Reframing the Debt Debate with BFAMFAPhD




A public reappraisal of the Masters of Fine Arts degree—its affordability, its promises and its alternatives—has picked up momentum over the past few months. While MFAs are increasingly viewed as the ticket to showing at galleries and obtaining teaching positions, a chorus of artists and critics, including Coco Fusco and Jerry Saltz, has questioned the role of postgraduate education in the arts (in the literary world, meanwhile, a new book from n+1 examines the professionalization of writers). Well-intentioned teachers and alums frame the MFA issue as one of personal choice and a clearer-eyed accounting of investment vs. potential return, but a younger cadre of artists is posing more urgent questions: what are applicants looking for and aspiring to when they consider postgraduate schooling in art? Can those needs and desires be met collectively, for the long term, and without taking on huge debt?

BFAMFAPhD, a new “interactive website, installation, and community of thinkers” organized by Caroline Woolard and Lika Volkova, bills itself as a platform for asking those questions and eliciting proposals. Its monthly event series at the Queens Museum continues on Saturday, March 15th from 6-8pm, with Mark McGurl, author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, in conversation with Leigh Claire La Berge, a professor of English at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

A.i.A. spoke with Woolard about the difficulties and the possibilities involved in changing the way an ever-growing population of arts degree holders imagines itself.

NATE COHAN You’ve been involved in organizing artists for a few years now, through your work with OurGoods and TradeSchool. How has your work so far led to organizing BFAMFAPhD?

CAROLINE WOOLARD Those projects have been incredibly inspiring and humbling for me, but more and more I realized that these online platforms that connect people through relationships of mutual aid are not powerful unless there’s a sense of longevity-truly deep relationships of mutual aid take a long time to foster, and there’s a deficiency of trust when you know you won’t see a person again.

My co-conspirator Lika Volkova and I wanted to look at possibilities for long-term, place-based organizing, and that’s what moved us towards BFAMFAPhD: both to look at how artists are professionalized through art school, and to make proposals about other kinds of subjectivities that might come out of an alternative to, for example, a debt-based, short-term MFA program. What if artists didn’t see this huge number of graduates-one million BFA, MFA and PhD graduates every ten years, at this point-as a kind of competition or as a debt pool, but instead as an opportunity to be a collective force, to make collective demands, pool financial capital, and raise regard for cultural organizing?

COHAN Your public meeting on Feb. 2, the first of four at the Queens Museum, centered around taking existing statistics and generating data visualizations—is visualizing, taken broadly, a central concern of the project?

WOOLARD The initial stages of the project have been trying to organize what I would call professionalized artists, that is, artists who go to school to participate in an artistic field. The question of how many of us there even are is one that haunts policy makers and arts nonprofits alike. I thought that since I know a lot of technologists, computer engineers, graphic designers and statisticians, why don’t we look at the census and a database called the IPEDS, which tracks graduation rates from all institutions of higher education? How can we look at these data sets and analyze them and try to make sense of the total number of people we might possibly organize with?

COHAN It seems especially difficult to get people to think rationally about their aspirations for an MFA program.

WOOLARD I would love to have the next step of this visualization be a clear accounting of three things: the probability that you’d get a teaching job that could repay your student loans, the probability that if you were successful in the art market you could sustain that and repay your loans, and the probability of nonprofit/grant success in a very scarce market that fosters a culture of competition and celebrity.

I want to reconsider what options people think they have and also be honest about how few of those options are ever going to pay off the kind of debt that people think they need to incur. Then, I want to honor the non-instrumental desires that an MFA provides: to enter a community of refined discourse, to hone craft, to be in a space of accountability and deadlines.

COHAN BFAMFAPhD is accepting applications through February 15th—what are you accepting applicants for, and what kinds of interests are you looking for?

WOOLARD I see this as a discourse-creating project that helps people reframe their desires. How can cultural producers work together to create a cultural front that does not rely on debt or an itinerant life?

One proposal that makes visible the infrastructures that normalize student debt is to attempt to buy a building together, instead of going into debt for an MFA. Unfortunately, in this country it’s much easier to go into debt for $100,000 in student loans than to get a mortgage, so while artists are structurally supported in generating money for institutions like Columbia, Yale, or even Cooper Union with student loans, now especially with the foreclosure crisis, it’s almost impossible to get a mortgage to take on a cooperative housing project.

If 50 prospective BFA, MFA, and PhD students could be supported in pooling $200-2,000 a month for four years, they could generate $2,400,000 to buy a building. Beyond a cooperative loan fund or rotating savings fund, we hope to connect artists looking for affordable housing to a wider base, in this case a coalition like the New York City Community Land Initiative. Imagine: tenants rights organizations and housing organizers working with professionalized artists as allies in a shared struggle where housing is a human (not just an artist’s) right!

The most important point is this: there are over 3 million artists in this country, and we are tired of working, winning and losing in isolation! Together, we could make a powerful cultural front. We could show up for each other, and for non-arts struggles, en masse.