Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that follows sociologist Gary Alan Fine through his ongoing research into the constitutive components and consequences of artists being trained in academia. Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern, has spent the past two years observing and studying the intricacies of MFA programs at his home institution as well as Illinois State University and UIC. These three schools are part of a huge number of MFA programs that have sprung up over the past half-century: the Chronicle reports Fine estimating there are around 300 such programs today. This research will eventually be put into a book about campus-based art worlds.
Fine has sat in on classes and critiques, conducted interviews and studio visits with MFA candidates, and attended exhibition openings, parties and other social events related to the art programs. In fact, Fine was beginning his research as I was finishing my Masters in Northwestern’s Art Theory and Practice program. I watched my cohort’s initial wariness of speaking about one another’s practices “on the record” as Fine took pages of notes during our discussions. Quickly though, his affable presence was a fixture in our goings on. He joined us for pizza parties, and spent time in our studios.
One particularly sensitive question that Fine is following up on is the life and career of MFA-trained artists beyond graduation. On the one hand, he has found that artists who continue to attach themselves to academia as either students or professors can sustain their practices without their work being sold through commercial galleries. But Fine has also observed that many who leave school when they graduate enter the workforce at minimum wage. The substance of his study is to articulate a full range of benefits and outcomes that MFA programs can offer artists who study in them. (Matt Morris)