In April, 51 of the 54 students slated to graduate from Columbia University’s visual-arts M.F.A. program came to the provost with an unusual demand: a full tuition refund for the 2017-18 academic year. These candidates had reportedly been working in decrepit conditions. Limestone had fallen from studio ceilings and hallways had flooded, damaging works of art. Room temperatures often dropped below 40 degrees. The environment outside the studio was equally chilly: Star professors took repeated sabbaticals. The university had cheated the students out of an education, they claimed. (One year of tuition at Columbia’s fine-arts program is $63,961.)
The state of Columbia’s highly ranked program — a “disgrace,” the provost acknowledged as he declined their refund request — may be unusual. But the ceiling has yet to crumble on the M.F.A. market more broadly. The degree has increasingly become a prerequisite for people trying to break into the art world, especially those seeking the attention of the leading New York galleries. More than half of the 500 most successful American artists at auction hold M.F.A.s. But what is really happening inside these programs? And what effects do they have on contemporary art?