09/17/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Post-Bac Programs: Where Artists Get a Bit of Retooling en Route to a Career

Not everyone who goes to graduate school comes straight from college. Some like to take a break from school, get a bit of work experience under their belts and think about what they really want to do. Allison Taylor, for instance, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in studio art (with an emphasis on sculpture) at the University of California at Davis in 2004, traveled to Europe and worked to pay off some of her school loans before applying to the Master of Fine Arts program at the San Francisco Art Institute, which she entered this fall. She also spent the 2006-2007 school year at Brandeis University, enrolled in the post-baccalaureate studio art program, earning a certificate and "preparing myself for an MFA program. They helped me develop my art and just how to talk about my art." Never knew the post-baccalaureate realm had extended into the fine arts? Join the club.

A layer of art study has formed between the Bachelor's and Master's degrees, known as the post-baccalaureate program, and a growing number of schools offer them. Some students who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree some time ago use the post-bac year as a refresher or to improve their skills, possibly as a first step toward applying to a Master of Fine Arts program. Others enroll who earned a Bachelor's degree in some non-studio art field and decided that they now want to pursue a neglected interest in art. For students with undergraduate studio art degrees, post-bac programs are, in effect, another year at art school, soaking up what they didn't have time or opportunity for while undergraduates. During that year, they are provided a studio and are assigned a faculty advisor, as well as take a few courses or seminars on the graduate or undergraduate (or both) levels, depending upon the area in which they choose to focus. There is considerable flexibility and individual tailoring to these programs.

In almost every studio art post-baccalaureate program, the aim is to improve and solidify the students' skills. "There is a certain remedial aspect to these post-bac programs," said Buzz Spector, an artist and professor of art at Cornell University who is also a board member of the College Art Association. "The students in them are often lacking basic, underlying skills, so they don't have the means to express themselves." That view was seconded by Duane Slick, graduate coordinator for painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, who noted that the existence of post-baccalaureate programs "reflect, to some degree, problems in the training of artists in this country." At times, that training emphasizes conceptual over technical and craft skills, and some BFA programs apply a far lower level of rigor than others. These post-baccalaureate programs help would-be artists raise the level of their work in order to make themselves eligible for a Master's program, and the schools that offer them boast of the high percentage of graduates who were accepted at MFA programs.

"I had never heard of a post-bac before," said Erik Evenson, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (majoring in studio art) at the University of New Hampshire in 2001 -- that is, he hadn't heard of it until the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston offered him a spot in its program. He earned a post-baccalaureate certificate there in 2005. Evensen, who took a few years off after college to work as a graphic designer, had applied to museum school's MFA program and was rejected, but the director of the post-bac program, Nan Freeman, saw his application and portfolio. "He had wonderful abilities, and I knew I wanted to keep him, but he just wasn't ready for graduate school," she said. The recommendation that he consider the post-baccalaureate program, along with a scholarship that paid for half the tuition, made sense to Evensen, since "I only had a BA instead of a BFA, so I didn't have as many credits or as much experience" as other MFA applicants. (The Bachelor of Arts major in studio art generally requires 30 studio credits, or 10 courses, while the Bachelor of Fine Arts entails two or three times as many). "I was too young and immature to get the most out of my undergraduate education," he said. "My portfolio wasn't all that strong, though they told me it showed technical and conceptual promise." Eventually, Evensen entered a two-year MFA program at Ohio State University.

Post-baccalaureate applicants are a mix of BA and BFA graduates, but the majority is liberal arts majors who came late to studio art or minored in studio art, having talent but insufficient training. People like Allison Taylor and Erik Evensen. Brandeis University's post-bac program was developed in the mid-1990s after "one of our students who had received a BA in studio art was rejected from an MFA program, and we just thought that was ridiculous," said Joseph Wardwell, Brandeis' post-bac coordinator. "Our primary market is schools like us -- small, liberal arts schools where students need additional time and space to build a portfolio so they can apply to MFA programs." (Interestingly, Brandeis is the only school in the U.S. with a post-bac but no BFA or MFA program). Very "portfolio-driven," Wardwell noted that up to 90 percent of its post-bacs are admitted to graduate school. One of the school's success stories, Heather Brubaker, had earned a BA in studio art at Dartmouth College in 1997 and eventually received an MFA in painting from the University of California at Davis in 2004, but needed "more preparation" to make the step from one to the other. "I didn't feel as though I was ready for a Master's program" right out of her undergraduate program, but one of her Dartmouth professors recommended the Brandeis post-bac, which she used as "a good opportunity to make up for lost time."