $50,000 to $100,000 each year compared to the number of students paying that much, or more, for art school tuition?

Russ re: "process whereby you obtain representation"...
When actors have agents, and most do, they understand that the agent works for them...Like an employee...
I find it interesting, no, perturbing (is that a word?), that artists see representation as an employer not as an employee...That when you graduate the goal is to 'get a job' so to speak by getting a gallery 'to hire you', metaphorically...
Artists, fine artists, visual artists self-employed (Vases), need to see that galleries are merely employees of artists...To be hired or fired like an other employee...Your income does not come from the gallery...You generate the income and pay them a cut to handle the dirty work you don't want to do because you are so busy making great art...
This reversed perception causes people to squander their time 'trying to get into galleries' after they graduate...As if that will provide income...Artists need to see themselves as self-employed entrepreneurs who are in charge of their economic destiny...Their own corporation...Perhaps then they will take their own income earning potential into their own hands...
Brian...You are great...I love how you care...It's so great to have you around caring about us...Thanks...

Michael Slattery
You are right on the money for Fine Arts Degrees right now. There have been countless recent articles and news stories on employers that want nothing to do with applicants with these degrees. Employers right now want Engineering and IT Degrees. This may change at a future date, but you cannot count on that.
If you want a Fine Arts Degree for your own enrichment then by all means pursue it, but do not bankrupt yourself to do it. The payback is too slow in coming for most people to only pursue an arts related job after graduation.

Thomas Hodges
I just want to endorse Sari's comments, that's exactly right, except that personally I tend to look upon my galleries and dealers and business partners (as opposed to simply being my employee). What is sure, is that the boot is not on the other foot! Galleries certainly do not engage artists, it is a collaborative process and the artist owes it to him/herself to be diligent and choose wisely as to whom they want to represent them.

Thomas...The way you see it...The way you see it, the partner thing, seems to be trending...I wonder, if I may ask, to push this conversation further...If artists are seeing dealers as partners, then, from an economic perspective, is that not bringing art into the marketplace as a commodity? Ok that is a negative question confusing and I don't mean to use the word commodity as a derogatory...What I mean is this...Is art becoming a commodity like any other product and should it be then treated as such, like any other commodity, insofar as, we the artists are the manufacturer, who sells the work at wholesale in bulk to the dealer the retailer who then resells it for double? and begone with fancy romantic mythology that we are not manufacturers like everyone else? (ok, awkwardly put, but I hope you get the gist)...

p.s. Rather than what I do which is make art, then use a gallery to do the business of selling, well help with it, and I give then one third of any action as commission...(they are employee)- as opposed to 'business partner model or retailer model, where they get half off the purchase price based on bulk purchase from manufacturer/artist.(buy pay upfront like any other retailer)...hope there are no typos, submit...Sari

Brian Sherwin
Sari -- Imagine if there was a website called Rate My Gallery... allowing represented artists to score their galleries anonymously. THAT would be interesting. Ha.

Brian Sherwin
Sari -- I think the artist / gallery relationship should be viewed as a partnership. In my humble opinion... that is the best scenario for all involved.

Technically (and I know people may get upset about this) art is a commodity. Art, when marketed, is a product. That does not mean that the meaning behind the art is lost. It has a financial value AND social / cultural value. In that sense, art lives in two worlds.

The problem here is that so many people look at commercial art galleries in the same way they view museums. Commercial art galleries are not museums... it is a business -- and the business involves selling a product... art.

I know some artists don't like commercial art galleries described that way -- but it is, what it is. The gallery may take note of social / cultural themes... but at the end of the day it is all about selling artwork -- not documenting / preserving culture (at least not in a way that museums do).

Russ Martin
I don't know the ages of you guys, but the idea that the gallery works for you, or is your partner, or even that you can choose ones with those attitudes, is naive. That is the way it should be, but it isn't in reality. There is a finite number of quality galleries. These places are inundated with requests for representation. Many times they won't even look at your work. For instance, I was represented by a good one, until I dropped him for not promoting my work. When I was first represented, I asked him if he looks at CD's or e-mails from artists. He said unequivocally that he doesn't. CD's go directly in the trash and he deletes e-mails. He also didn't reply to those who sent them. This is not unusual. Many have a "do not submit" policy. How then are you to "crack the code" to even get them to look at your work? You have to establish a reputation and or have been noticed on the national art scene beforehand. Then, they will come to you. This means that you will probably have to pound the pavement and personally get your work looked at by art galleries. Another route is to enter premier competitions, NOT MAGAZINES, such as the IPA or Critical Mass. If you can win one of those you will be noticed. However, there are thousands of newbies coming out of art schools every year, in addition to the backlog of those who have accumulated from previous years, and all the old ones, like myself, who put out a big effort when nearing retirement. No doubt I bumped a number of young people. In fact, Henry Rasmussen, the prior editor of BandW, told me that my wife and I bumped a couple of people when he gave us Spotlights. There are a lot of people in their 40's-60's into photography in a big way! Anyway, the galleries want to be in control, and keep the artists in their place. You will have an almost impossible time talking with them or getting them to notice you. There are exceptions, and the more unique and in the present your work is, the more they will be willing to talk. But, it is an extremely frustrating process. One survey said that most artists who have gallery representation, know the owners somehow. Many get representation when their work is shown at AIPAD shows, but how do you get shown there if you don't have a gallery already? Maybe win a Guggenheim or be featured on TV? Then, even if you are picked up by a gallery, you have not reached the promised land. They have to actively promote you. Most don't. They will give you some exposure when you are first signed, then they will be on to the next person. You will have to provide the buzz yourself by getting more and more awards and shows. Shows! That's another thing!
And, never forget, you are like an American Idol contestant. Thousands audition, but only one or two will ever get anywhere with it. There are simply too many artists to be promoted by the limited number of quality art galleries. Working toward an MFA may provide the time to hone your work into a portfolio that gets you respect and representation, but the odds are against it. I believe most MFA's end up doing something completely different, once they have hit the wall or the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling happens when you realize you will only rise so far, and that is all. If you don't desire to teach on the college level, take workshops with people you respect, attend portfolio reviews, and take a workshop from Mary Ann Lynch. The MFA grads will admire you for being so wise to go that route. PS. Enter competitions at CENTER, Woodstock Center for Photography, NW Center for Photography, Critical Mass, and Griffin Museum. If you can't win anything in those, try something else. Lastly, take a look at my resume on my website. Look at all I have done and won in the past 6 years! I believed, wrongly, that winning all those awards and having feature articles in all the major magazines would lead to strong print sales. WRONG. I only sole ONE as a result of winning a GOLD Award in BandW. So, go for your MFA, but in today's world, there are other cheaper options, and if you are smart, you will pursue a different career, and do photography on the side. There are loads of very successful photographers, currently selling work and published in national magazines, who are doing other things for a living. And they live very well! For example, I personally know people who are or have been, CEO of and Educational Co., Technology Manager for Sony Pictures, Nuclear Physicist for the government, Software Engineer for a software firm. Please!!!! Become something else and do photography on the side. The money spent on your education will actually pay off.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- You said, "I don't know the ages of you guys, but the idea that the gallery works for you, or is your partner, or even that you can choose ones with those attitudes, is naive. That is the way it should be, but it isn't in reality."

I don't think anyone here said that it is the standard artist / gallery relationship. It IS the best scenario if you can find it.

About choosing a gallery... I believe Thomas was making the point that artists should be selective. You don't have jump at the first gallery that show interest in you. Research the gallery before signing anything... make sure it is a good fit. That is just good business sense.

As for seeking gallery representation... the best route is word of mouth from artists who are already represented by the gallery. Contacting a gallery head-on rarely works... but making friends with artists represented by the gallery may help to get a foot in the door.

It may also help to network with curators who have worked with the gallery in the past. I believe it was James Rosenquist who said that curators and represented artists are the best friends an artist can have. ;p

gee...I don't need a gallery to sell for me...I use them when I need them...Mostly because I don't maintain a studio in a public space anymore...I didn't feel like paying rent anymore...I was selling directly, but I felt I had to produce more to cover rent...Without having to pay rent monthly, I can produce better work at my own pace and just use a gallery when I need to have a show...I don't really see it as hard to get a gallery...You just need to produce absolutely incredible fantastic work that is sellable and they seem to find you...Mostly I just can't produce enough to pay for a gallery as well as myself...Like I said, I see them as a luxury, as employees (forgive me, but the employee metaphor is useful though perhaps crass)...
I really like what Brian said...About the difference philosophically between museums and galleries...That helps me to clarify where I am right now...I am past galleries...I am dealing with that whole museum beauty right now and the past 2 years...It is nicer...Less about money and more about art...
Note: I am 46 years old, married 16 years to another Vase, and sold my first work after university and 4 years studio work in 1993...So that makes...Um...20 years as a pro...(But I come from a line of artists so I had a head start)...

Russ Martin
Great ideas Brian, but I personally never knew of anyone who had multiple (quality) New York City galleries asking them to represent their work. In fact, everyone I knew considered himself lucky to have one. So, you take what you can get, and are then in a relationship. Yes, before the point you sign on the line, you should do some research and see if the place is good/reputable, but many times it comes down to either accept it and their terms, or be without representation. Of course you could go with a new, small gallery in Brooklyn, who will take you on your terms, but chances are they'll be struggling like yourself. The long established, reputable ones, who can make a career, and who sell millions of dollars of art on a regular basis, will tell you what they do, and how it will be. And make no mistake about it, unless you get into the big time galleries, and are promoted by them, you will struggle and sell a little work from time to time. Additionally, even if you make the big time, your fame and time in the sun may be fleeting. You could have a few good years, then they are on to someone else. Another consideration is how much money you are putting out to create the work, that they will give you 50 percent of the sales from. I have a friend who got a commission from a large Cibachrome of $25,000. Trouble was, he spent $50,000 creating a series of them for a show and only one sold. My wife and I had a show at a reputable museum up where I live. They get about 100-200 applicants per year, from which they give out 6 spots. Our show was in March. (We didn't have a choice) However, the place has limited hours then and we didn't sell anything. We spent a minimal amount, but it still cost us $2000 to put it up. Having an MFA had nothing to do with getting the show, by the way. They only cared about the work, as do the galleries, and if you won't accept their terms, they will find someone who will. Artists are a dime a dozen, unless they are really special. Then maybe, the artist can dictate the terms. The galleries have everything on their side though. (Reputation, clients, gallery space, advertising budget, legal team, and MONEY). What does the artist have? Usually, just the art.

Russ Martin
I'm speaking from the point of view as a fine art photographer with an MFA. I have no experience with other media, so consider my comments in that light. Painters may have an easier time of it. I don't know. Photography is a tough nut to crack though.

Russ...I subscribe to the Viennese Secessionist notion of Gesamtkunstwerk... A comprehensive body of work...That artists must be skilled in many disciplines within art and present that way as well...I do not limit myself by medium...It creates a stretch within oneself to migrate from sculpting to painting or to knotting rope...
Also I live in Canada, I am from here...Though I have travelled the world I am not limited "kleincarriert" by an old existing system that is ingrained in the minds of the locals who live there...I am speaking of New York...I am free of that cage...So I am free to work as I please, more, because this is a newer country, and the old ways are not carved in stone yet here...
So there is more theoretical possibility...I did study at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York for a year...But then I left...
You're experiences and thoughts are well known to many and I appreciate your candour...I think that to escape the cage sometimes one must leave the country of that cage...You might be or might have been more free in another country...Perhaps...

Russ Martin
Sari. What you said may be true, but I have to function within the system that exists here, in the USA. I also have to function within the bounds of what people do and expect of fine art photographers, which is probably different for artists in other media. I know the system for selling art is different in France and the Netherlands. It may also be slightly different in LA, Miami, or Chicago, than from New York. And if you go to areas where there are local art communities, selling/representing artists may be less formal, or bound by contracts. I do know that my father, who was a local artist in upstate NY, had informal relationships with store in his town, and was able to sell quite easily, but his prices were low. I think that is a function of the number of quality artists there doing regional work that resonated with the locals, and pricing to their ability to pay. I knew that I could go back there and take pictures of the park and buildings around it, and probably sell some work, but that is far from what I wanted. I desired to become recognized on a national level, which dictated participation in a system that preexisted. That system is very difficult to crack into because thousands of comepting artists. Some artists in the past 20 years or so have decided that the gallery system is corrupt and exclusionary. In almost every city around the world, they create "street art", and represent themselves. Some have become known, and are now in control of their own destinies and sales. One in particular is Shepard Fairy, the creator of the Obama poster. His website is called ObeyGiant. This would not be possible without the internet, which gives artists today a huge advantage. Still, it is difficult, and to get somewhere big, you need representation because the good dealers will connect the work with those who have the money. If you are making a nice income, good for you. I respect that. However, it will be difficult for most, and they will have to find other work. One more thing. As well as people may think they are doing now, what will they do when they become old? How will they set aside enough money to live on, or pay for medical insurance? (I realize this may not be such an issue in Canada.) For this reason, a "typical" career may make more sense, while you do your art "on the side".

Dear Sir (Russ)...That is why I keep telling people to keep their waitressing job..That is why I keep referring people to Richard Florida's philosophies-that one can work in a non-art job and innovate and be creative without having to be so darned boring and traditional about it and say you have to be a painter or a a sculptor to be creative or to be a real artist...There are real artists everywhere, mopping floors and cleaning toilets in an beautiful way...Making coffee with that leaf design in the milk...It is so narrow for people to quit a paying job to pursue some outdated notion of what an artist is...Give me the waitress who invents the bendy straw that is long enough for a person who has no hands to reach from their wheelchair...Give me the dog walker who walks the dog of the woman who has a bad back...Creatives can fit in everywhere...(Ok, I think I am falling off topic now...)

Russ Martin
Sari. You got it. That is right. I believe going on to pursue an MFA is not creative thinking at all. It's just like going from first grade to second grade, and staying in that track, in the belief that doing so will lead to something, which it rarely does. The real breakthroughs in art today come from creatives outside of the art programs, I believe. But, you need that degree to get the college teaching positions! That's the only purpose, or if you just have to study with "so and so" and he or she is a professor at a certain university. However, that's rarely the way to do it, because if you want to imitate someone, you aren't thinking creatively, and the world doesn't need two of anyone. You have to find your own thing.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- Context is key. I'm thinking of galleries in general... and most are not 'big time' compared to the movers and shakers within the NY gallery scene (and most of the artists reading this will not find themselves in those galleries anytime soon... if at all.).

I mean, yes... if the dealer has a long-standing reputation (Mary Boone, for example) the business relationship options, if you will, are far different than what may happen with a gallery that is relatively new. The artist should listen to Mary. BUT a dealer at the level of Boone has a track record that shows results. In a situation like that it may pay to bend a little on expectations.

There is nothing wrong with bending a little if the gallery is known for results. Still... a partnership feel, if you will, is the best scenario. Again, if you can find it.

Russ Martin
Brian. If you can find a gallery which is your partner, good for you. That is the optimum situation. I don't think anyone would disagree.
But, I think that you have a better chance to find that on the local level than the big city level. Some on the big city level may make you feel like you have a partner, which has a lot to do with how much of your work they believe they can sell, and how much they can sell it for. If it stops selling, or is taking up space, then the relationship will probably end, as warm and fuzzy as you feel about them. Business is Business.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- You said, "In almost every city around the world, they create "street art", and represent themselves. Some have become known, and are now in control of their own destinies and sales. One in particular is Shepard Fairy, the creator of the Obama poster. His website is called ObeyGiant. This would not be possible without the internet, which gives artists today a huge advantage.".

Shepard Fairey did a good job of tapping into counter-culture elements. He made himself known in the skating scene... and built a considerable fan base from those efforts alone. Technically he was famous before embracing the Internet.

Also, Fairey had gallery representation long before the Obama poster stunt (and I say stunt because the success of the poster was largely due to publicist Yosi Sergant, who worked with the Obama campaign and later served on the NEA) lending his talents to help promote the poster.). In fact, I believe his work was presented by Deitch long before the 2008 campaign. He was whining and dining with celebrities long before he met Obama in person.

Fairey is also good at creating his own legend. So yes... he would like everyone to think that he had it rough and 'came from the streets'. In truth, he is the son of a doctor and realtor... and attended a prestigious art school.

Note: I loathe Fairey... not because of his success or anything childish like that -- but because he has infringed on several artists along the way... and in each case it is like pulling teeth to get him to own up to it. Last I checked his Obey clothing line had faced 4 allegations of copyright infringement -- two of which were settled out of court.

Brian Sherwin
LOL I meant 'wining and dining'... but whining and dining works as well. :)

My problem Brian with this loose term partnership is that what you are really saying is 50-50...Now where I come from a 50-50 split means that you are giving the gallery your work for 50 percent off...Let's cut this down to size...Here, and I am pretty sure, everywhere else in the world, a 50 percent discount is traditional wholesale number...Now...if a maker is selling goods for 50 percent off then he or she is a wholesaler...if I am wholesaling my goods for 50 percent off then I want to be paid upfront like any other wholesaler...I also want to sell those goods in a bulk quantity...Wholesellers don't give 50 percent off to retailers who buy just one piece...So if I am gping to do this partnership thing, which just means the dealer gets 50 percent off then here are the rules...No consignment, you pay to play...You buy a minimum quantity...No singles...We have a contract...Last but not least, most wholesellers will not be happy about the retailer buying similar products from other wholesellers that they compete with...There are exclusivity clauses...Fixed retail prices...Unless those ducks are in a row, it ain't a partnership to me...It's a joke...It's just the artist getting the short end of the stick...And they are...No...50-50 doesn't work with how the game is being played right now...

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- You said, "If it stops selling, or is taking up space, then the relationship will probably end, as warm and fuzzy as you feel about them. Business is Business."

Well, at that point the artist is not living up to his or her side of the business partnership. :)

Business is Business.

I've visited galleries in small cities that you have probably never heard of. Trust me, strict gallery contracts (one-sided) can exist in those locations as well.

Heck, I know of 'big city' AND 'little city' galleries that demand their artists to take down their artist website. That is a HUGE demand to make considering the information fueled age in which we live. If the dealer is on the level of Boone or Gagosian it might be worth it... anyone else -- not so much.

That tells me something though... some galleries are nervous about this little thing called the Internet and the ease in which artists and buyers can communicate -- and the increasing potential for artists to represent themselves. That is another topic though.

Thomas Hodges
Russ, you are not wrong, it is hard work, but work it does! All of my representatives are not only partners, they are friends. How to secure these relationships is basically a 24 hour job and does not happen over-night. It can take months and years, but it's all about personal contact, nurturing those contacts and building new contacts and relationships off of those that you have. It's a process!

I work globally (in every sense of the word) but I'm always looking for new relationships and additional representation. I usually find it off of the back of what I have.

You paint a very negative picture, but it's not all negative. It's like everything, only the minority succeed, but if you stick with it and chart your course carefully and selectively, these is absolutely no reason why you can't be part of that minority.

Thomas Hodges
Just one other point, which Brian touches on in his last comment. I don't make any direct sales, I sell only through a representative (even if the enquiry is originated directly with myself!). I have a website, it is used to promote my work and my name, to the benefit of my representatives. The latter are aware of this, they know and appreciate that I am not competing with them, but collaborating with them. I am helping them to sell my work.

In response to Sari, no, art is not a commodity like any other, it never has been and never will be, and yes, I would still define my representatives as "partners". Representing galleries take 50 percent commission, dealers usually somewhat less. This is there remuneration for the job they do, it is earned income. In return they usually frame, show and promote my works, and promote me as an artist. I assist them to do this in every way that I possibly can. This makes it a partnership. I am loyal to my representatives and they are loyal to me, and in this way it works. I agree that not all galleries/dealers have this mentality, which is why it is important to select your partners well (just as it is in any business venture).

Brian Sherwin
Sari -- Represented artists mark their work up all the time to counter the split (IF the gallery allows them to set their own prices -- which is not always the case).

As for my idea of a partnership... I would say that it involves both the artist and gallery having a say in pricing, the gallery respecting the need for an artist to have an online presence in our digital age, the gallery handling the expense of gallery tasks - just as the artist must handle the expense of studio tasks... and so on. I'm sure I can think of other things.

A lot of artists tell me how their galleries demand that they help pay for ads and other promotional materials. Rubbish! In my opinion, that expense is the responsibility of the gallery (I doubt the gallery helps the artist out with material expense). If the artist complies, and the split is 50/50... the split should be altered to favor the artist.

I mean, the 50/50 split, which is arguably the standard, should reflect what both sides need to do. The gallery needs to handle the gallery functions / promote the artist (without dipping into the artists wallet / purse). The artist creates the art and does his / her best to be available for promotional efforts spurred by the gallery (showing up to exhibit openings, talking to reporters if the gallery lines something up, and so on).

Brian Sherwin
I see that Thomas basically confirmed some of the feelings I have about gallery / artist partnerships. And as he points out... both sides should help out within reason. But at the end of the day... the gallery handles the marketing -- the artist creates the art. That is the whole basis of the art / gallery relationship in the first place. Both sides work together to earn their living (split).

Now I know someone may go into all of the expenses that artists have to justify artists taking more of a percentage... I promise you that each point can be matched with the expense that galleries have. Artists have to keep the lights on... so do galleries. In fact, I'd say that most galleries have more to cover financially than their represented artists do -- especially if the gallery happens to have hired staff.

Russ Martin
Brian. I think we are in agreement that the galleries want all they can get from the artists. It would be wonderful if they didn't dictate terms and conditions, but they do so because they want to protect themselves and their businesses from artists who can and have done flaky and unscrupulous things. That's why I believe very few will act as an equal partner. A gallery relationship usually involves the artist giving up something, and many time much more. For the artist, he/she has to decide if the concessions are more than they are willing to accept. Usually young artists won't demand much, just so they can be a "represented artist", and have money coming in. (Hopefully). If the artist had another source of income, then he may not be so agreeable to some of the terms. But, regardless of the amount of income, some things should never be accepted. Personally, I wouldn't accept a demand by the gallery to be the "exclusive" representative. You want to keep the option open to have a few galleries in different markets. It also keep the gallery on it's toes as they would know that they can be dumped. You shouldn't have 10 galleries though. Reputable artists have a couple that "do good by them". That is determined over time. The gallery representation thing is much like the music business. There are people who will do a great job for you and have your interests in mind. There are others which will "screw you blind" and sell your work without giving you a commission. I had that happen to me, and I heard of one that ripped off a stack of Joel Peter Witkin images and moved to England.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- What do you think about the topic of art market regulation? Should galleries be regulated to the point that they must handle represented artists in a specific way as determined by the government? Such as rules that determine a set split, requirements that must be met on the gallery end, enforced insurance in order to keep the business open, and so on. (I know a lot of NY art bloggers have been talking about these ideas lately).

Could a lot of the problems that artists and galleries have faced -- when working together -- be solved by government spurred regulation / laws? Just curious.

Russ Martin
Thomas. I agree with you too. I had a very nice relationship with a NYC gallery many years ago. I was young and he took me under his wing. He was about 65 and I was 28. No problems at all. I was lucky. As you said, you have to get to know people. That's very hard though, especially if you live out in the countryside somewhere. At the time, I was living in NJ and went to the "city" a couple of times a week, so I would go to the gallery and hang out. That's the best way to establish a relationship. It's not much different than the dating situation. You have to get to know each other first before either of you "commit". That survey which I spoke of, which indicated that most gallery owners know their artists personally, reflects that.

Romanticize all you want...Fact is, you make something, sell it for 50 percent off to a retailer, then they resell it for double, you are a wholesaler, and you have a product...The fact that you let them have it for free on consignment is just a shorter end of the stick than most wholesalers would allow...The fact that they can buy one at a time or nothing and return them unsold, is another short stick most wholesalers/manufacturers wouldn't allow...What I am saying is that if you want to do the numbers like all the other wholesalers/manufacturers are doing, then realize it, and own it...That also means that all the current laws governing wholesale laws and retail laws etcetera apply and new new mumbo jumbo does not have to be created(though I love mumbo jumbo myself)...It's a business we are talking about here, and there are plenty of business models that explain the wholesale retail relationship...
A partner is the one who works with you in the making of the art...My husband is my partner...We are theoretically 50-50 owners of an art making company...The galleries are my retailers, our retailers...Not my partners...I don't wholesale currently, but if I did, I would do it like any other wholesale set-up...They want a 50 percent discount, let them buy the work, a certain quantity or price amount not just one, over a period of time, with some sort of understanding of longevity of business relationship, a term...Retail price has limits, as suggested by the wholesaler, me/us...Same as the people that make iPhones, or blenders, or lawn furniture or whatever...Rules...Not this wishy washy stuff...If they want to carve out such a big number, then they are just retailers like everyone else...Fairy tale is over...Art has entered the real world...

Thomas Hodges
Sari, I totally disagree with your last comment, obviously you have a very different business arrangement with your representatives than what I do, perhaps because you seem to be running an art mass-production business which you distribute via retailers, whereas I (and I believe a great many other artists!) do not. I guess each to his own, but your wholesaler/retailer business model certainly would not work for me!

More correctly , you obviously didn't understand...I can't help people who don't help themselves ...I am in the wrong crowd...Bye...

Thomas Hodges
A strange closing comment Sari, it's not clear who or what you are addressing.

Brian Sherwin
Sari -- The only way your suggestion would work is if the art is sold to the gallery cheaply. 'Buy low, sell high' would come into play... and at that point the galleries would be seeking artists who are willing to let their work go cheaply.

For example, paying the artist $100 for a painting that ends up being offered for thousands. The galleries would actually end up with more control. Artists would have to work much, much, much harder to earn the kind of money they can now with a 50/50 split if they go the gallery route.

Furthermore, buyers who contact artists directly would no doubt expect to buy as low as the galleries do in that scenario. If you think some artists do what they do for peanuts now... well, it would be far worse in that scenario.

I just don't see how it would work without artists really, really, really nabbing the shortest stick.

Russ Martin
I've been told that galleries in France buy the work from the artists. I believe they pay 50 percent of retail.

Brian Sherwin
Russ -- Perhaps it works in France... and I know that similar structures worked in the past (Not sure how much money we are actually talking about tough).

I just think in the 'here and now' -- especially in the US -- it would lead to galleries seeking great art at an extremely low price. You know that some artists would be willing to let their artwork go for peanuts. They would take the $300 while the gallery ends up selling it for $5,000 (which I'm sure would fuel even more complaints about art galleries).

Artists who criticize the 50/50 split would end up viewing it as a blessing. Ha.

Thomas Hodges
Galleries in France are no different to anywhere else in the world, with the usual commission rate being 50/50. Of course you may find a gallery willing to take the work into inventory (as opposed to consignment) and the price will be market price less their usual commission rate (usually 50 percent). That said, you can find galleries all over the world willing to buy into inventory, it all depends on the artist and the gallery.

An MFA is often necessary if you want to teach at the collegiate level, so that might be a reason to obtain one, gallery success aside.

Omo Misha
I am late to this conversation but, I believe most artists get an MFA because they want to learn. You mentioned getting your work "up to par" and formal education is one way many artists choose to do this. I don't have an MFA and, as an artist, didn't feel I needed one, but I applaud every artist who does! I do not know anyone, in any field, who regrets having gotten an education. As far as the galleries: Yes, the work has to speak for itself but, the MFA certainly won't hurt ;-)

Jaylin A.
While I appreciate what has been emphasised by this article, I woud have to agree with Regina's perspective on the legitimacy of this data. What this data displays to us is only the percentage of artist without a bfa who maintain successful carreers, but it does not precisely display the value of the bfa. The only way to get a clear representation of the bfa's value is to compare the ratios of hired artist and unhired artist with a bfa, and hired artist and unhired artist with a bfa. Depending on how these ratios compare, accuratly describes rather or not the bfa holds any signifigant value. In my personal opinion I dont believe anyone should spend thousands of dollars just to "secure" their career a an artist, if with proper discipline and intense dedication you can certainly make gallery worthy work from your own studio.


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