Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on April 16, 1977; revised on October 12, 1991, and October 26, 2008.
Definition and Purpose
The master of fine arts (MFA) degree in studio art and design is the recognized terminal degree in the visual arts. It is considered by the College Art Association (CAA), the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), and the vast majority of institutions in higher education in the United States to be equivalent to terminal degrees in other fields, such as the PhD or EdD.¹
The MFA degree demands the highest level of professional competency in the visual arts and contemporary practices. To earn an MFA, a practicing artist must exhibit the highest level of accomplishment through the generation of a body of work. The work needs to demonstrate the ability to conceptualize and communicate effectively by employing visual language to interpret ideas. In addition, the MFA recipient must give evidence of applying critical skills that pertain to meaning and content, ultimately encouraging a comprehensive examination and critique of the function and role of art from a variety of views and contexts.
Regardless of the chosen area of concentration, an MFA candidate must be able to prove not only strong conceptual development, but also the skillful execution of tools, materials, and craft. This includes programs rooted in innovative uses of technology, collaborative work, or interdisciplinary projects.
CAA supports each program’s determination of specific criteria for achievement. Such an evaluation cannot be formulaic or prescriptive, since art and design support complex relationships and reside within the landscape of continually evolving practices.
The remainder of this document outlines specific standards and requirements for the MFA degree.
Definition of Credit
Because credits are a unit of measure, reflecting amounts of work over certain periods of time, a precise definition is needed in order to reconcile the differing academic record-keeping arrangements that exist throughout the nation. CAA recognizes a standard in which one semester credit represents three hours of work per week over a semester of at least fifteen weeks (one-quarter credit is the equivalent of 66 percent of a semester credit). Work toward credit may take place in formal classes, critiques, and technical workshops, or may be independent studio activity. While the distribution of time spent between formal and independent options is a decision that must be made by the faculty, which determines specific educational patterns within a given institution and a given discipline, the ratio of three hours of work per credit must be met.
The minimum requirement for the MFA is sixty semester credits of course work at the graduate level (or ninety quarter credits), including courses in art history and cognate areas of study. These required credits may not include coursework that is required as makeup for undergraduate deficiencies.
Undergraduate degrees (BA, BFA, BS, BEd) differ in disciplinary credit distribution and educational emphasis. In order to compensate for these differences in the studies (both undergraduate and graduate) leading ultimately to the MFA degree, the following combined (undergraduate plus graduate) semester credit totals are recommended: art studio, 100; history of art, 24. However, new genres and disciplines in the visual arts at the graduate level may require, or take into consideration, student experience or study outside typical art and design areas. Graduate curriculum and coursework increasingly encourages students to embrace a broad spectrum of ideas and media, often based in other disciplines.
In addition to the required number of credits, which are essential, the MFA as a terminal degree demands a level of maturity that can develop only from study over an extended period of time. It is strongly recommended that there be a balance between classes with scheduled meetings and those that are supervisory; the practice of basing the MFA degree entirely on supervisory courses, individual critiques, or online courses, without a variety of teaching and learning experiences, must be discouraged. CAA supports diverse learning opportunities and formats that lend support to sustained intellectual, creative, and theoretical exchange. It recommends that two years of study for the MFA degree be a minimum, with three years being preferable.
CAA advocates for programs to develop robust, comprehensive, and sound educational curricula. At the same time, there are requirements and standards that should be considered in every program of study.
Graduate faculties have the responsibility of structuring courses and course sequences in studio disciplines to lead to the achievement of professional competence. This goal may be met through concentration in any one specific discipline (painting and drawing, sculpture, photography, jewelry/metals, printmaking, performance, digital design, time-based media, graphic design, ceramics, video, etc.) and/or by developing interdisciplinary or collaborative programs of study. For the latter, it should be stressed that the range of diversity must, of necessity, be limited in order to guarantee the depth of involvement demanded by graduate standards in each discipline. Each student deserves from the staff careful consideration of individual needs and conscientious direction in planning an appropriate course of study.
Requirements in Art History, Art Criticism, and Other Cognate Areas
A practicing artist’s knowledge of cultural heritage is gained through critical studies and art history. Formal courses in both should be considered essential to an MFA program. For MFA candidates, advanced courses in critical studies, visual culture, and the art of a variety of historical periods, styles, and themes are strongly recommended. It is crucial to present ways in which theory is used in studio practice, or from the perspective of the studio.
To encourage greater diversity among students seeking the professional terminal degree, requirements should include options emphasizing history and its role in shaping the visual arts, as well as how the visual arts have shaped history. It is important that non-Western and Western cultures be presented in all coursework. (Statistics compiled by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design indicate that the number of students of color completing the MFA degree remains disproportionately low.) Seminars in modern and contemporary art history, theory, and criticism from the perspective of contemporary studio-based practices are especially appropriate for MFA candidates. Art criticism, is another crucial element of MFA candidates’ studies. Self-criticism and external comparison are among the means by which artists evaluate their ideas, processes, and/or the objects they create. These skills cannot be left entirely to intuition or casually grasped assumptions. Criticism is based on discourse and linked to the process of making; therefore, verbal, written and conceptual skills need to be taught and encouraged.
Other disciplines of educational value to the student should also be encouraged where relevant, and may in some cases replace art history, theory, and/or criticism courses. In helping students to design their MFA programs, the faculty needs to encourage students to take full advantage of appropriate resources in areas both in and outside the visual arts, guiding them to explore cognate areas to enhance their total educational experience.
Theses and Comprehensive Examinations
A written thesis that evidences the student’s ability to think critically and contextualize his/her work historically, and within the broad and varied landscape of contemporary practices, is strongly encouraged.
Comprehensive art-history examinations, not held as a regular part of an art-history course, whether oral or written, should not be required. Satisfactory performance in art-history courses is considered evidence that a student has a working knowledge of the material.
Each MFA student should be required to mount a substantial final exhibition of his or her work. Schools with insufficient space for exhibitions may suggest or provide exhibition space off-campus. Given space constraints, every attempt should be made to enable students to exhibit a sufficient number of works, so that viewers can assess their development. This is especially important when the MFA exhibition serves as an introduction of the student’s work to a larger art community. Since art making in the contemporary context demands the ability to produce creative work, institutional and public review of the final product is essential.
Documentation and Retention of Student Work
Documentation of MFA exhibitions should be required and kept by the institution as a matter of record. Weighing considerations of maintenance and media, institutions should be encouraged to purchase one or more examples of work for the permanent collection, if possible.. CAA, in its resolution of April 29, 1972, has discouraged the all-too-prevalent past practice of institutions demanding, without compensation, examples of student work. The acquisition of student work assumes the existence of adequate display and/or storage facilities for artwork. The issues of conservation and restoration should also be considered before student work is purchased.
Preadmission Preparation and Dealing with Deficiencies
Admission to MFA programs should be based on the nature, extent, and quality of undergraduate preparation, including courses in studio art, art history, and other academic subjects. Quality of studio preparation can best be judged on the basis of careful evaluation of work done at the undergraduate level and beyond; therefore, a review of creative or visual work and written materials is regarded as an absolute necessity in the admissions process.
Many institutions consider the BFA to be the standard qualifying degree. However, applicants possessing a BA or BS degree should not be discouraged to apply or eliminated from consideration. Any student having earned a BFA, BS, or BA may not be prepared entirely for a graduate-level program and may require remedial work.
Prior to admission, the graduate faculty should determine a successful student’s deficiencies in studio art, art history, and general studies and inform the student of its findings. The prospective student should also be made aware of the prerequisite work needed to compensate for gaps in undergraduate preparation. It should be made clear that any coursework taken at the undergraduate level would not contribute to the minimum number of credits required for the MFA degree.
Advising on Degree Requirements
Admission committees, the chair, graduate director, and/or registrar are urged to clearly inform each potential student of the institution’s MFA curriculum, critique obligations, exhibition expectations, and other relevant matters concerning the specific composition of the degree program, including the minimum of sixty graduate credits, and other curricular requirements.
The MA as a Qualifying Prerequisite
Some institutions use the MA degree (thirty credits) as a qualifying prerequisite for final acceptance into MFA candidacy, allowing the student to apply the earned credits toward the higher degree. This practice is legitimate only if the quality of work toward the MA is acceptable within the terminal-degree standards, and if total degree requirements are ultimately met.
MFA programs should have an excellent and well-qualified faculty. While quality of teaching is of primary importance, professional recognition of individual faculty members is also highly desirable, as strong creative work and research often supports teaching of a high standard. Every professor does not need to be recognized at a national or international level, but CAA maintains that all graduate faculty members should be fully competent professionally and active in their respective disciplines and fields. This standard does not necessarily imply the imposition of age and experience standards. Some young artists and professors are as qualified as many faculty members.
The visual arts and creative practices have changed dramatically over the past several years. Increasingly, the artist’s studio functions as a dynamic and vital space for learning, exploring, and negotiating the complex relationships that individuals and communities have with the larger social, cultural, political, and natural environments in which we live. Therefore, a faculty needs to be large enough so that students can receive the amount of instruction they deserve, and diverse enough in its areas of expertise to cover thoroughly all fields offered. It is not necessary for every institution to offer everything; however, the disciplines that it does and does not offer should be made clear to all applicants. To guarantee graduate programs of quality, it is critical that schools or universities offer fields of study only when excellent instructional resources are available in a specific discipline or within an interdisciplinary range.
As art making and its related technologies continue to evolve and grow, MFA programs and faculty should offer robust opportunities for the application of knowledge, skills, and critical thinking associated with an array of contemporary creative and studio practices and a broad menu of options.
Visiting artists and visiting lecturers can provide inspiration and broadened horizons for any student body (and faculty), multiplying diversity of intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural points of view, from which all can benefit. Full value from such outside authorities, however, usually demands more extended contact than that afforded by a one-hour lecture. Visits of several days’ duration are recommended. As with full-time graduate faculty, visiting artists and visiting lecturers should reflect a broad pool of qualified individuals.
Facilities and Resources
CAA recognizes that many of today’s students enter graduate programs with intentions to work outside traditional studios or labs and will seek links to spaces (virtual or real), interdisciplinary curricula, and/or local and global opportunities on campus and in communities. In effect, studio and equipment needs are self-defined, according to the type of research and creative activity involved and how the student wants to communicate about it or disseminate it.
In the case of MFA programs that are more interdisciplinary in nature, it is essential that programs develop facilities that are strategically constructed and situated in order to encourage collaboration and exchange among areas. Such facilities may simply be spaces dedicated to cross-disciplinary exchange or may include resources including digital-technology labs and print centers.
MFA programs, whether traditional or considered newer media, should be offered only in those areas that are fully and adequately equipped with a reasonably full range of available technology and satisfactory working spaces for the students.. Specialized equipment, tools, spaces, computers, design software, and peripherals are absolutely essential for students in both traditional and digital-media areas. Appropriate access to traditional studios, tools, and equipment are important in order to educate MFA students about the best practices of a particular area, especially in terms of safety and the elimination of potentially hazardous materials or processes.
For the majority of students, private studios are necessities, They should not be so private or segregated as to prevent healthy contact and interchange. Independent studios should be supplemented by readily available access to all shops, labs, and general studios. In institutions that do not provide private studios for graduate students, students must have access to a private communal space set aside for their specific needs as a community.
No MFA program can exist without adequate visual and image resources, libraries, museums, and exhibition opportunities. The need for access to resources at all hours, within reason, is clear. Students must have continuous contact with works of visual cultures, both past and present.
While it is not appropriate for CAA to comment at length on the important topics of graduate assistantships, teaching assistantships, or other forms of financial assistance, it wishes to enunciate three principles that have direct bearing on the question of standards in MFA degree:
1. No graduate academic credit should be given for teaching or other assistantship work for which pay is received.
2. Graduate assistantships should be administered with care and through consideration, to support students in completing their academic and creative obligations successfully. Undue interference with the right of students to apply themselves to their primary mission in graduate school is both unfair and unwise.
3. The purpose of an assistantship is to provide the students with valuable and practical training, related to their goals and aspirations as artists, designers, and educators. As such, the specific duties of an assistantship should contain a strong educational component. This means that positions should not primarily focus on clerical or menial work or in any way eclipse the purpose of a graduate-level education.
CAA (revised 2008)
National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) HANDBOOK 2013-14
NASAD (October 28, 2013)
Studio Art and Design Research: Multiple Relationships and Possibilities
NASAD (October 1, 2005)
Thinking About Terminal Professional Degrees in Art and Design
NASAD (October 1, 2004)
Respectfully submitted by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Statement on the PhD Programs in the Visual Arts: Tom Berding, Michigan State University (co-Chair); John Kissick, University of Guelph (co-Chair); Carmon Colangelo, Washington University; Jim Hopfensperger, Western Michigan University; Bruce Mackh, University of Michigan; Steven Henry Madoff, School of Visual Arts (SVA); Morgan Paine, Florida Gulf Coast University; Virginia A. Maksymowicz, Franklin and Marshall University; Denise Mullen, Oregon College of Art and Craft; and Charles Wright, Western Illinois University.