By Rachel Furnari
“I’m a romantic about everything else in my life, but not about art school,” says Erin Chlaghmo, who begins her MFA program in Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) this fall. Romanticism, though, may be exactly what’s required to assume the burden of debt that comes with a degree that can cost upwards of $40,000 a year for a two- or three-year program. Chlaghmo is one of an increasing number of artists to pursue their graduate degrees in studio-arts without the guarantee of a lucrative career (or even a living wage) to pay off their student loans. Most students have a surprising and unmitigated enthusiasm for their graduate work despite being aware of the low odds for successfully working full-time as an artist—of being chosen out of the 300-plus yearly graduates for a show with one of a few commercial galleries in Chicago—and the attendant financial risks that have been exacerbated by the current economic environment.
In interviews with students from five local studio-art MFA programs—Columbia College, Northwestern, SAIC, the University of Chicago (U of C) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC)—descriptions of access to faculty, visiting artists, financial aid, professional development programs and limited material resources reveal how these artists make use of their programs to create art; to think, to network, to teach and, most importantly, to have a stake in an ongoing, critical conversation about contemporary art—though the quality of this conversation was definitely up for debate. While these schools have their differences, their students and graduates make up an undeniable segment of the contemporary art scene in Chicago and in a real way represent its future. Their institutional alignments, then, are crucial in determining how and in what direction the Chicago scene develops. By identifying those alignments it may be possible to better understand how the energy and creativity of these students might be expended in order to transform contemporary art in Chicago. Can the arts community undo the institutional biases in order to acknowledge the means by which art schools shape the Chicago art environment for practitioners, curators, dealers, audiences and critics? [Read more…]