NSights Blog

Care, Experimentation, and Community in the MFA-IA Program

There’s something special about finding a graduate program dedicated to experimental interdisciplinary visual arts on the West Coast in an academic landscape where institutions are hard pressed to maintain an exclusive focus on these important studio practices or advocate for them within institutional shifts—as evidenced by the tumultuous journey of mergers like Mills College with Northeastern University and San Francisco Art Institute (where I attended graduate school) with University of San Francisco. Sierra Nevada University is slated to merge with University of Nevada, Reno on July 1, which will then house the MFA-IA program that strives to maintain its artist-led resolve even within the structures of accreditation and shifting departmental expectations involved in such mergers. So how has the program managed thus far to create this special space for experimentation within its low-residency program pedagogy, and how is it continuing to do so?

Assistant Director Anza Jarschke shares:

"A core tenant of the program is to push students outside of their comfort zone. This is not to be confused with some MFA programs being based around breaking down students to build them back up again. To be an interdisciplinary artist, you need to take risks and step away from a singular way of approaching your medium, content, and practice. With each residency, students take a focused studio practice that approaches making from a unique position that we hope is unfamiliar, or at minimum forces students to approach their work in a different way. We encourage students to experiment and take risks; in exchange we provide the scaffolding to help see these fresh and developing ideas come to full fruition."

What Jarschke imparts makes this program not just special, but incredibly relevant as creative workers and labor becomes more recognized within our economic landscape. This importantly encompasses the economic impact of the arts, which can never be understated, in numbers like: The arts contribute $471 million dollars in economic activity in Nevada alone. But also in data like: The arts contribute over 10,000 jobs in Nevada. (I use Nevada here since that is where the MFA-IA program is “located,” though this data could be adjusted to any locale.) These data are crucial because from it we start to unearth what is behind this value: artists. Artists’ labor and contributions should be valued in our society and artists need the space and structure of academic programs to support their work and development.

It’s salient that the type of risk taking and “stepping away from a singular way of approaching your medium” that Jarschke mentions above are what underpins the creative thinking and adaptive strategies that are highly sought after skills within realms of business, innovation, and entrepreneurship and also underpin somewhat recent subsidized programs for artists to lend their creative strategies to other industries within their communities to make our lived environments and civic infrastructure better places for all to access.

 By virtue of their creativity and how they challenge us and lift us up through their work, artists make our communities better places and foster a sense of belonging. And it’s not just me that thinks that, there are many reports that validate the role arts and culture plays in increasing social cohesion and community well-being (like this one). So to bring this article back around to what it set out to say: it’s important that artists are able to find community for themselves within academic programs and to find a balance of support and challenge. Jarschke offers:

Considering we are a low-residency program, a large part of our focus is how to maintain community that isn’t constantly sharing physical space with each other. We do this by acknowledging that those running the program, and also those participating in the program, are humans. Most of our students have large, full, lives outside of school. While the rigor of the program holds all students accountable to achieving an MFA, we recognize that each student has a different term of success. By investing time and care into knowing our students more deeply, we can provide an education that meets their needs as well as the requirements of the degree program.

This aspect of care speaks to values of presence and connection that can’t always be outlined within a rubric or a syllabus, but are dovetailed with the experimental curriculum of the MFA-IA program to create something that is truly special – I know from having the opportunity to teach and mentor in the program myself. Care is not at odds with criticality or challenge, but rather a tenet that reflects a program that can offer reflexivity, relevance, and quality without compromise within a larger structure. If artists in any capacity walk away from the program with care and a commitment to rigor, experimentation, and/or collaboration, then we can only hope many communities stand to benefit.

About the Author: Kara Q. Smith is a Sacramento-based writer, curator, and arts advocate. She is currently Manager of Programs and Organizational Advancement with Californians for the Arts. She has more than 15 years of experience working for museums, galleries, and non-profit institutions. She has curated exhibitions, spoken at art fairs and symposiums, officiated workshops and lectures, and written for numerous publications. Kara also currently holds an adjunct faculty position in Sierra Nevada University’s Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program.

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