Help Desk

HELP DESK: School Daze

Welcome to HELP DESK, step into my office! Each week I’ll be answering your queries about making, finding, marketing, buying, selling—or any other activity related to—contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues.

Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions (you can use a free anonymizer like Anonymouse.org if you want) and save the comments section for continuing the conversation on the topic at hand. All submissions will be treated as anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving.

Your counselor, hard at work.

I have about completed my BA in Studio Art with a concentration in photography, but at my school there is really only one digital photo class so I feel ill prepared both for grad school and the “real world”. Ultimately I prefer working in film but I am wrestling with myself over the eternal dilemma of being true to your work vs. selling out. I am definitely interested in going to grad school and earning an MFA in photography but I am afraid I will be “behind” the other students who went to schools with more developed programs. What are your thoughts?

Let’s break your question into its constituent parts: first, you feel ill prepared for grad school (I’m not sure I know which “real” world you’re talking about, so we’ll set that part aside). Second, you feel that working with digital (since you prefer film) is selling out. Third, you’re worried that your skill set will leave you at a disadvantage in regards to your classmates in the hypothetical grad school in your mind.

I’m going to begin by answering your digital dilemma. Here it is: if you feel you need to build skills in digital photography, you can easily find classes (usually cheap ones) at the local community college, photo center, or camera store. You may not love digital, but if your aim is to support yourself as a photojournalist/sports or wedding photographer then you’ll have little choice but to get on board with the prevailing technology. Really, it’s that simple.

As for your art practice, if it is truly the case that your work must be in film to be fully realized then go ahead and shoot it with film. You should use whatever medium best suits the work and your practice—to quote McLuhan, the medium is the message and the fact that your work is in film will actually be part of the content. However, in terms of grad school (and hopefully the long life you lead afterward), your work is going to change; knowing as much as possible about the various tools available will allow you to experiment with clarity and confidence.

It’s true that most grad programs don’t teach technical skills. The MFA is more about your willingness to engage fully with your work on an intellectual level. However, that doesn’t mean that technical knowledge can’t be gained as part of your studio practice if you are diligent and motivated. Graduate school in the arts is largely self-directed, and it’s up to you to pursue your interests and be guided mainly by your own lights. This also applies for any “real world” you might encounter after you leave grad school. The learning cannot stop when you toss your mortarboard up in the air.

Acquiring a new skill set is not “selling out.” In an MFA program you’ll be too busy figuring who the hell you are and what the hell that person makes. You can worry about selling out when you have a buyer, but until that moment comes I wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Bruce High Quality Foundation wants you to skip school and hang out with Chris Burden instead.

I am considering getting a MFA in sculpture/new media, but it is very difficult for me to get a complete sense of the different MFA programs both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately my best resources have been asking friends and old teachers. From them I get a mix of old information, rumors and myth. Can you tell me the top three MFA sculpture programs in the U.S. and the top three abroad? If not, can you tell me about some resources that can help me learn about these schools beyond their, nearly useless, websites?

To begin, let me tell you how glad I am that you’ve already figured out how useless a school’s website can be. From the un-navigable layouts to the endless paragraphs of self-aggrandizing prose, a school’s website can be really ineffective if you’re looking to understand the culture of the institution or the kinds of students who attend. I have first-hand experience with this dilemma myself: when I was applying to grad school, I did a lot of preliminary online research; but when I visited the schools in person, my experience on campus often contradicted my initial impressions. One website made me fall deeply in love, until I interviewed the school’s students and they all were so sad and burned out and disinterested. Another institution seemed very scholarly—important to me because I like art theory—but the second-year students who toured me around were dippy and uninformed. You’re right to be suspicious of websites, and also prudent to ask your colleagues and old professors.  But mostly I’m glad you wrote in, because I’m going to share some hard-earned wisdom with you. Come lean a little closer to the screen because I’m going to tell you a secret about the top three art schools:

They don’t exist.

The good old days: an easel, a model, some charcoal and a tightly-laced corset.

Oh, yes, websites can extol the virtues of the mega-famous faculty and the students who win awards, or the number of curators who troll the MFA show every year, and you can try to impress me with studio size, or student-to-teacher ratios, or just plain old Ivy-League-ness, but I insist—“best” is a racket.

Now before everybody tries to shout me down about how important it is to make “contacts” at Yarvard University/StanArts/School of the Art School of L.A., I want you to consider this: the Best School Ever is the school that is best for you, which is to say that it matters much less how supposedly awesome the school is by some supposedly objective measure, and much more how it fits you and your goals and your learning style. Is it of great consequence to have art-star faculty if they are crappy teachers, or always flying off to biennials and don’t have time for you? Do you need a first-class media lab if you’re a studio potter? Does it matter that representatives of commercial galleries roam the halls if you’re a performance artist? If you don’t care about research, do you want to go to a school that requires a lengthy written thesis? Probably not.

See? Any asshole can go to Andover and Yale. It's not the school, it's what you make of your time in academia—and beyond.

So the Top School is the school that will best suit your needs, and I’m going to help you find it. Start by making a list of your goals. What do you expect to accomplish in an MFA program? What would the most awesome dream program have? Be honest, and write it all down because it’s going to help you find the right place. Now, based on that list, check out the websites. Are there faculty who are doing what you want to do? Does a school have the right kind of facilities to produce your work? Is it in area you want to live? Take a look at the courses they offer. Which are required? Do any sound interesting? Most schools also post photos of student work. Is any of it good or does it suck? You can do this basic research online without too much trouble, and you should be able to come up with a list of about five or ten schools that interest you.

Now contact the schools. Email admissions and tell them you want to come for a visit. Ask them if you can meet with some faculty members, the ones you dug up online. Make appointments with two or three instructors, the dean or director if possible, and at least two students. Meeting students is important because you want to know what kind of student goes to that school. This goes double for small programs! If there are only six artists admitted every year, you should find out if the year ahead of yours is a bunch of pretentious dickheads, because you will have to see these people every day. Check out the studios, too. Yes, it’s nice to go and admire the facilities, but what you want to discern here is whether or not the students are encouraged to be active. Are the studios empty? Or is the hive buzzing? What are they working on? Is it any good?

The right school can be magic. (Sorry, I just couldn't resist.)

I promise that meeting people face to face will help you find the best school. It also signals to the school that you are an enthusiastic student, and as an added bonus, faculty and administration will remember you when they see your application. Yes, it’s expensive to fly around and do this kind of research, but look at it this way: you can pay $1000 to find the right fit, or you can waste $60,000 on two years of being completely miserable. If you really can’t afford to travel extensively, at least make it to one of the three national Graduate Portfolio Days, where many schools have representatives to meet with you and answer your questions.

And as a final word of advice, I’d like to add that after you’ve been out of school for two or three years, no one but your mother cares where you went anyway. It’s more about what you make and where you’ve shown it that counts. So grad school should be a time to focus on making your work better, and there’s a great institution out there that will meet you where you’re at and then help you advance. Good luck!

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