How do I get an MFA without a BFA?
May 30, 2008 12:33 AM   Subscribe

I would like to end up teaching fine arts (specifically printmaking) at a university level but have a Bachelor's Degree in a completely different field and only a small amount of experience. Where do I start?

I have always been a relatively artistic person - having spent the majority of high school drawing when I should have been paying attention. Despite the fact that I was often told I had artistic talent, I never considered art to be a possible life direction for me because I was too convinced I was headed towards post-production for film and television. I even went so far as to intern with a small studio in DC that worked in post-production (specifically sound engineering and design). Short of it: I didn't apply to art school.

Instead, I attended a fairly reputable but small liberal arts college and majored in East Asian Studies with a concentration in Japan (did you see that coming?). Around junior year, my interest in printmaking was peaked by a friend. I enrolled in an intermediate drawing class and a printmaking class. That marked the beginning of two years of inky hands and the constant smell of solvent. I graduated with a BA in East Asian Studies and moved to Japan.

Now, 2 years later, I am starting to think about my return to the states. I would like to end up teaching at a university level. I love the passion and drive that university students have (especially in art colleges) and find the teaching process to be incredibly rewarding. Oh, and printmaking makes me happy in a way that few other things do (music is on that list but I don't have the math or skill in me to teach music).

I would like to enter a graduate program but am worried that few art graduate programs would even consider a candidate who 1) has little experience and a tiny portfolio and 2) doesn't have an undergraduate degree in the fine arts. While in Japan, I have been working with a woodcutting master (of sorts) who has been, kinda, teaching me his partially non-traditional method of Japanese printmaking but the progress has been quite slow due to his age and my having a full time job.

What are my options? Do I apply to graduate programs and see what happens? Do I apply to internships so that I can work on my portfolio? Do I need to acquire an undergraduate degree in fine arts before I can move on? <----worst case scenario.

My only issue aside from the whole not-having-a-fine-arts-degree-and-wanting-to-work-in-the-fine-arts-field is that, and this might be a bigger problem than I realize, I don't ever want to be a "starving artist". That sort of uncertainty doesn't sit well with me. I can't work at Starbucks and do my printmaking on the side - waiting to be noticed. That's why music was never an option.

I appreciate any and all advice, anecdotes, etc. I feel very lost and am worried that I made a grave, unfixable mistake that will result in me working in a field that I don't want to be in or in me unnecessarily repeating 4 years of college. Thanks for your help.
posted by RobertFrost to Education (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt you'll need an undergrad degree, but you should work on making prints to demonstrate your interest and skill to get into grad school. Teaching is rather far off and you'd be better to focus on getting good at printmaking (you can't teach it if you're not really good at it).
posted by beerbajay at 1:42 AM on May 30, 2008

Well you certainly want to have your cake and eat it don't you? The quickest way for an artist to become a non-starving artist is becoming a teacher. I would say that Grad schools will certainly value the artistic experience and independance you have gained for yourself in Japan, and I would look towards developing how you present and use this experience in your ongoing practice as key to your progression in this field.

Now firstly stop panicking, secondly, get real: If you want to be an artist be prepared for the financial risks - they come with the territory. Being a starving artist doesn't sit well with anyone, but some people find it easier to put up with that, than to deny the artistic impulse. Everyone has to start from somewhere, but motivation is something that no art-school can teach you, if it's what you want then you'll find a way of making it work.
posted by munchbunch at 2:16 AM on May 30, 2008

When I was an undergrad at RISD a majority of the grad students I knew held undergraduate degrees in non-artistic fields.
posted by apetpsychic at 2:17 AM on May 30, 2008

THE majority.
posted by apetpsychic at 2:19 AM on May 30, 2008

If uncertainty doesn't sit well with you than art might not be your thing. Maybe take your portfolio to the uni in your town and ask an instructor to look at it and give you feedback. It's really about the work and so you should get an honest assessment from a professional as to whether you need the type of skill building that undergrad provides or whether you are past the point of needing that level of education. Maybe they will just suggest courses to fill in your weak spots. Grad school admissions are highly competitive and you'll need a kick ass portfolio and a compelling narrative to even get a second look. Good luck.
posted by KTrujillo at 2:28 AM on May 30, 2008

*then* art...sheesh...see what being an artist does to you?
posted by KTrujillo at 2:31 AM on May 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses everybody!

beerbajay: Very true. I am making quite a few prints while I am here in Japan. The only problem lies with the amount of free time I have due to the full time job and the tools available. Pretty much all that is available to me here is wood and linoleum which kind of narrows down the aspects of printmaking that I can hone while I am here. That's what worries me. When I leave here, I will be pretty damn proficient at those two materials but its the lithograph/etching/screenprint/monoprint/etc. world that I am worried about. I guess those are the types of things that can be worked on in school.

munchbunch: I definitely understand the financial risk associated with the choice of being an artist. I guess I just can't embrace it in the way that some people can.
posted by RobertFrost at 3:00 AM on May 30, 2008

Well you don't have to be an expert in all fields to get into grad school. A lot of what grad school is about is getting good at a particular technique/approach. So long as you have a good foundation to work upon, and you show that you're both interested in a specific area and have the diligence to work in/through/whatever it, you should be okay. If you're aiming at teaching, I guess you should diversify while in grad school, but doing good block printing seems a lot harder to me than doing monoprints or screenprints.
posted by beerbajay at 3:15 AM on May 30, 2008

"Do I apply to graduate programs and see what happens?"

Ok, I teach finance at the Masters level in London, and lots of time potential students will approach us - I'm a Lecturer, but also Professors - off the record with similar queries. They're either unsure about their backgrounds (like you are), or sometimes wish to understand in more detail that the programme entails.

And that's ok on both counts, because at our particular University we ultimately accept or reject students anyhow (not Administration). I teach on a few different degree tracks (Quantitative Finance, International Finance & MBA) and if we see enough interest in the subject matter we accept. And we have accepted students, provisionally, subject to them completing certain courses, if we feel they need additional preparation to succeed.

So I'd suggest identifying a couple of schools you'd like to study at, find out who is running the programme and approach them direct with this query. In other words, by pass Administration and the formal Admissions process for an "off the record" discussion.

From my viewpoint, you'd get bonus points for proactivity and effort, and a good shot at acceptance into our programme.
posted by Mutant at 5:50 AM on May 30, 2008

I just sent you an EMail regarding your question. The short version is : I went to a liberal arts school, got a non-Art BA and made it to grad school and eventually a teaching position in Fine Arts. It can be done. I also included a recommendation to check out my alma mater.
posted by Slothrop at 5:59 AM on May 30, 2008

I know a bunch of people with MFA's, and only one has a BFA. The others have the usual random assortment of BA's that you would expect, from history to english to math. So that's no barrier.

Being an art professor is a fairly competitive field -- in the two art departments I know fairly well, they have a few permanent tenured/tenure-track positions, and lots and lots of one to three year visiting positions. They cycle lots of visiting wanna-be art professors through, but don't keep them -- it's cheaper, gives the students exposure to new things, etc. Being a professor is one of the few ways to be an artist with a salary, health insurance, etc, so you are not the only person with that goal.

There are also a number of printmaking-only galleries, coops, and institutes in the US and Canada -- at a minimum you should be aware of who they are and what they do; they may also be in a position to help evaluate your professional aspirations. From the person I know well who runs a gallery, I am told that most of the artists who show their work there can't live off of their art alone -- many have a spouse with steady employment, others do what you are doing now by having a day job and doing their art on weekends and evenings.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on May 30, 2008

Nthing that it's very common for applicants to MFA programs to have a BA in another field. Your experience in Japan will make for a fabulous application.
posted by desuetude at 6:41 AM on May 30, 2008

Response by poster: Mutant: While I do have a couple schools in mind, I haven't really narrowed it down yet as I still have some time (a little under a year) before I apply. Once I have them narrowed down, I will definitely get in contact with professors directly - as you suggested. Best to bypass the bureaucracy of Administrations I suppose!

Slothrop, thank you for the email! Quite helpful. I just shot you one in return.

Forktine: At the moment, I am only aware of a few of the the printmaking galleries, coops and institutes that you mention - one being the Lower East Side Printshop in New York. Do you have any suggestions or links to some that I should be aware of. I'd be quite grateful!
posted by RobertFrost at 6:48 AM on May 30, 2008

Well, I'm no expert -- I just have a friend who was involved in this. So don't take this info as the final word, but rather as a beginning point:

The Washington Printmaker's Gallery is a cooperative gallery in DC.

Crows Shadow may be Native-only, I'm not sure, but they do produce some good work and might be willing to answer questions even if you weren't eligible for their programs.

I know there is a really good printmaking resource on Granville Island in Vancouver, Canada, but can't remember the name -- it might be New Leaf or Malaspina, or maybe another?

And of course Japan is a big place for printmaking -- a simple google search for "Tokyo printmaking" returns a lot of really exciting-looking results. If you leave Japan without making contact with some of the really good contemporary printmakers there I think you will regret it later. You seem to be thinking of being in Japan as time away from your serious printmaking, but in fact Japan has tremendous printmaking resources and opportunities. I guess my point here is that you are seeing your BA and work in Japan as being in tension with your desire for an MFA, when in fact it seems to me that the BA and being in Japan may be the biggest help you could imagine for your MFA.
posted by Forktine at 7:18 AM on May 30, 2008

I have an MFA. Not a single one of my classmates, as far as I know, had a BFA.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:16 PM on May 30, 2008

I'm in a different field and have a BFA, so take this with whatever salt needed.

But simply because one is an artist does not necessarily mean that you have to starve. I'm currently making a living in my field (theatre). I recently did a locally sponsored workshop called "The Artist as Entrepreneur" and I would highly recommend it to any visual artist on how to make money on your work. Unfortunately, I don't know if they have anything remotely similar in Japan.

Okay, now that my artist != starving bit is done, I would suggest putting together the best application and portfolio possible. I had two friends do the grad school application process this year, and while neither got into their top choice school, but got into very respectable programs. Both have spent the past few years working hard to get their name out there in the field and to get as much experience possible.

Also, while teaching as a long range goal is a great one, you have to consider all of the implications of teaching for college. Are you willing to teach anywhere if there is a position available? Are the grad schools you're looking at offering TA-ships? Do you mind if you're only an adjunct and not a full professor? What if you can't get a position right away?

All things to think about.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 4:30 PM on May 30, 2008

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