How MFA Programs Perpetuate the Taboo Against Artists Having Children

Michelle Carla Handel still remembers an unpleasant experience from her days at Claremont University, where she received her MFA in 2011:

One male professor in particular, Michael Brewster, who has since passed away, asked during our first studio visit if I had kids or if I was planning to have kids. He said that if I really wanted an art career it would be better not to have kids, and that as a woman it would be really difficult to do an art career with children.

For a first studio visit, this is quite an opener.

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Before we even get to the sexism, it’s useful to understand some history of the Master of Fine Arts education. You would be forgiven for thinking that art schools should emphasize art making skills and concepts rather than career, but the very emergence of graduate programs in art helped drive its professionalization. American art education was co-opted by universities in the 1960s, ironically when many leading artists had no formal academic credentials to begin with (for example, Willem de Kooning was mostly unschooled). Universities began to give theory primacy over craft, ushering in an era of academic curators who continue to play an outsize role as institutional gatekeepers. Thank goodness many poets still write art criticism.

I did my MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, and in the months before I graduated in 2008, a tenured professor gathered our entire class to share what she sincerely felt was helpful advice, telling us that if we were committed to art we could not have a “normal” life, and as she got into detail it became clear that one of these things we could not have was a family. Three different women who graduated UPenn in either 2009 or 2010 all recall a specific faculty member telling them that “most successful female artists are either childless or lesbians.” Among these former students is Susan Fang, who recalls, “I think this comment really stuck with a lot of the female students …. At the time the comment made me feel incredibly sad and anxious. I think I was too young to be told something like that.” When our pre-graduation advice meeting was over, I felt startled by the presumption of telling artists how they should live, given that making art is at core about the freedom to find a path uniquely your own.

It would be easy to judge the faculty who perpetuate these destructive messages, but it would also be unfair. American ideas about work and family arise in the context of little to no government support for childcare. The New York Times recently reported that among wealthy countries, the United States comes in dead last for government spending to assist families with childcare: “Rich countries contribute an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s care, compared with $500 in the US.” Corporate America continues to view having children as a weakness or liability, primarily for women as the presumed caregivers, but these biases permeate our entire culture. Robert Russell has not forgotten being a new father at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2005: “When I showed up at openings with my baby,” he told me, “My classmates were bewildered — I became invisible.”

Robert Russell next to his paintings in graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts with his then baby son Benjamin (2006) (photo by Ellen Pocai)

When MFA programs first came into being, the faculty was essentially a White male club, and those men were not the primary caretakers of their children (if they had families at all). Women had to claw their way into university jobs in the face of sexist assumptions, including the idea that responsibility for raising children precludes serious art. Both male and female faculty internalize these biases and recapitulate them — we are all products of our time. But the resulting dogma should be criticized, particularly the model of the professional gallery artist who must strip their life of everything except making art. Alina Tenser, who graduated Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 2012 (out of the programs that Tenser was accepted into it was the only school that offered her a year deferral because she was pregnant) reflected:

There were no professors who had children of any age (though some of those faculty have since had children), and just as representation matters with sexual orientation, race, and gender, it was hard not to see my experience being reflected back to me.

TJ Dedeaux-Norris, who is on faculty at University of Iowa’s School of Art, recollects a rare and refreshingly different experience during her graduate education at Yale.

I had studio visits with Kate Gilmore, who had just given birth, and she would openly excuse herself by saying “Sorry, I gotta go pump these tits,” and I really appreciated that. It was an outlier in the hardness. I felt like faculty looked at the younger generation and resented our feeling that we could have both family and a career. But there were very few real conversations about it because it was just as taboo as talking about getting a gallery instead of the work.

 TJ Dedeaux Norris (upper right quadrant) teaching at the University of Iowa, with Jessica Bingham (former curator of university galleries at Illinois State University) in upper left, for the Seminar in Rhetorical Theory—Race, Rhetoric & Trauma (2021) (photo by TJ Dedeaux Norris)

The family taboo prevalent in MFA programs can extend to the artwork as well: Tenser described how “mommy work” was a term used in critiques, as in it’s great that you’re not making mommy work. “It was clearly something icky and embarrassing,” she remembers,

It made me feel that if I’m to be taken seriously I better tiptoe around mommy work. New materialism was highly valued at our sculpture program, it was all about the autonomous object — a deeply anti-feminist conceptual structure, admitting no social context.

Similarly, in her 2015 memoir, The Argonauts, poet and critic Maggie Nelson recounts a seminar (during her PhD study from 1998-2004) in which scholar Rosalind Krauss dismissed motherhood as “contaminating serious academic space.” About 42 years after Mary Kelly’s immensely important Post-Partum Document project made motherhood the subject of her seminal conceptual art, this situation is shocking.

Fathers usually get treated differently than mothers because of the assumption that a father will not be the child’s primary caretaker. William Wilson, who will graduate VCU this year, is fully engaged in co-parenting with his partner: “While I’ve heard plenty of awful stories from friends and colleagues describing terrible meetings with curators and other artists stating how ‘regressive’ having children can be for one’s career,” Wilson explains. “I can’t say I ever had that experience. That’s not to say there wasn’t the occasional ‘tap on the shoulder’ conveying the difficulty of having children in the art world regarding how others might perceive you.”

Perhaps Wilson’s schooling has been different because he is male and limited to remote learning, or maybe the culture has begun to shift, especially in recent years as Covid continues to force work and family life into full overlap. For some parents, remote learning may have at least temporarily reduced a few pressures associated with having a child during graduate school. Tenser spoke to me about how having a child pushed her to the edges of the MFA community a decade ago: “Whether it was extremely inconvenient scheduling of critiques and seminars in the evening, the pressures to socialize late at night at the bar (‘when the real conversation happens’, I was told), or a spur of the moment camping trip that was not possible for me. ‘You’re not really being a member of this community’ was the message I got repeatedly.” In the pandemic’s remote learning context, evening seminars are less problematic for some parents because they can participate from home, and of course students are less likely to be gathering at bars or going camping as a group these days. Jered Sprecher, a professor at University of Tennessee-Knoxille, takes a view both more welcoming and complex: “The community thrives by the energy that each individual puts into it,” Sprecher suggests, “maybe the individual with a child is not able to go to the bar, but they are exploring new territory within their cohort of the mysterious land called parenting. This experience can add new insight and perspective to the whole community.” 

Dedeaux-Norris, and Tenser (who teaches at SUNY Purchase), are part of a new generation of MFA educators, representing the possibility of incipient change. Dedeaux-Norris also encourages her students to embrace possibility:

With my students over the past few years, I’ve really welcomed these conversations. University of Iowa does not come with the package of expectations endemic at Yale, UCLA, etc, so it’s a more open environment. I found it novel that at final reviews faculty asked a new father how his baby was doing — it was a bit shocking, and I had to push back against my own conditioning. As a teacher, I try to balance against the “gallery artist ideology” by demonstrating other models that are real and true to life. One graduate student showed up with an engagement ring and started crying, saying, “I don’t know if I can do this and still make art,” and I said, “The only way you find out is by doing it.”


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