Why I Attended the DIY Academy of Art Instead of an MFA

Becoming an artist can be expensive. If you go for an MFA, that can easily be upwards of $30,000. If you attend a private conservatory, like Cornish College of the Arts, it can cost you more than $36,000 a year. Just for undergraduate tuition alone. And after you graduate, chances are bleak that you will get a paying job teaching or working in your chosen art. So, for most MFA graduates, that means back to a day job. Back to where we started–but now with some $30,000 in debt.

I don’t want to sell MFAs short. You can make connections there that will launch your career. You’ll build your skills. You’ll learn to create on demand. All essentials for the professional artist.

It’s also true these are all things you can achieve outside the formal university system, if you’re resourceful.

Between the years of 2009 and 2013, I decided to make my own MFA. I was already working two day jobs that barely paid the bills, and I knew if I went for an MFA, I’d struggle for decades to pay off the loans. So I registered for classes at Hugo House, and instead of shelling out a couple thousand, I paid a couple hundred.

And guess what? I met people who helped me make something out of myself. I met Robert Ray of the famed Weekend Novelist series and his partner in crime, Jack Remick. Both of them run a writing group over on Eastlake that’s been going strong for decades. I met more people. I attended their plays and readings and book launches. I became part of a community. Eventually, I even met my fiancé.

Meanwhile, I borrowed MFA syllabi from online, listened to lectures on craft and literature that professors from around the country had generously recorded for the public, and asked other MFA students what their assigned readings had been. And then I read from their reading list.

The result? I’m now completing work I’m proud of, and I’m getting stories published–one small step at a time. And it all cost me under $2,000 in classes, books, tickets, and coffee dates.

So what’s my point? If you want to be an artist, go be an artist. Find the nearest school that offers acting classes or sculpture workshops or dance lessons. Sign up. Make friends. Then take more classes at other schools. Find the teachers and peers you click with. Keep working. Keep getting better. Build a community. Be generous.

And then, if after all that, you discover that what you really want is to teach other artists, go get an MFA. Sure. That’s my plan in ten or fifteen years. But recognize that it’s a credential in academia–not the only or even the best way into the arts. Choose accordingly. Blaze your own trail.

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