The Best European Graduate Schools for American Artists—How to Get Your MFA Abroad


The Best European Graduate Schools for American Artists—How to Get Your MFA Abroad
The Royal Academy. Image via The Spaces. Photo by: Fraser Marr.

If you’re an American artist thinking about graduate school (and aren’t filthy rich), you’re probably wondering how to pay for it. Tuitions and student loan interest rates are not proportional to the potential income your degree could help you earn. And art degrees aren’t the most practical when it comes to finding full-time work after graduation—so you’ll need to weigh the pros (the development of your practice with the support of critical discourse, production facilities, and personal connections) and cons (massive debt). But wait! Before you stop reading, curl up into fetal position, and try to forget you even dreamt of higher education, we have some good news for you. There’s another option, and it’s in Europe.

Getting your MFA abroad has a lot of perks. For one, tuition is significantly lower. We’re talking a few thousand dollars a year (as opposed to say, $40,000) or even, get this, zero dollars a year. Yeah. But even if money isn’t your deciding factor, there are plenty of reasons why studying abroad makes sense. For one, you’re in Europe—which means not only are you experiencing something new, you’re also just a train ride away from some of the most exciting art scenes in the world—Brussels, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Basel—just to name a few. Plus, in cities where there are only one or two art schools, you’ll be a big fish in a small pond—at least compared to New York, where a number of art schools are churning out art grads by the thousands, all of whom are vying for the same opportunities. Another bonus: while all the schools on this list teach classes in English, you’ll have the opportunity to learn a new language! Bonus! Like we said earlier! Oh yeah, and then there’s that thing that happens when your work benefits from the simple fact that you’re learning new things, experiencing new places and different cultures, and grappling with the exciting unfamiliar. Okay, so you’re convinced? Great. Where here to tell you where to apply, but first... a quick note on visas.

You'll need to secure a student visa while you're studying abroad, which should be easy if you're an American citizen. The admissions office at your future school will most likely walk you through the process. Worth noting: student visas in the EU make you eligible to work part time or full time while you're in school, which is great. Keep in mind, though, that it may be harder to find a job if you don't speak the native tongue. In the UK, student visas allow you to work for up to 20 hours a week (and full time during the holidays—gee, isn't that sweet.) Now, if you're not a U.S. citizen, studying abroad may be risky. Greencard holders can jeopardize their 'lawful permanent resident' status if the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has reason to believe you've moved to another country. Though you may only be going for a couple years to attend school, that's not always easy to prove. Especially during this administration, if you're living in the U.S. but are not a citizen, we highly recommend doing your research and understanding your risks before planning to go to school outside the country.

With that out of the way, here are the seven graduate programs in the U.K. and E.U. (that teach classes in English) that seem to be the most talked about, internationally recognized, and of bank-for-your-buck value—in no particular order. Good luck with your applications!


Greater Helsinki, Finland

Image via Aalto University.

Degree: Masters in Visual Cultures, Curating, or Contemporary Art
Duration: 2 years
Tuition: €12,000 to €15 000 per academic year ($13,640 - $17,050 USD)
Notable Alumni: Marita Liulia, Magnus Charmanoff, Helena Hietanen, Klaus Härö
Notable Faculty: Irit Rogoff, Peterri Nisunen, Nora Sternfeld

Unlike the rest of the schools on this list, this program isn’t centered around the studio. Instead, it’s open to “artists, curators, scholars, and practitioners… who are looking for opportunities to understand, challenge, and shift the paradigms of contemporary art and the world around us.” If you’re not in need of studio space or tech facilities, and want rigorous multi-disciplinary discourse, this is the school for you. The program is within the School of Arts, Design, and Architecture, though students are encouraged to take on a minor in other disciplines at Alto (business, technology, design, etc).


London, UK

Image via RCA.

Degree: Master of Arts
Duration: 2 years. (There’s also the option to do it in 15 months, which costs £34,000 in tuition)
Tuition: £28,400 ($36,105 USD) per year (£56,800 / $72,211 total fee) for US students 
Notable Alumni: Phoebe Cummings, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Anthea Hamilton, David Hockney, Chris Ofili, Bridget Riley, Alice Channer, Gavin Turk, Salvatore Arancio
Notable Faculty: Nigel Rolfe, Ellen Mara De Wachter, Jo Stockham, Martin Smith

Get a look at that notable alumni list! This highly competitive school offers 29 postgraduate programs, eight of which are fine-art based and in the School of Arts & Humanities: Ceramics and Glass, Contemporary Art Practice (critical practice, moving image, performance, public sphere), Curating Contemporary Art, Jewelry and Metal, Painting, and Photography, Print, and Sculpture. And the facilities they make available to students are impressive, including a resin a molding studio, laser cutting, plastics workshop, a moving image studio, a five-discipline printmaking studio, 3D printing/additive manufacturing, and lens-based media and audio resources, in addition to more traditional facilities like wood, metal, and digital media. The school's tuition is the steepest of the bunch—but if you're looking to go to a "royal" school in London but can't foot the bill, scroll on to the next school on the list.


London, UK 

Image via ArchDaily.

Degree: Post-graduate diploma
Duration: 3 years
Tuition: $0
Notable Alumni: Sean Steadman, Hannah Sawtell, Peter Linde Busk
Notable Faculty:  Yinka ShonibareWolfgang Tillmans, Rebecca Warren

When we asked our fellow artist friends to tell us which European art schools were their favorites, the Royal Academy came up time and time again. Perhaps the biggest allure is the fact that tuition is... get this... free! Yep, zero freakin' dollars. (To learn how this is even possible, and about the school's model and program in general, read our interview with the school's president, Christopher Le Brun.) "By keeping free tuition as a principal, we’re left free to chose people by merit, to chose people that we think we can help or those who would make the best use of three years," Le Brun told Artspace. "We are not accredited, we are not part of any university system—students are just coming here to study at The Royal Academy. It is a unique model in this country and Europe as well." The school was founded in 1776, and is, in effect, artist run. Practicing artists and educations, who the Academy calls the "Academicians," act as the trustees, board, administration, what have you... they decide the direction the school takes. Good luck getting in though... the Royal Academy only accepts 17 new students every year.


Glasgow, Scotland

Courtesy of Glasgow School of Art. Image via

Degree: Master of Fine Art
Duration: 2 years
Tuition: £17,640 ($22,434 USD) per year for international students 
Notable Alumni: Douglas GordonSimon Starling, Jenny Saville, David Shrigley, Alexander Stoddart
Notable Recent and Current Visiting Instructors: Jimmie Durham, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Teresa Margolles

You’ve probably seen the Glasgow School of Art in headlines recently… a massive fire in their historic Mackintosh Building has sparked debates over whether money should be spent to restore it, or whether it should be demolished. Either way, the school continues to churn out artists with lasting careers. Thirty per cent of Scotland’s Turner Prize nominees (since 2005) have studied at the Glasgow School of Art. The program is organized into three stages, each capped by the "Student Progress Review," in which students receive feedback and guidance about their work and their progress. And the program benefits from a diverse slew of visiting lecturers. Roughly 20 percent of the 1,900 students in the School of Art are international.


Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Image via Staedelschule.

Degree: Certificate of Meisterschüler (master student)
Duration: 5 years
Tuition: €342.60 ($342 UDS) per semester
Notable Alumni: Ann Imhof, Danh Vō, Max Dudler, Peter Kubelka, Ottmar Hörl, Thomas Zipp
Notale Faculty: Peter Fischli, Douglas Gordon, Michael Krebber, Willem de Rooij, Tobias Rehberger, Judith Hopf

In Frankfurt am Main, the 200-year-old Staädelschule isn’t a graduate school, or an undergraduate school, for that matter. Instead, its 5-year program leaves students with a certificate authenticating them as ‘art masters.’ Out of the 500 applicants it receives each year, the school accepts about 20—three-fourths of whom are international (not from Germany). What sets this school apart from others is its reluctance to box students into specific media or disciplines; it encourages students to freely chose their artistic direction, and there are no requirements other than to “develop,” loosely defined. Students often have close relationships with the star-studded faculty: Peter Fischli, Douglas Gordon, Judith Hopf, to name a few. And it's graduates tend to be less commercial and object-oriented, and more bookish, theoretical, and experimental. The school is cheap, making this school a great place to explore the conceptual aspects of your practice over a relatively long period of time.


London, UK

Image via American Indian Workshop.

Degree: Masters of Fine Arts
Duration: 2 years full time, or 4 years part time
Tuition: £9950 ($12,670 USD) for international students per year
Notable Alumni: Malcolm McLaren, Lucian Freud, Yinka ShonibareBridget RileyDamien HirstSarah LucasLiam Gillick 
Notale Faculty: Suhail Malik, Phillip Lai, Lindsay Seers

While some schools prioritize undergraduate studies and treat masters studies as an afterthought, the prestigious Goldsmiths College of Art has an unrivaled number of Masters programs in the arts, some so specific you're unlikely to find them elsewhere—like Dance Movement Psychotherapy, Queer History, Visual Sociology, Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Artist's Film & Moving Image, the list goes on. These aren't courses; they're entire programs. The Master in Fine Art program in particular has churned out some damn good artists; the Young British Artists (YBAs), which involves folks like Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin, Liam Gillick, and Sarah Lucas, came out of Goldsmith's undergraduate program in the late '80s. According to the school's website, the school isn't only concerned with what's going on inside your studio, it also encourages students to investigate how their work connects with the world outside the studio: "While on the program you will continually engage with what it means to practice as an artist today and the position taken by an art-practice in relation to art's complex history and its currency in wider social and cultural processes.... A primary concern in discussion is how a particular artist's work and ideas are understood in and across different social, artistic and intellectual contexts."


Florence, Italy

Image via SACI.

Degree: MFA in Studio Art
Duration: 2 years
Tuition: $14,000 per semester
Notable Alumni: April Moon, Maria Nissan, Keri Rosebraugh
Notable Faculty: Pietro Gaglianò, Dr. Filipe Rocha da Silva, Dario Arcamone

Florence is probably most known in the art world as a Renaissance epicenter. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer some amazing opportunities for contemporary artists as well, like SACI, for one. And for what it’s worth, the MFA program is US-accredited (its a member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, and is affiliated with Bowling Green State University in Ohio). The five-year-old program is best for artists focusing on painting, drawing and photography. (The MFA in Studio Art major in Painting and Drawing; the MFA in Photography offers a specialization in either digital or analog photography.) Graduate students get studios in a beautiful old pallazio building in the historic center of Florence. (Note: the building is open from 9am to midnight, seven days a week—so if you’re one of those stay-up-all-night-in-the-studio artists, this isn’t for you.) The MFA program is two years long, with the second year focusing on developing career options for emerging artists—like the opportunity to work as Teaching Assistants, or help exhibiting their work in exhibitions in Florence.


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