School of Visual Arts to Launch MFA Program

The School of Visual Arts in New York is launching an MFA program next year that will require students to be in the city for three six-week summer sessions. The rest of the time needed for the degree – two school years – they can stay at home and take courses over the internet.

Attention Prospective MFAs!

Many artists get undergraduate degrees then struggle to carve out studio time. They find themselves married, maybe with a child, and earning a living to keep it all together. They think about going back to school for an MFA, but cannot abandon their life and family for two or three years of study. They can barely get away to see the museums and galleries in N.Y. or L.A. let alone move to another city to attend classes. They feel isolated professionally and intellectually; their engagement with other artists is limited to magazines, the occasional lecture at the local university and some YouTube videos and podcasts. It would be nice to get some serious feedback about their work, but the “real” art world seems out of reach.

Well, they need not abandon all hope.

The School of Visual Arts in New York is launching an MFA program next year that will require students to be in the city for three six-week summer sessions. The rest of the time needed for the degree – two school years – they can stay at home and take courses over the internet.

The “low-residency” MFA program in Art Practice, which begins summer 2011, is geared to artists who already have established lives and studios.

The inaugural class will have 20 students. The degree requires 66 credits, and the cost is $1,050 per credit.

The program is headed by former Whitney Museum director David Ross.

Faculty, guest lecturers or mentors include artists, critics and art historians. So far the program has commitments for some level of involvement from Vito Acconci, Cory Arcangel, John Baldessari, Dara Birnbaum, Mel Chin, Liam Gillick, Terrence Koh, Ming Wei Lee, David Levi Strauss, Glenn Ligon, Stephen Henry Madoff, Robert Pincus-Witten, Gary Simmons, András Szántó, Philippe Vergne, Carrie Mae Weems, Lawrence Weiner, Terry Winters, and Linda Yablonsky, with more to come.

The MFA Program in a Nutshell

Here’s how the program works. For the six-week summer sessions that take place in the city, students get studio space and support for work in whatever media they need. They attend seminars and have daily critiques, but spend most of their time working in their studios.

SVA studios are on East 21st to East 23rd Streets and West 16th to 23rd Streets, all near the Chelsea gallery district. Seminars will be in a new building on West 16th Street. Studio space will be part of tuition, but the cost of accommodations in the school dormitories or elsewhere is extra.

After the summer, students return home and take classes on line for two semesters, then return for another summer, then back home for another two semesters, then to N.Y. for the final summer session.

In addition, students choose a mentor who stays with them for the entire three years. The mentor interacts with the students face to face over the summer, and during the time when they are back in their home studios by phone, email and occasional visits.

The program culminates with a student thesis exhibition.

SVA Summers in the City

Every summer there will be five different seminar leaders. Gary Simmons, Dara Birnbaum and Mark Tribe have signed up for 2011.  For three of the six weeks each will conduct a three-hour seminar (one day for each teacher). And every Tuesday evening during the six weeks they will participate in group critiques involving all the seminar leaders and students as well as visiting curators, critics and artists.

Busy prospective teachers take note: Summer seminar teachers work just one day a week for three weeks and one evening a week for six weeks, so the commitment will not interfere with your own work.

Distance Learning?

The school year between the summer sessions consists of two semesters in which students take several 15-week classes that “meet” once a week on line. They do on line course work via a program called Blackboard that enables teachers to upload lectures, texts, images, videos and audio that students can pore over as often as they like to learn at their own pace. “If properly constructed and managed it offers special advantages,” says Ross. For instance, Stephen Madoff is teaching a course on the history of interactive art from Goethe to Marina Abramovic that will afford on-line students access to a wide range of work that traditionally would require many trips to media libraries and special collections. Students respond on line in writing and also live in Skype-like video chats during which the entire class comes on line at the same time. (Students have to provide their own computer and internet access.)

The Curriculum

Specifics of the curriculum are still being ironed out, but Ross says there will be courses on art history, criticism, and artists’ writings.

Required workshops include digital-image production, video and audio post-production, and performance. Ross says fluency in digital imagery and video is critical today. “I will insist that all of the students that come out of this program will have absolute mastery of those techniques,” he says The performance workshop will address theatricality, self-presentation, as well as theater, drama, dance etc. “Very rarely are artists properly prepared to understand the range of things that can be achieved through performance,” says Ross.

There are also one- and two-day sessions on practical matters such as art law and art business, “so they can manage the business of their studio and be good clients, [and] to know what your rights are,” says Ross.

What kind of assignments will students have? Ross says that will be up to the teachers, but self-exploration will be key. “Knowing themselves is a very important thing for artists of any age, but particularly for emerging artists,” he says. Therefore, a number of courses are “about enforcing this level of continued self-investigation through, for example, self-portraiture.”

David Ross is the chairman of the program.

A Word with David Ross

Ross has served as director of The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since then co-founded Artists’ Pension Trust, a financial planning program for working artists, and ventured into the commercial world as director of a New York branch of Albion Gallery in partnership with Michael Hue-Williams, which folded. He had been critiquing undergraduate seniors at SVA when Suzanne Anker, chair of the undergraduate Fine Arts department, introduced him to SVA president David Rhodes, who enlisted Ross to develop a low-residency program.

What are the defining principles that make the program distinctive?

The key for me is that it is fully interdisciplinary,” says Ross. “Students will not be defined by medium or discipline. They will define themselves in that post-Conceptual way by the desire to make work based on an idea, and in the service of that idea will have to make use of various disciplines, media and approaches. To quote Sol LeWitt, ‘The idea comes first, art follows an idea.’ How does an art school begin to prepare an artist to feel confident in following their idea? That’s a question I asked in constructing this program.

I recently had an on-line discussion with a number of artists who feel that teaching “studio practice” is useless. How can you teach “studio practice”?

You don’t teach studio practice. You engage with an artist in their studio. Having a serious studio visit is something most artists really, really love, because of the kind of give and take and learning that takes place in the privacy of their studio in relation to what they are doing. It is invaluable, especially if they live outside of Brooklyn, not in the middle of an art community, but living in the world somewhere and working. What you really need, and why you’re willing to pay this money and take this time out of your life, is this intense interaction with your work and the point of view of someone whose point of view is meaningful and can be of value to the development of your work. That’s the whole point of it.

And that’s why the bulk of the program is really artists working in their studios, preparing for a serious exhibition in their third year, and having hundreds of encounters with people whose opinions they will cherish — and those they will just write off. Learning how to tell the difference is really important. When Christopher Wool had his first show at Luhring Augustine the card he sent out read, “Thank you for your criticism. Fuck you very much.” The ability to critique yourself is something that can be learned through repeated exposure to that kind of interaction. You develop the ability to understand the difference between useful criticism and blather.

There are well known MFA programs at Yale, Cal Arts. How is SVA’s different?

Based on the faculty they have. The quality of a program is the sum total of the faculty you have and the way the faculty is supported. But this program is low-residence, so it will attract and serve a group of artists who don’t have the time to put into being in one place for two years to get their MFA, but who already have established jobs or lives elsewhere, but who can find six weeks in three successive summers and the time in the evenings in between to pursue this aspect of their professional development. That’s an important difference because it will attract people who are looking for a situation like this. Schools are competitive and also different, so making known who you are allows students to choose so there will be a good fit. Bard and Maryland Institute both have low-residency programs, but they are not in New York. One of the benefits of being at SVA is that you are right in the middle of it.

What are the criteria for getting in?

An ideal candidate for this MFA program is someone who has been out of school and working as an artist for four or five years, maybe has a job supporting a family, not necessarily living in New York, but could be in Iowa or France. I am not an enormous proponent of graduate school the year after you finish your undergraduate, especially in art. Young artists really need to get back to their work and experience their work in the real world for a while before they even know how or why they need graduate school. We’ll see who applies, but I hope there will be diversity in terms of backgrounds, the kind of art they make, the media they employee, and the training they already had.

For more information, prospective students should email


2 Responses

  1. Hello,

    Much success to you in your endeavors! This is the first mfa program to interest me in awhile. I have been seeking a low residency program, steeped in the new edge of art & technology, as well as the business of art.

    In consideration,

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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