By: Sarah Bigler

As back to school approaches, Art Versed explores the most prestigious and popular MFA programs in the U.S. Whether you’re thinking about returning to school or graduating this year and planning for the future, these programs will certainly guarantee artistic success. A mixture of Ivy League classics and schools specializing in art and design make the list, allowing for artists to choose the school environment best for them.

© 2011 Sandra Burns

Yale MFA Installation at Green Hall © 2011 Sandra Burns

Yale University— The classic dream school, Yale’s MFA program is incredibly impressive and popular, with notable alumni such as Eva Hesse and Chuck Close. This three year program is especially known for their graphic design and photography programs, proclaimed as the best in the country. The program is also very strong for sculpture, painting and printmaking. Like all Ivy League schools, the prestige that accompanies the Yale name comes at a cost, specifically $33,500 a year. However, with its distinguished faculty and alumni, the connections built within the Yale artistic community, as well as addition of the powerful name Yale to your CV, are worth every penny.

Columbia University of the City of New York— Another Ivy dream school, Columbia provides the beautiful traditional campus of an ivy league school in the heart of NYC, allowing students to explore the diverse cultural scene. Columbia’s MFA is incredibly selective, claiming an admissions rate of only 2%. Columbia also offers a speciality in “new genres” such as Sound Art, setting it apart from other MFA programs. Like Yale, this 2 year ivy program boasts an impressive list of faculty and alumni such as Jon Kessler, Georgia Sagri, Guy Ben-Ner, Lisi Raskin, but also comes with the hefty price tag of $51,676.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maclean Center

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maclean Center

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago— Focusing mainly on new media and the intersection of art and technology, SAIC offers a special program in film/video/new media and Sound art, as well as an MA in Visual and Critical Studies, which combines visual art and art theory. The SAIC alumni could not possibly get more impressive, so if you want to wander the same halls once populated by Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Claes Oldenburg, and Jeff Koons this is the school for you. Part of the Art Institute of Chicago, and located in the heart of the city, SAIC also provides an opportunity for students to explore the museum’s collection and the city’s art scene. The powerful alumni and great location tip the scales against the school’s big sticker price of $44,010. However, SAIC is known to give a substantial amount of grants and student funding.

The SMFA atrium

The SMFA atrium

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston— This artist founded institution was established in 1876 and is run through Tufts University in partnership with the MFA Boston. Students here have the unique and incredible opportunity of exhibiting their work at the MFA Boston during their 2 years at SMFA. This tiny, (less than 200 students per year) interdisciplinary program, attended by the likes of Jim Dine, Nan Goldin, and Ellsworth Kelly, prominent reputation can perhaps justify the price of $39,020.

Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design— Compared to some of the previous programs discussed, which combine technique with academic study, RISD stresses technical elements of artistic craft. Offering specialties in a huge variety of areas, RISD is the school for the artist’s artist, looking to work hard. Unlike many of the programs on this list at large universities, RISD has less than 400 graduate students in total, and the average class size is only 11 students. The program can be completed in anywhere between 1-3 years, which could make the price of $42,622 more manageable if you’re able to finish in just one year. Incredible alumni such as Andrea Zittel, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker certainly bolster the school’s prestige.

Bard College Fischer Center

Bard College Fischer Center

Bard College— This tiny school located in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York, offers a unique system allowing students to complete their MFA in three summer sessions and two independent-study sessions, allowing students to also work on building their portfolios while completing their degree. Many of Bard’s alumni return to teach classes, so students may have the chance to study with Amy Sillman, Paul Chan, Carolee Schneeman, David Horvitz, Herb Ritts, or Rachel Harrison at some point during their time at Bard. The chance to study with any of these greats, as well as work in an untraditional setting balances out the sticker shock the accompanies the $55,000 price tag.


Pratt School of Design

Pratt School of Design— Pratt offers its students some of the best and most extensive resources of the schools on this list. With wood, metal, and print shops, as well as ceramics studios and darkrooms, students students have access to a wide variety resources as well as exhibition space in Pratt’s own gallery spaces. If these resources don’t speak for themselves, the extensive list of successful Pratt alumni will, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mickalene Thomas, and Roxy Paine. All of these resources and prestige come at the lowest price of any of the schools on our list, $28,308 annually.

School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Thesis Exhibition

School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Thesis Exhibition

School of Visual Arts (SVA)— Excelling in the specialities of media arts, such as Computer and video art, as well as the more “traditional” media of painting and sculpture, SVA provides students with all the wonderful opportunities of going to school in NYC at a slightly lower price than Columbia– a refreshing $36,130. Despite its smaller price tag, SVA still boasts an incredible list of alumni such as Keith Haring, Sarah Sze, and Sol LeWitt. Also worth noting, SVA also offers a program called “visual narratives” which combines visual arts and creative writing.

SCAD, Savannah Poetter Hall

SCAD, Savannah Poetter Hall

Savannah College of Arts and Design— Heading South, the Savannah College of Arts & Design offers the largest variety of programs of any school specializing in art and design. Interestingly, many of SCAD’s programs are also available for completion online. With renowned faculty and alumni, many of which focused in photography and graphic design, SCAD provides great opportunities and resources in the charming city of Savannah for their students, at the slightly lower price of $34,250 annually.

CalArts; image courtesy of LA Times

CalArts; image courtesy of LA Times

CalArts— Transitioning to the West, CalArts is known to be “the best” visual arts program on the west coast. It’s location in sunny Valencia, California means that it has connections to the film and media industries of Hollywood, which are good for post-grad professional opportunities and connections. If alumni such as Mike Kelley and Jack Goldstein aren’t enough to sell you, maybe the fact that the school was “founded” by none other than Walt Disney will be enough to convince you CalArts is the place for you. However, all that sunshine and prestige comes at the expensive price of $41,700 a year.

The groundbreaking exhibition of Degas’s monotypes, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, presents Edgar Degas to the public in a new light. This incredible exhibition, the first comprehensive show of Degas monotypes in over half a century, characterizes one of the most well known artists in the history of art as an innovator and experimenter.

In two short periods from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, Degas produced over 300 of these exceptional works on paper. Hundreds more are thought to have existed but were destroyed by Degas’s brother after his death. Although these works are numerous, the majority of them were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Therefore, these unique works are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps deemed too personal, scandalous, or experimental to be viewed by a 19th century audience, two centuries later they still retain their ability to both shock and intrigue viewers. The subjects explored by Degas in this experimental medium are wide ranging, from singers at café-concerts to prostitutes and smoke stacks; however, like his more famous paintings and pastels, the subjects which attracted Degas the most are those which capture elements of modern life in Paris.

Edgar Degas, Fireside

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminée]), c. 1880–85. Monotype on paper. Plate: 16 3/4 x 23 1/16 in. (42.5 x 58.6 cm), sheet: 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (50.2 x 64.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and C. Douglas Dillon Gift, 1968 (68.670). Courtesy of MoMA.

While some of the subjects are scandalous, the medium Degas employs, monotype, is equally surprising. Although Degas himself explained the process of monotype simply as “drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press,” monotype is in fact a complex and contradictory medium.1 Essentially, a monotype is a print. However, the fact that it is mono, or singular, inherently defies the supposed purpose of printmaking, which is to make many copies to be distributed or reproduced. The process of creating a monotype is also very different from other printmaking processes in that the image transferred from the plate to the page is not carved into a woodblock or etched into a copper plate, but simply painted on the surface using ink, or in some of Degas’s later monotypes, oil paint, allowing the image to be changed up until it is fed into the press. This aspect of the monotype process lends the medium to more spontaneous production, perfectly in sync with the spontaneity that Degas hoped to capture in his images.

Most of the works in the exhibition are the first version, however, some are “cognates,” rare second prints made from the original plate. These second images are much lighter than the first, since most of the ink went into the first image. While the cognates are essentially the same image, Degas edited them using pastel, gouache, or event sometimes oil paint to make them entirely new compositions.


Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection.

This dynamic between originality and reproduction that defines Degas monotypes can be best seen in a pair of works from the exhibition, which, taken from the same plate, depict the same subject and composition; however, they have almost nothing in common. Both plates show a singer at a café-concert, the first in black and white, characterized by this juxtaposition of light and shadow, emphasized by the five bright orbs of electric lights behind the singer. These lights, which illuminate the scene, also distort it, rendering the singer’s face almost in caricature as her arm bends unnaturally into the hazy, incomprehensible space of the café-concert. In the second version, which Degas has altered using pastel, both the figures and forms of the composition are much more solidly defined. Here, both women are clearly rendered in much more detail than in the hazy original. The five light orbs have been traded in for one fancy electric light on the back wall, immediately elevating the level of the establishment from the mysterious original. When looking at these works side by side in the gallery one would never suspect that they are in fact the same work; however, that paradox between originality and reproduction seems to be at the heart of what Degas is trying to achieve with his monotypes.

Three Women in a Brothel

Edgar Degas, Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind (Trois filles assises de dos), c. 1877–79. Pastel over monotype on paper. 6 5/16 x 8 7/16 in. (16.1 x 21.4 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris.

The brothel monotypes have become infamous within Degas’s oeuvre amongst scholars and, now that they have again been exhibited to the public, they have become a controversial highlight of the exhibition. They present the viewer with a true conundrum as to how to approach the style and subject matter. Some argue that they provide a sympathetic look into the realities of 19th century prostitution, a widespread industry in Paris at the time, while others have seen these works as voyeuristic and “creepy.” Of the dozen or so of the brothel monotypes on view in this exhibition, one of the most striking is The Name day of the Madam (La fête de la patronne). This work shows a group of prostitutes celebrating the birthday of the madam. The women, who are shown in various states of undress, present the madam with flowers. It is these moments that depict the behind the scenes lives of such women, rather than the ones which illustrate them at work, which make them something truly unique.

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879. Charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper. Plate: 6 3/8 × 4 3/4 in. (16.2 × 12.1 cm). Private Collection.

Like many of his contemporaries, as well as many artists working today, one of Degas main aims was to create works which engaged with and reflected the society in which he lived. His monotypes clearly reflect modernity not only in the subjects, but also the medium of monotype itself, and the techniques he used to achieve such varied and incredible effects relate directly to the larger idea of capturing modern life in 19th century Paris. “His loose brushwork turned out to be the perfect vehicle for capturing both ballerinas in motion and the bustle of city life—and the relaxed linearity was well-suited for his foray into caricature, including suggesting the financial exchange at the heart of prostitution. Degas’s method of incising into the greasy pigment offered a way to render the artificial lighting that was not only illuminating Paris in new and exciting ways but changing vision itself.”2

Edgar Degas, Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines), 1877–79. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 in. (11.9 x 16.1 cm), sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 in. (14.7 x 17.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.

These haunting works present the often romanticized, but gritty reality of life in 19th century Paris and paint Degas as a technical innovator and experimenter in the art of printmaking.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24th.


  1. Buchberg, Karl, and Laura Neufeld, “Indelible Ink: Degas’s Methods and Materials,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print. P. 47.
  2. Hauptman, Jodi, “Introduction,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. P. 17. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print.

No matter what time of year it is, chances are there is a biennial happening somewhere around the world. During certain years, the art world flocks to major cities like Venice or São Paulo—or remote places like Kassel, Germany or Dakar—to view some of the world’s greatest contemporary art. Since the 1990s these large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions have become the main way of exhibiting and publicizing international contemporary art.

Today, major biennials exist on every continent, everywhere from Sydney to Shanghai, with more than 150 established biennials in total. They have become such a craze that a non-profit called the Biennial Foundation was formed just to monitor their behavior. Confusingly though, not all of these exhibitions happen every two years, some are triennials (Yokohama Triennale) or quadrennials (Copenhagen Arts Festival—formerly the U-turn Quadriennale), but because all of these exhibitions follow the same general structure, they are all grouped under the biennial umbrella. Essentially, what distinguishes biennials from art fairs, like Frieze in London or Art Basel in Miami, is the fact that biennials are much larger, taking place in multiple venues across the given city, and, most importantly, the works displayed are not for sale. Biennials function as temporary exhibitions for contemporary art, not as galleries.

Padiglione Centrale Giardini, Venezia, 2010 Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

Padiglione Centrale, Giardini, Venezia, 2010
Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

The concept of the biennial has roots in the 19th and early 20th century phenomena of the World’s Fair and Universal Exhibition. The word biennial comes from the Italian word biennale, meaning every other year, and refers to the original biennial—the Venice Biennale. The first Venice Biennale, in 1895, celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita. It was held at the Palazzo dell’ Esposizione, a public space called the Giardini on the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice. The exhibition was hugely popular, and became a bi-annual (biennial) event. By the early 20th century many different countries had built pavilions in the Giardini to house their country’s art during the exhibition. During the first half of the 20th century, the pavilions featured an assortment of works by the country’s best artists. In the post-war years, the style of the exhibition began to shift towards more curated and thematic displays.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group) L’architetto condotto 15th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group)
L’architetto condotto; 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The current global biennial structure was developed in the 1990s. Most biennials follow the general structure of the Venice Biennale, which has both a series of national pavilions that exhibit work from their country’s artists, all with individually curated themes, and a larger overarching exhibition curated by the biennial directors that is often linked to a different theme. As the art world became increasingly globalized in the late 1990s, the biennial phenomenon has also taken on a diplomatic element. These exhibitions bring together works of art from all over the world under one general curatorial theme, which is often connected to international social or political issues. For example, the 2016 Venice Biennale theme is “Reporting from the Front.”

Although the biennial model of contemporary art exhibitions has been debated, the idea of exhibitions that survey global contemporary art have been perceived as largely positive. The growth of biennial culture has been connected with fostering diplomatic relations between nations as well as promoting the growth of cultural tourism. Large-scale biennials draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, and have certainly helped to generate tourism in previously under-visited destinations. Through these visitors the art displayed at biennials circulates around the world—every visitor returns from biennials with a list of top new artists to watch.

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak'Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo : Willy Kemtane

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak’Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo: Willy Kemtane

With the increasing globalization of the art world, many biennials focused on non-Western art have emerged since the 1990s. One of the most important of these is DAK’ART, the Dakar Biennale, founded in 1992. This biennial focuses on contemporary African art or works of black artists around the world. It is the largest exposition of contemporary African art and draws in visitors and artists from all over the globe to Senegal. Also, with the growing power of the Asian art market, major biennials are now located in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Japan, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. A major exhibition of non-western art is also hosted every two years in Havana, Cuba. While originally dedicated only to Caribbean and Latin American art, the biennial has expanded to include work of artists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as well.

While biennials have a long history, they have evolved dramatically in the past thirty years. They have essentially transformed from World’s Fairs into the major place for viewing, circulating, and discussing global contemporary art.

“Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change” on view at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia explores the dynamic relationship between Cubism and classicism in the works of Pablo Picasso, particularly those produced in the years surrounding World War I. The Barnes has assembled a truly impressive show, which provides wonderful examples of the different media and modes in which Picasso was working throughout this period.

This landmark exhibition at The Barnes marks one of the foundation’s first forays into the world of temporary exhibitions. The collection, assembled by Dr. Alfred Barnes, comprises arguably the best collection of Impressionist and early Modern works in the United States. The collection is also notorious for its legal complexity. The collection came with a series of regulations that require the collection to stay exactly as Dr. Barnes arranged it, and that the works cannot be moved or lent. These restrictions made the 2012 move from the original location, Dr. Barnes’s home in Marion, Pennsylvania, to the new building in center-city Philadelphia, highly controversial. With more than 40 works by Picasso in the permanent collection, the exhibition provides an interesting insight into Picasso’s enormous body of work.

Installation of Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, 2016. Image © 2016 The Barnes Foundation.

Installation of Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, 2016. Image © 2016 The Barnes Foundation.

While perhaps best known by the general public for his 1930’s quasi-Surrealist portraits, Picasso’s oeuvre in fact spans more than 70 years and is characterized by many different periods and styles that often overlap or are in dialogue with one another. This ability to work in different media simultaneously truly distinguishes Picasso from his contemporaries. The exhibition focuses in on a 12 year window in Picasso’s career, between 1912-1924.

The show moves chronologically, opening with some incredible examples of Picasso’s Synthetic Cubist works from before the war.

While these Cubist works were celebrated within artistic circles before World War I, once the war begun, sentiments changed. The exhibition presents this shift with a detailed yet concise video, which includes photographs, cartoons, and newspaper clippings from the period to illustrate the anti-German sentiments that swept Paris and how this impacted Cubism. In short, it explains that during World War I, Cubism came to be seen as unpatriotic and German. In this movement of extreme nationalistic fervor, it was classicizing art that was seen as patriotic, upholding tradition of classical French painting.

This show provides multiple examples of how Cubist artists reacted to anti-Cubist sentiments. Some of the Cubist artists, like Jean Metzinger, choose to create a special genre of “nationalist Cubism,” as exemplified by his Soldier at Game of Chess (c. 1915) which uses a Cubist technique to depict nationalistic and patriotic subject matter. Others, like Picasso, went in a different direction, choosing to explore other more naturalistic modes. The year 1914 marks a shift towards naturalism in Picasso’s works, moving away from the highly abstract forms of early Cubism.

Installation of Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, 2016. Image © 2016 The Barnes Foundation.

Installation of Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, 2016. Image © 2016 The Barnes Foundation.

One of the most exciting aspects of this exhibition is the inclusion of Picasso’s whimsically abstract costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes performance Parade in 1917. The exhibition introduces these works to a larger public using the idea of avant-garde ballet itself as an example of this juxtaposition of abstraction and classicism that arises in Picasso’s work during and after the war. The fanciful and abstract constructions Picasso designed, according to the wall description, to “disrupt the classical body with Cubist forms.” While the scenery is more classical, the costumes are Cubist paintings come to life. The exhibition includes photographs of all the costumes as well as monumental reconstructions of three of the costumes: the American businessman, the Horse, and the French businessman, which tower over the viewer on a faux stage, a photograph of the original backdrop painted by Picasso behind them.

Picasso, "Pierrot," Paris, 1918. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso, “Pierrot,” Paris, 1918. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The dynamic that this exhibition illustrates is best seen in the comparison made towards the end of the show between Picasso’s Pierrot and his Harlequin with a Violin both from 1918. Pierrot is an example of the classicizing mode Picasso adopted at the end of World War I. The figure is sculptural and naturalistic, yet somewhat simplified. There is an attempt to suggest depth and volume using bright color, which is interesting in comparison to the utter flatness of his Harlequin with a Violin right next to it. The untrained eye would guess that these works were done by different artists, let alone the same artist in the same year. But that’s the genius of Picasso.

Picasso, Harlequin Musician, 1924. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso, Harlequin Musician, 1924. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition concludes with some of Picasso’s beautiful neo-classical works from the period following World War I. These enormous, sculptural women dressed in fresh white togas represent a return to interest in classicism following the destruction of the Great War, for example his Seated Woman of 1920.

By including the Parade costumes, works by other Cubist painters, as well as a series of photographs taken by Jean Cocteau of Picasso and other members of the Parisian avant-garde in Montparnasse in 1917, the exhibition contextualizes Picasso’s work from this period and provides a glimpse into many interesting and unknown aspects of Picasso’s life and career.

Entertaining and enlightening, “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change” on through May 21st is a visual delight and well worth the trip.