Friday, May 29, 2009

MFA vs. studio PhD


"Soutter points out that there is already an increased emphasis being placed on research in MFA programs, as a way of preparing students in case they proceed to PhD studies."

Will the studio-based PhD replace the MFA as the terminal degree in the visual arts? That is the question addressed in the article, "The Currency of Practice: Reclaiming Autonomy for the MFA" by Susette S. Min, Senam Okudzeto, Martin Beck, Gareth James, Odili Donald Odita, and Lucy Soutter, with responses by Jon Rubin and Andrew E. Hershberger (Art Journal, Spring 2009).

The other important purpose the article serves is to describe the current state of MFA programs, both in the US and Europe. Even with alternatives to the MFA cropping up (ranging from post-bachelor’s programs to non-credited residencies and lecture series organized by artist collectives), the authors note that in the US, the amount of applications to MFA programs at present is unprecedented.

With studio PhD programs on the horizon, the authors consider the changing role of the academic institution. Because the library is a critical part of any academic institution, I reread the article to contemplate how libraries (and art librarians in particular) should brace themselves for this change. I was reading on the Go Train, just after having lunch at the Grange, which acts as a hub of sorts for students at the Ontario College of Art and Design; the setting made me think about this article because they just introduced an MFA program last year.

Even if I might never be directly charged with supporting a studio PhD program as an art librarian, the mere prospect is reason enough to take note. Soutter points out that there is already an increased emphasis being placed on research in MFA programs, as a way of preparing students in case they proceed to PhD studies. She talks about PhD studio programs feeding "into a contemporary interest in research as art and the artist as researcher" (as an aside, this was a concept discussed at the Arlis NY event the other night at the MoMA called The Art Behind the Book).

How can art librarians support the emerging hybrid of the artist-scholar? Although I feel I have a decent sense of what the MFA experience entails (having sat in on the defense of an MFA thesis years ago and having had the great pleasure of taking a course with Masters of Visual Studies students with Andy Patton when I was in graduate school) I relied on the article to outline the needs of today’s MFA student. According to the authors, an MFA student generally wants or unknowingly needs: opportunities to exhibit and network; a challenging environment in which to develop their work; support for academic studies, especially interdisciplinary research; adequate face time with instructors; skills; agency; and ultimately, good job prospects. Some of these needs are better served by studio faculty than art librarians, but forming this list made me resolve to increase outreach to studio faculty to promote research sessions and to be in touch with my fellow selectors to ensure that we have a strong interdisciplinary collection of interest to MFA students.

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