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