In the last week I’ve been asked three times for advice about grad school. As much as I’d like to offer up some sage words, I know very little about that world. I didn’t get an MFA and haven’t taught at a grad school. I have some preconceptions about various programs, but I’m honestly pretty ignorant.
One should be wary of taking advice from Mark Kostabi, but this is how he answered the MFA question in his perversely calculating (but equally entertaining) Artnet Column:
Dear Mark: I am a sculptor living in New York and have an unusual background. “Unusual” meaning that I didn’t go to grad school. And without the proper connections in the art world, I have struggled. I missed out on the opportunity to benefit from the practice of “art studentism,” as you call it. But lately I have been invited to better and better shows and seemed to be on the verge of something, and I thought the pain was over. My good friend, who is a pretty successful artist, “confessed” to me she really thinks everyone thinks an artist with no MFA on the bio looks sloppy. I would love to go to grad school but I can’t afford it. Is there no other way?
Dear Anonymous: Sometimes I wonder if I had gone to grad school, would I now have billions, instead of mere millions, in the bank? But then I remember that I’m often asked to lecture to grad students, so in a way I am in grad school. I’m definitely not against formal education — I went to art school and loved it, but I didn’t get any kind of degree, except a high school diploma. I was taught, at Cal State Fullerton in 1980, that a degree didn’t matter to make it in the art world. So before finishing college, I left California and enrolled in the New York art world, which was like going back to high school, with all its cliques and social games about whom you’re seen with and what dinners and parties you’re invited to.
But that was then and this is now. Except for occasional reverent musings about guru John Baldessari at Cal Arts, few people in the 1980s ever talked about the importance of art school or which school you went to. That was contrary to the opulent ‘80s party mood. To put the words “Basquiat” and “Yale” in the same sentence would have been like writing gibberish in two completely different languages.
Today, however, I’d say that you should arm yourself with anything you can to make you, your art and your resume as impressive as possible. The climate has changed. Collectors and dealers now respond to words like “Yale,” “Columbia” and “Hunter.” But it’s not mandatory. Ultimately collectors are not hanging your diploma. It’s true we all know that John Currin went to Yale, but how many people can tell you what school Picasso, de Chirico or Caravaggio went to?
Artists are ultimately remembered for their original artistic achievement, not for the prestige of their degree. Art Studentism really isn’t the only way to enter the art market. Since you’re already in shows and can’t afford grad school, focus on those shows. Build on those relationships and the successes you already have. Talk to the people who are already supporting your art and let them know you’d like to work together to amplify the business — but not just for you — help them succeed with your work too.