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Universities to Artists: Get a Doctorate?

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Artists are people who create their own credentials. Certainly, art schools and universities offer an array of degrees and certificates, and various artist societies allow members to tag on some initials after their names, but artists are esteemed based on the quality of their work, its long- and short-term influence on other artists' work, where it has been exhibited and collected. No degree can confer value or importance to a work of art, although it may be useful in helping an artist obtain a job (and keep it), at least as instructors in colleges and universities.

Job security is a relatively new concept in the ancient field of art, reflecting the increasing hold higher education has over the arts. From time immemorial until even after WWII, students had found their way to the studios and classes of eminent artists, learning by doing, watching and instruction. However, baccalaureates and Master's degrees in fine art have become the union cards for artists since the second half of the 20th century, offering equal parts general education (on the undergraduate level) or critical theory (on the Master's side) and studio classes. Over the past 50-plus years, the Master's of Fine Arts, or MFA, has been described as a "terminal degree" -- that is, the end-point in an artist's formal education -- but some people are taking the view that this end-point comes too soon. A movement may be afoot to create doctoral programs in studio arts.

At present, the number of existing programs in this area is small -- fine arts doctorates are offered at both Ohio University School of Interdisciplinary Arts in Athens, Ohio and Texas Tech University School of Art in Lubbock, Texas, while Arizona State University and North Carolina State University award doctorates in design fields -- but pressure may be growing to create others. Part of that impetus comes from English language-speaking countries overseas (Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and New Zealand) where PhDs are being awarded in studio art, and part from restless holders of MFAs at universities in the United States (often adjunct instructors or would-be instructors) who believe that their degree holds them back in a realm where advancement goes to PhDs.

"Before, when I applied for teaching jobs with my MFA, I never made it to the finals of interviewing," said painter and sculptor George Bauer, who received an MFA in sculpture from Texas A&M in 1988 and a doctorate from Texas Tech in 2002. "Now, I make it to the finals." He currently is teaching as an adjunct at Texas Tech, applying for more permanent jobs elsewhere and convinced that he is on the right side of history: "It's just a matter of time before MFAs won't be able to compete for jobs with PhDs."

Another benefit of a doctoral degree, artists and university administrators claim, is the ability to teach a wider variety of courses, such as classes in art theory and history, which solely had been the province of art historians. Catherine Jennings, who received an MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and a PhD from Texas Tech 10 years later, stated that "teaching upper-level art history is a lot of fun." That teaching takes place at Chico State University in California, where she has been a part-time lecturer for seven years ("I'd much prefer a full-time, tenured position, but I'm doing better than a lot of other people"). She also teaches beginning drawing and an art history survey course. "I have a lot more options with both degrees," Jennings said.

Perhaps, the largest problem with the MFA, according to these and other artists, is that the degree is not understood or respected at some colleges and universities (there does not appear to be any such problem at degree-granting art schools), limiting the opportunities for artists to be promoted or earn the same salaries as PhDs. The concept of the MFA as a "terminal degree" is unfamiliar to many administrators and scholars whose fields do not have an equivalent structure; they see a Master's degree as no more than that. "As chairman of an art department, I've seen different tracks for doctorates and nondoctorates," said Bruce Bobick, head of West Georgia State University's art department who himself holds an MFA in painting. "Every school I've been at, I've had to educate someone -- a dean, a provost -- on what the MFA means. And then the old dean retires or leaves and a new person is hired, and you have to start the process all over again: It's time that could be used for something more productive." Obtaining a doctorate, he noted, is perhaps the best way to obviate that time-consuming and sometimes insurmountable problem.

The resistance Bobick had found to accepting MFAs as on a par with PhDs may be nothing compared to the unwillingness of other schools and artists to make the doctorate the standard for university studio art teaching. "What I think we're seeing is credentialism creep," said William Barrett, executive director of the San Francisco-based Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, "and it's not a healthy sign. There seem to be a number of universities, state universities for the most part, which are very credential-conscious, focusing on the credential rather than what the credential is supposed to signify." Barrett strongly opposes any "devaluing of the MFA" or "switch in terminology that would make the doctorate the fine art world's terminal degree," claiming that some university administrators lack an understanding of the Master's of Fine Arts degree. Providing these administrators with more information is a better solution than making wholesale changes in the training of artists, he stated.

That view was supported by Kristi Nelson, vice provost for academic planning at the University of Cincinnati, who noted that the MFA curriculum provides a "good balance of art history, criticism and theory along with studio practice," which PhD programs would upset. Indeed, both George Bauer and Catherine Jennings largely put aside their artmaking during the years they devoted to their research-oriented doctoral programs. "Studying for a PhD, my production went nearly to zero," Bauer said. "Looking for a job takes up a lot of time, too, so I haven't been doing much art since getting my degree, either." That may be the overall experience of many graduates of doctoral arts programs. Keith Harris, a (nonartist) art historian at Ohio University's School of Interdisciplinary Arts, said that the "PhD can enhance studio production, but many students have found that getting a PhD takes away from work in the studio. Some leave the field of fine arts entirely as practitioners, becoming theoreticians, historians and fine arts scholars instead." Perhaps, an example of that phenomenon is Norma Humphreys, assistant dean at the College of Fine Arts at Ohio University, who had received music degrees as an oboist prior to earning a doctorate there in 1994, and now claims that "I don't play anymore. The pressure of the doctoral program, all the reading and writing, got me out of playing, and I don't think I have the talent for it anymore."

Doctoral programs in both the performing arts and creative writing have an even longer history than the fine arts, suggesting that the fit of artists (of any medium or discipline) within the academy has not been an easy one and may be currently undergoing one of its periodic reevaluations. "No one wants to see degree inflation," said Kathryn Rentz, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, which offers a doctoral program in creative writing (called a "creative dissertation"), "but our students feel they're getting a materially different experience than they received in MFA programs. If the creative dissertation were eliminated, it would consign these students to unemployment. What is the point of that?"

Teaching has long been the artist's fall-back and, sometimes, primary source of income. Studio art faculty at schools large and small regularly complain about all the committee meetings, occasional departmental politics and even having to teach, but they are hired as artists (often given studios in which to pursue their own artwork) who teach rather than as teachers who happen to make art. Certainly, many artists who at one time sought recognition by their creations today are better recalled as teachers and mentors, but that is a judgment drawn from subsequent history rather than made consciously by the artists themselves. The PhD says to the university, "I am committing myself to academia," whereas the MFA primarily reflects a commitment to developing one's skills as an artist. Art schools and university art departments promote their faculty to prospective students in terms of these artists-teachers' strong presence in the art world but, on a day-to-day level, some administrators seem quite uncomfortable with this dual role. As a result, one sees on the horizon that the price of being a teaching artist may be going up.