The MFA: Pyramid, Ponzi or not?

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A number of bloggers out there have given serious consideration to the proposition that the MFA can be considered as a kind of Ponzi scheme. And it’s not just bloggers; articles and even books have been written on this subject, apparently.

While the majority of the writers seem to hail from Creative Writing departments, their arguments are I think generalizable to Visual Arts MFAs as well. In fact, one of the best and earliest arguments along this line that I’ve come across was all about the Visual Arts, but it predates the blogosphere and is unfortunately behind a paywall: Karen Kitchel’s “The MFA: Academia’s Pyramid Scheme”, published in New Art Examiner back in 1999.

“Pyramid Scheme” is probably a better metaphor than “Ponzi Scheme” although they both point in the same direction. Pyramid or Ponzi, it’s not a difficult argument to make. Just about the only decently paying gig available to artists of any stripe these days is in academia as a college or university art prof (although the really good jobs are becoming increasingly rare as the work is farmed out to low-paid adjuncts and sessionals). Apart from a brief period of rapid expansion in the 1960s and early 70s academia has consistently graduated far more MFAs than it can possibly hire. Even a painter can do the math: my alma mater UBC probably graduates more MFAs every two years than it has hired in the past 20. If a sufficient number of other schools are doing the same, the field would have to be growing very rapidly to accomodate all these grads. It isn’t.
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