The Art of Keeping Oneself Fed in Art School

Master's of fine arts programs focus on the big picture, and the bottom line.

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Courses also teach students how to find other sources of income, such as grants, fellowships, and residencies. Marilyn Arsem of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has taught a graduate course called Strategies for Maintaining a Creative Life in the Face of the Daily Grind. In one exercise, students write funding proposals, then function as the review board for one another. "It's surprising that they can change their hats so effectively in that simple exercise," she says. "As soon as they don't have the time to look through every­thing, they're suddenly like, 'Why isn't [the information] in the first paragraph?' and they put it at the bottom of the pile. They learn quickly how you have to frame your work."

Most professional practices courses help students learn to write clear, concise artist statements and encourage them to document their work in portfolio books and online. Public speaking, too, plays an important role in D'Ignazio's course, because artists must be prepared to present lectures, be on panel discussions, and give interviews.

McLellan stresses networking—both the old-fashioned, person-to-person way and through today's Internet-based social media. "I think it's easier now than ever to get people to see your work," she says. "You can post it on Facebook and your friends will see it, and if someone comments on it, their friends will see it. The worst thing is to be operating in a vacuum."

Another way schools prepare art students for life after their M.F.A. is to adjust their expectations. Professors quash the idea that an artist will be discovered and make it big, or that commercial gallery representation or a tenure-track teaching job are the keys to success. Instead, they have students apply their creativity to forging their own unique career path. "It's hard to set aside time for art on a regular basis in this culture if you aren't immediately getting money to do it," says Arsem. "But to develop as an artist, you need to trust that it's going to be worth it eventually."

Though it has been hard on them, the recession has helped new artists in many ways, too. "There are plenty of young people who are experimenting and not worrying about sales right now," says McLellan. "They can't sell it anyway, so why not do something more adventurous?"

As for that starvation cliché, some see the trend of learning the business of art as, to use a finance term, a way to ensure a return on investment.

Michael Dax Iacovone, a photographer and conceptual artist who graduated from MICA last year with his second M.F.A., credits the school with giving him the tools to obtain a fellowship at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington and maintain his studio practice alongside his job teaching computer graphics at McKinley Technology High School, also in Washington. "I might have waited for someone to come tell me, but there's nobody there to tell you how to make it in the art world," Iacovone says. "It's not like where you get an entry-level position and work your way up the ladder."

Art, and the career path to successfully making it, are unpredictable. So professional practices courses will continue to be a valued part of a graduate education. "It's always hard to be an artist. You have to want it. You have to fight for it," says McLellan. "I want to make [students'] fantasy idea of themselves as an artist rooted in reality."