A Brush With Success

Artists use MFAs to break into art, business and teaching worlds.

Special Advertising Sections Writer

Is the idea of the “starving” artist sacrificing comforts for the sake of his art purely a myth?

To some artists who have earned master’s degrees in fine arts (MFA), it is. While many artists still aren’t rolling in the dough, some are making a fine living at it and feel the degree made the difference.

The new MBA?

In its February 2004 issue, the Harvard Business Review listed “The MFA is the new MBA” as one of its breakthrough ideas for the year. To back the idea up, the writer, Daniel H. Pink, noted that art graduate schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of Art Institute of Chicago and others around the country were experiencing an influx of corporate recruiters trolling for talent.

Artists and designers are “the alchemists of the future,” said Richard Koshalek, president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which offers MFAs in art, film and media design, as well as a master of science degree (MS) in industrial design and MAs in criticism and theory. Many corporations are looking for creativity and innovation to set their products apart from others.

“That creative design MFA sensibility is what they’re looking for,” he said.

“All the things you learn in an MBA [program] — finance, marketing, case studies — are important to the world of business, but it leaves out half of the brain,” added Nate Young, executive vice president and chief academic officer of Art Center. “The MFA tackles the other side, which is all about creative literacy and visual literacy.”

A real “super hero,” in Young’s view, would be a person who has both an MBA and an MFA.

In fact, Art Center plans to pioneer a “new model of exchange” with INSEAD, an innovative business school with campuses in France and Singapore.

Beginning this month, a team of product and environmental design students from Art Center will travel to INSEAD’s Fontainebleau campus for a 14-week term to work on real problems related to products, research and development. Later, INSEAD students and faculty will travel to Art Center to share their business knowledge with the design students.

The eventual goal, Koshalek said, is to create a hybrid MFA-MBA program that captures the best characteristics of both degrees.

The teaching world

While some MFA graduates have used their knowledge in the business world, others have used their master’s degrees to help succeed in the education field.

“It’s hard to get a really good teaching job without a master’s degree,” said Catherine Opie, who received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts (BFA) from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1995 and her MFA from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1988. Currently, she is a tenured professor of fine arts at UCLA, teaching graduates and undergraduates.

The degree also helped her hone her photography skills, which she continues to pursue. Her works have been widely exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe and Japan and are in the permanent collections of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“If I had just gotten an undergraduate degree, I don’t think I’d be as good an artist today as I am now,” said Opie, who was recently awarded the Larry Aldrich Award, given to artists whose work has had a significant impact on contemporary visual culture during the previous three years.

She feels that being surrounded by her peers and getting critical input from professors was invaluable, she said.

“I wouldn’t have given up my two years at CalArts for anything,” she said.

Still, she said, an MFA isn’t necessary for every artist.

“I know a lot of artists who haven’t gone to graduate school who are amazing artists,” she said. “It’s important [to have a master’s] if you want to work your way up in the university system,” but, ultimately, a teacher can help one hone his or her skills but can’t turn just anyone into a good artist if the talent isn’t there.

While Opie makes a good living through sales of her work, the photographer said she loves teaching and wouldn’t want to give it up.

“Being an artist can be a very solipsistic existence,” she said. “When you’re sharing ideas and experiences within a classroom context and you help people figure out why they make stuff, you also learn so much. Some kids actually know more about things than I do.”

The art world

Emilie Halpern, a multimedia artist who got her MFA in visual arts from Art Center in 2002, said that even as an undergraduate in the UCLA art program, she realized the benefit of getting an MFA.

Since Los Angeles is such a vast city, arts graduate schools can serve as community focal points for artists, Halpern said. Since most of the teachers in grad school programs are active artists themselves with connections to galleries and museums, they often help boost the careers of their students.

“I would not have had a gallery [representative] or the shows I’ve had if I hadn’t met the people I met in grad school,” she said.

Art gallery representatives such as Peter Goulds of L.A. Louver Gallery say they check out works at shows at such L.A. art schools as UCLA and Otis College of Art + Design.

Goulds said he discovered L.A. artist Gajin Fujita’s work at an undergraduate art school show at Otis. Fujita, a painter and lithographer, went on to get his MFA at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Goulds also discovered the work of painter Rebecca Campbell in the MFA show at UCLA.

“ I was attracted to their maturity as artists and their very well-developed sense of art history — both in their work and as people,” Goulds said.

Halpern, a Paris-born artist whose romantic and nature-themed sculpture, photos, drawings and video art are available for viewing at the Anna Helwing Gallery in Los Angeles, said she honed her technical abilities at UCLA.

But she learned even more than that in the MFA program at Art Center.

“I learned that art is also a dialogue and that you’re not just making things for yourself,” she said. “It is a business to a certain degree. You have to communicate who you are and what you’re making” to potential buyers, curators and gallery owners.

After she graduated, Halpern was accepted into a fellowship at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena that entailed working with children on their art. She acquired critical teaching skills, which in turn helped her land a job with the Pasadena and Glendale school districts when the fellowship ended. In her current post, she puts on art workshops in the schools and at the Armory. She also continues to create her own artwork.

“I’m paid well enough, and teaching itself is a rewarding experience,” she said. “It gives me structure and inspiration. It makes me work on art, but in a different way.”

Despite the new focus on the fine arts, Halpern said that being an artist sometimes feels like “an against-all-odds career choice.”

For instance, she recalled telling her parents’ friends that she was studying fine arts. Their faces lit up when they misunderstood and thought she said her major was “finance.”

“No, fine arts,” she repeated as she watched their expressions change to looks of consternation.

But Halpern didn’t let others’ concerns dissuade her. Art has always been an important part of her life since she grew up in a family of artists. She can’t imagine that changing.

From art to dance, MFA degree is offered in a variety of fields at local schools

The MFA is often the “terminal” or final degree in many arts programs, which also might include specialties in creative writing, dance, film and video, music, theater and film.

Among the six departments that fall under UCLArts at UCLA, MFAs are offered in art, design/media arts and in dance.

The MFA degree “gives you the time and space to really focus,” said UCLArts Dean Christopher Waterman. “It puts you in a university where the whole point of the institution is to have a discussion about the meaning of the work, along with engaging in new technologies for making art.”

At CalArts, the Valencia-based school started in 1961 by Walt and Roy Disney, 21 different MFAs are offered within its six schools, including ones in experimental animation and North Indian music.

CalArts President Steven Lavine thinks working on a MFA at his school is similar to working on an advanced degree at Caltech in Pasadena. Students at both schools work with those who are on the cutting edge of their fields with the aim of furthering research, he said.

“The research in the arts [involves] creating new art,” he said. The emphasis is not only on improving your skills but also on contributing something new to the field and the world.


Ruth Stroud is a freelance writer based in Manhattan Beach.