If you're thinking about applying to graduate school for your MFA in painting, you have a lot to consider. Higher education, for most people, is synonymous with debt, and art programs in particular are far from guaranteed entryways to lucrative careers. While this may seem pessimistic for an article about MFA programs, we know many folks who have great things to say about their art school experiences—so we thought to share some of their insights here, along with a glimpse into what it's like to be a student in one of the top seven MFA painting schools in the United States.
Not a painter? Check out Ten of the Most Influential MFA Programs in the World.
#1: Yale School of Art
Paint splattered artists under fluorescent studio lighting might not be the first image that comes to mind when you think "ivy-league," but no painting department beats Yale's. Only 5% of applicants are accepted into the school, and even among those that matriculate, the competition is palpable. One recent graduate tells us that the program can feel a bit cut-throat, at times.
The thinking at Yale is progressive, and so is its architecture. Studios and facilities are housed in recently-built, eco-friendly buildings where it's not uncommon to find New York gallerists wandering the hallways in search of new talent. Current students are also promoted on the program's website; if you're looking for a concentrated dose of Yale's vibe, it's definitely worth checking out. The gif-heavy wiki site is continuously updated and designed by current students and faculty.
Yale offers courses like "Perpetual Present Process" taught by Halsey Rodman, which “aims to foster the development of a generative space for action between intention and execution—a way to work incrementally and iteratively towards what is not-yet known.” If you have any idea what this means (we don't), you’re already off to a good start.
#2. Rhode Island School of Design (tied)
With just 10 painting graduates per year, the painting program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is as intimate and tight-knit as it is rigorous. RISD has a variety of programs within the fine arts department, but painting stands out as one of the more practical—not in the sense that it is technical (the other programs tend to focus more on developing particular crafts and skills), but in the sense that painting students are coached on the commercial aspects of working as an artist within the larger market context, says one recent grad.
The application process is scrupulous. Roughly 300 painters apply to the painting program each year. Thirty to forty are selected for interviews where they're grilled tribunal-style by the entire faculty, before a final ten students are selected. One of the faculty members was quoted saying "we don’t teach curiosity at RISD" to an interviewing applicant, meaning incoming students should already be committed to their studio practice and shouldn't be in need of too much hand-holding.
While RISD is solely an art and design school, the school isn't as isolated as some other stand-alone colleges. There is a lot of cross-over between RISD students and Brown students, both socially and academically. (RISD students can take liberal arts classes at Brown, and Brown students can take art classes as RISD—for no additional cost.) And if you don't know Providence, it's a charming town with enough culture to keep you busy, but is quiet enough to let you focus.
NOTABLE ALUMNI: Julie Mehretu, Daniel Arango, Richard Merkin
NOTABLE FACULTY: David Frazer (Professor and Department Head), Angela Dufresne, Jackie Gendel
#2: School of Art Institute of Chicago (tied)
School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is the biggest art school on our list, and the size and range of its facilities reflect that. The school's policies are also very lenient when it comes to taking classes from other departments, so students aren't tethered to their respective media. Along the same lines, students can choose two professors from the entire faculty to be their advisors, regardless of department.
If you're a painter who uses spray paint in any way, shape, or form—listen up. Spray cans were outlawed in Chicago in the early 1990s when the city cracked down on graffiti. Today, it's downright illegal to simply own a spray can, even if you intend to use it on your own property. An informant on the inside tells us that it's not impossible to find black-market dealers though, so it may not be as make-or-break as it sounds.
NOTABLE ALUMNI: Joan Mitchell, Elizabeth Murray, Georgia O’Keeffe (although she didn’t graduate)
#4 Maryland Institute College of Art
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is a stand-alone art school, which has its pros and cons. If interacting with a large student body made up of varying disciplines is important to you, MICA might not be the best choice. On the other hand, the school's strong emphasis on the studio prioritizes creative development above all else. As a student, you'll spend a lot of time discussing your work, with weekly studio visits from director Joan Waltemath, twice monthly studio visits with artists-in-residence, and an opportunity twice per semester to meet with a lecturing visiting artists like Amy Feldman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, and Byron Kim.
MICA has an interesting range of MFA programs, including Community Arts, Curatorial Practice, and Photographic & Electronic Media, in addition to the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, Filmmaking, Sculpture, Multi-disciplinary, and Illustration. MICA encourages artists to apply to multiple programs, though each school has it’s own requirements—so preparing separate applications for each will be necessary. Roughly 200 people apply to the painting school each year, and 10 are accepted, making the entire school roughly 20 students out of a total of 250 students in the College.
NOTABLE FACULTY: Timothy App, Earl Hofmann
Columbia's most obvious perk is its New York City location. As a resident, you'll be able to visit gallery opening and museum shows, but as a student, you'll also benefit from having art world professionals visit you. Columbia has an impressive Visiting Artist Lecture Series— which is organized by students and reflects their interests—that in recent iterations have included artists like Marina Abroamovic, David Byrne, Coco Fusco, Joan Jonas, Sam Lewitt, Yoki Ono, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Andrea Zittel. And unlike some other NYC schools, Columbia actually has a campus.
But beyond it's location, Columbia's MFA programs give students the opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty. Each student is teamed up with two mentors, who grant individual studio visits in addition to field trips, which one recent graduate tells us can "be pretty mind blowing." This year's mentors included all-stars like Mark Dion, David Humphrey, and A.K. Burns.
While applicants apply to be considered in a specific discipline like painting, the program itself isn't medium-specific. This freedom to explore and experiment is paramount to Columbia's ideology. Our source from the inside—who since graduating has taught at various prestigious art schools in New York and has had solo shows in New York and abroad—told us that "about half of the students in the extremely small program are using it more like a finishing school to just meet people and further their already budding career. But the other half isn't engaged with a public yet and uses it as an art school."
Whether you're looking to build your audience or fine-tune your craft, Columbia's faculty and mentors can be very "illuminating," going "above and beyond for their students." But good luck getting in. Between 1000 and 1200 students apply every year and only 26 are accepted.
#6: University of California—Los Angeles
With over 43,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA) is massive. That's great if socializing with a diverse student body is important to you, but not so great if you're looking for lots of flexibility when it comes to curriculum. Like any large, bureaucratic state university, the Painting school requires a minimum number of credits within the department, along with a few other rigid requirements that might make it difficult to custom tailor the education you're looking for.
Los Angeles has long been a creative hot bead, championed by artists like Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, and John Baldessari. But in more recent years, it's become even increasingly vital to the emerging arts scene. As New York becomes more expensive by the New York minute, emerging artists are flocking to the West Coast with hearts set on larger studios, year-round natural light, and marginally less expensive rents.
Earlier this summer, famed Los Angeles gallerist Margo Leavin announced that she would make a $20-million dollar donation to fund renovating the currently dilapidated artist studios at UCLA. While planning the construction project has only just begun, future UCLA painters will no doubt benefit from the upgrade to the Culver City warehouse where the studios are located.
#7: Virginia Commonwealth University
The Sculpture department at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has consistently ranked number one over the years, but the Painting and Printmaking department has no flies either. Despite its location (Richmond is a nice place to live, but by no means is it an art destination), VCU has an impressive roster of faculty and visiting artists—like Richard Aldrich, Scott Reeder, Matthew Day Jackson, and Jessica Dickinson, just to name a few. To top it off, VCU is the most affordable school on our list. Most students are given scholarships to attend, and for residents of Virginia, VCU is an even bigger steal (residents pay roughly ten grand a year, before scholarships).
Keith J. Varadi, a working artist who has shown at galleries like Et al., Cooper Cole, Night Gallery, and Brand New Gallery in Milan since he graduated only five years ago, gives us the inside scoop: "To be honest, it was quite an ideal place for me. The studios are very spacious, especially considering I had come down from New York where I had previously been working out of my bedroom in Bed-Stuy. A sizable portion of my peers in the program had come from New York, too. My classmates truly were the best part of going to VCU. I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by other developing artists who were ambitious without being careerist, intellectual without being pretentious, and fun without being flaky."
NOTABLE FACULTY: Hilary Wilder, Hope Ginsburg, Richard Roth, Stephen Vitiello
NOTABLE ALUMNI: Teresita Fernández, Charles Vess, Andy Meerow, Loie Hollowell