• "Graduate school is basically an expensive residency program and the commitment to apply should be absolutely genuine. In many ways the outcome is the same, so why not just go for the residency?"

    When I was in high school, art wasn’t exactly a popular subject. It wasn’t even as admired as the Future Business Leaders of America club. The courses centered primarily on 2D methods such as drawing, painting and screen printing, while ceramics cornered the 3D spectrum. Although, that being said, my high school had an excellent art and vocational program and I was also exposed to a basic introduction to art history and took welding and woodshop courses. One could argue that with this very basic training I was prepared to become an artist. All I needed was to move to New York (or Los Angeles) and allow myself time to develop my aesthetic and conceptual skills. I did move to New York after college, however, I also ended up leaving seven years later for graduate school and am currently employed as an Assistant Professor of sculpture and foundations. I will not attempt to comprehensively dissect how art school is evolving (or should

  • evolve) to prepare (or not prepare) students for a life and a career – that would be a book. However, if I ran into the younger version of myself I would tell him this...

    There are probably as many reasons to pursue an advanced art degree as there are places to receive one. Two of the most popular reasons are to be slingshot into fame and fortune, or to step into a “cushy" tenure-track position at a research institution. In reality, neither is easily attained and should not be your sole motivation as an art student. With any luck (along with hard work and focus) you will find yourself in one of these situations. However, it is more likely that you will make a living applying your skills, knowledge and interests in other, possibly innovative and sometimes creative ways. Outside of a professorship there are actually very few jobs tailored for, and advertised, to the recent art school graduate, whose human value to society is often less obvious. While learning to navigate and manage the commercial art world is good knowledge to have, it would also be helpful to acquire some knowledge on how to practically navigate the real world – the ability to prepare a resume for employment, generate a budget and write comprehensively will prove extremely useful. If your goal is to become rich and famous you should maybe pursue finance or law – at least you can become famous for ripping people off and being thrown in prison or keeping people who should be thrown in prison from being thrown in prison.

    I earned my BFA from an art program within a large university. Though this may not have been my plan initially (it’s a long story), this had a major impact on how my practice would function many years later. Firstly, studying at a large university exposed me to a range of topics from physics to philosophy. Secondly, I further developed my fabrication skills, visual language and the ability to analyze and reflect. Thirdly, and this is the most important thing, though I didn’t know it at the

    time, I began to travel and look around, a lot. What started as a biking trip down the California coast has turned into an intermittent road trip that has lasted over ten years, spanning forty-six states and two provinces. Travel and research defines and fuels my practice to this day. The point is that often it is not necessarily how famous the program is or what the program provides you but what you can bring to and extract from the program. You cannot expect to be a successful artist, however that may be defined, by simply completing a series of creative assignments and participating in a few critiques. It requires personal investment and input from the world outside the classroom and outside the discipline of art itself. The artists I revere most are those whose work evolves from some external interest or obsession.

    I was out of school for almost seven years before deciding to apply to graduate school. During that time I lived in New York, maintained a studio practice and held an array of random jobs as an art handler, gallery intern, artist’s assistant, Co-Founder of an artist-run gallery, graphic designer and carpenter for Martha Stewart Living. I didn’t exactly intend to take the time off but one thing led to another and seven years passed. But the time off was actually a benefit. Besides learning to trust my instincts in the studio without daily peer feedback, I also learned a few things about the art world and was not naïve about the elusiveness of its fruit. At an opening of a prominent Chelsea gallery I was in conversation with the director when I was asked what sort of work I did. My answer, in short, was that I was a sculptor. The director’s reply was “That is the hardest shit to sell.” This stuck with me for a long time and for some reason I was compelled to continue making stuff galleries couldn’t sell. This conversation helped release me from focusing exclusively on a career with a commercial gallery and freed me to develop my work and pursue a practice I considered meaningful. I didn’t decide to go to graduate

  • school in hopes of being catapulted into fame or to be linked to the dealers that would forge my illustrious career. I went for the opportunity and the resources it provided to pursue and cultivate my work uninterrupted for two years – despite the load of debt it would generate.

    The MFA is the terminal degree for most visual arts fields, at least for now (the PhD, an excuse for those who didn’t do research in grad school to do research, is being ushered in as a new way to fleece students and over saturate an already saturated academia with more candidates), and is in many ways the last opportunity for you to experiment without risk. That is not to say that you shouldn’t take risks after getting that MFA. It does suggest, however, that taking risks post graduation might be, well, risky – a gallery might pin your continued success on their roster on your ability to produce juicy black canvases that sell, while tenure depends on the ability of your research to continue gaining national and international exposure. On a more positive note, graduate school is an opportunity to analyze your practice and spend precious time researching methods and topics that are of interest to you and not the focus of an assignment. The opportunity to collaborate with other artists and scholars and study alongside scientists, programmers, writers and musicians can also be fertile depending on the type of program you choose.

    Graduate school is basically an expensive residency program and the commitment to apply should be absolutely genuine. In many ways the outcome is the same, so why not just go for the residency? The process of getting into a top graduate program is meticulously similar to being accepted into a respected residency. So unless you are thinking of entering academia in some way it may be wiser to try landing a competitive (and free) residency first. This way you can decide if a focused and prolonged practice is something you are actually interested in and can commit to

    while saving your money. It’s also a chance to travel and work in an unfamiliar setting away from home. Traveling to a residency, exploring new places and interacting with new people can provide a fresh perspective on your studio practice and affect how things arrange themselves in your head.

    As an educator, I have seen hundreds of students pass through the gauntlet of art school with varying degrees of focus and success. A meaningful practice means a lot of things to a lot of people and it is important to know what it means to you. As artists, we are not curing the world’s ailments and there are no clearly defined paths on the other side of the art school tunnel. However, a diverse skill set, resourcefulness and the ability to creatively solve problems can serve you well in the event that you don’t become an instant art world sensation. The DIY philosophy is flourishing and there are some amazing and unorthodox projects involving artists, tinkerers, entrepreneurs, and artist-run spaces that challenge the traditional commercial model. In some ways you are in a unique position to acquire whatever skills you need via emerging technologies, co-labs and incubators to create the type of creative community you think is meaningful. A wise and talented artist once told me “...students get out of art school and they get into this maze trying to get to the cheese. What they need to realize is that the maze is the cheese”—brilliant.