I Got My MFA, Now What?

09/28/2011 4:00 AM |

Now that ten years has passed since I received my MFA in painting, what have I learned? I've spent a good amount of time talking about this with grad students over the last few months, fielding a lot of the same questions and misguided beliefs. These are the comments I answered most frequently.

How do I get a job?
Good luck to the youngins on this one. Art Fag City editor-in-chief Will Brand recently observed he knew almost no twentysomething who was employed. I recently looked at a job application that listed five years worth of internships (though to be fair the applicant was in school for most of that time). Parents of recent art school grads should expect to be supporting their kids for at least two years. There simply aren't a lot of job opportunities.

Former Chicago residents in the arts seem to deal with this by moving to New York and starting a gallery, though it's unclear if anyone ever makes any money doing this. I guess their apartment gallery culture is transportable. As for the rest of us transplants, New York isn't such a bad place to be unemployed. The arts community is extraordinarily supportive and more opportunities for valuable or prestigious internships exist here than anywhere else. A good internship is characterized by its ability to get you a paying job. Ask yourself how much you're learning and how many people you're meeting. If the answer isn't a lot, you're wasting your time and your parents' money.

I got a solo show two years out of grad school. Time to conquer the world!
Not so fast. There are only about 300 spaces for A-list art professionals—whether writers, curators, or artists—and that's the only list with any job security. Once a large enough number of collectors have bought an artist's work, they tend to protect their investment by buying more.

Everyone else who sees any kind of success gets the type of "up-and-comer" fame that has the half-life of a passing YouTube meme, so expect your career gains to be part of that turnover. Managing a life in the arts means coming to terms with the reality that what you do may be very popular one year, and completely out of vogue the next.

I've been in New York two years and have nothing to show for it.
Suck it up. Critics, artists, curators and dealers should all expect to spend no less than 10 years working independently before receiving any kind of recognition. Yes, that means most New York artists won't land a solo show for a very long time. This is usually a good thing, as it gives an artist the time to mature. (A note to collectors: yes, believe it or not, this can occur outside the gallery system.)

How do I get gallery representation?
No offense but shut the hell up. I mean this in the nicest of ways, because it's a legitimate question, but also at least as old as Wilford Brimley. The stock answer here is make friends who make work you like, go to galleries that show work you like, court the dealer for a year, and sign up.

My own advice is to forget about that and make friends with the people with whom you actually connect. Professional friendships driven by careerism often aren't particularly fulfilling, nor are they all that useful when you're really in a jam. Anyone actively involved in the art world will naturally end up with scads of casual professional relationships anyway, all without having to aggressively court them.

(Image: Gregory Crewdson)