Friday, August 5, 2011

Why an MFA?

"Out of curiosity what did your Master of Fine Arts in photography bring you?  What were you doing before you did the MFA and what kind of work were you doing in the first 4-5 years after your MFA?  I'm contemplating returning to school....." From an emailed question.
That's a big question and I don't think my path is typical. I finished undergrad and did allot of things non-photographic for a living (welding, auto mechanics, union organizing, industrial mechanic) before starting to do commercial work a couple of years before going back to grad school. All the while I continued to pursue my personal B&W photography with a vengeance. It was ten years between finishing undergrad and starting grad school. Grad school gave me the opportunity to really think about what/why I was doing what I was doing artistically. It also gave me the credentials, self confidence and legitimacy (for NEA grants and teaching at a university level for example) to subsequently have a very diverse and rewarding dual career in academia and commercial work. It was well worth the effort and expense (I had a full ride with living expenses, plus grants but it still cost me $).

For me grad school was a great experience. I was in my early thirties with two kids and a wife, but I knew what I was doing artistically and school just kind of raised that to another level and opened doors. It was not so much what I was taught as being able to concentrate on my work in a professional nurturing environment. For the first five years after school, I went back to doing commercial work but also increasingly got shows and exposure of my personal work and started teaching at UNM part-time. It also impacted my commercial work as my kind of clientele respect formal art education and my "art shows" and publications turned out to be the best advertising for my commercial endeavors. It has been a very symbiotic dual career. The commercial work also provided the financial support and equipment for allot of my personal work.


  1. Your path makes a lot of sense - you were in the field and knew that was what you wanted to do. Seems like trying to make a go of it before you do the MFA would make the experience much more valuable.

    How would your answer change for someone in today's world who will probably come out of the MFA with $50-$100k in additional debt over whatever they had from undergrad school?

  2. Ed, an art degree of any kind is always a roll of the dice. I don't think I'd have invested 50-100k in an MFA even though I had a business to go back to and pay it off. It wouldn't have made financial sense to me. BUT I know people who have gone that route and done fine, ending up a successful artist or in arts education and making 150-200K a year.


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