Mastering fine art: the MFA course at NYUAD

There’s something about a Master of Fine Arts course. Unlike most other masters degrees, it’s practice-based rather than focussed on academic theory and analysis; an MFA is intended to develop advanced creative skills. So an institution that offers the course is making a statement about the kind of value it thinks it can (or possibly should) add. Despite the plethora of university level institutions in the UAE, there hasn’t been an MFA course on offer here – the Sorbonne has one, but it’s geared to art history and museology rather than artistic practice.

Now from the start of next semester that’s changing; applicants to NYU Abu Dhabi’s new two-year MFA course require a bachelor’s degree and a strong portfolio of work (20 digital images or videos); but GRE scores aren’t necessary, and there may be financial help available – the total cost of fees, housing and health insurance comes in at just over $168,000. Applications for next year’s intake open in September, incidentally.

We feel that the MFA also makes a statement about the potential for art in the UAE – not so much the creativity offered by artists here, but definitely the role of the country as a creative as well as a geographic hub. So we asked to put these points to some of those involved.

At the time the name of the MFA Program Director hadn’t been announced (see the downpage boxout); but David Darts, Program Head for Art and Art History, and Laura Schneider, Lecturer in Visual Arts, fielded our questions.

magpie: What’s the aim of the course? Is it designed to produce curators, or arts administrators, or more rounded artists? Or something else?

NYUAD: The goal of an MFA is to strengthen the artist’s individual art practice as well as their relationships with critical theory and relevant discourse. Students are positioned to push their practices to the next level given the support of their peer community and professors, as well as their exposure to other visiting artists and art professionals who provide studio visits, lectures, and critiques.

MFAs are required to teach at the university level, so the program offers a teaching apprenticeship program to students who are interested in entering academia.

Curation and arts administration are related fields that also require a strong grasp of the contemporary art landscape – which artists gain in our MFA – but the programme is not geared toward offering specific job experiences in these areas.

magpie: So it’s an MFA in Art and Media. Why ‘and media’?

NYUAD: Contemporary art practice is by nature interdisciplinary. However, we wanted to stress that this program is equipped to facilitate work that encompasses new media and technologies. Our MFA faculty have backgrounds in film, interactive media, sound, installation-based work, socially engaged practices, as well as traditional mediums such as sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography.

magpie: What’s the foundation of the course – is it based on any of the NYU MFA courses from the States?

NYUAD: The curricular structure is modelled on the MFA programme at NYU New York but is also responsive to the cultural traditions and heritage of the UAE, along with its burgeoning place as a global art hub.

Abu Dhabi is an exciting crossroads that is at once global, contemporary, pan-Arab, and a MENASA hub, while also remaining committed to the preservation of local, indigenous practices and aesthetics. The MFA program’s educational mission and style reflect this cultural richness and complexity with a methodology that is American in approach but eastern-looking in traditions.

While the global art world knows no boundaries, it is still true that art coming from certain regions is inflected with the landscapes, materials, traditions, and specific art and craft practices of that place. The MFA programme leverages this by using regional art and cultural spaces as field work and off-site learning laboratories.

The programme leverages Abu Dhabi’s location as a transnational and transcultural hub for the exchange of western and eastern traditions in the arts and culture. The MFA is uniquely positioned to create new discourses in the field by virtue of its geographic location and student body it attracts. Students from vastly different cultures, beliefs and orientations gather here and are creating new visions of what Abu Dhabi, the Emirates, the Gulf, and the wider region is and can be. This is supported directly by the flows of NYU’s global network and Abu Dhabi’s proximity to points east of traditionally western-centric art discourses.

magpie: Yes, that makes sense. How’s the appeal? Now that the deadline for applications has passed, how does the course look in terms of potential student numbers and the quality of applicants?

NYUAD: The demand is high! We had many applicants, and we accept a cadre of seven to eight artists each year.

Applicants often apply multiple times before getting accepted into an MFA program. Unlike grad programs in other fields, MFA candidates are often more mature in age. Being an artist is a lifelong journey, and those who have had more time to develop their practices often have stronger portfolios.

magpie: Presumably students are provided with facilities like private studios and technicians …

NYUAD: We are an in-person degree programme. The artist studio is a pivotal research and creation site, and we offer individual studios that neighbour each other in a large space to build community and allow for the constant cross-pollination of ideas. NYUAD offers state-of-the-art facilities and has a technical support team that manages them.

magpie: I think the only Masters degree currently available in anything remotely similar is the history of art/museology course at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi. Why has it taken so long for MFA courses to be developed here? Is it lack of demand, of resources, of commitment?

NYUAD: Good question! The MFA is a truly different kind of programme since it features artists training other artists to be agents of expression, critical thought, creative research and social change. Demand is not the issue – there is considerable interest in the MFA degree. It has always been part of the university’s strategic plan to develop graduate-level degrees once the undergraduate programs are fully established. NYUAD has now launched both the MFA and MSc in Economics and plans to offer additional graduate programs in the coming years.

We didn’t partner with the Sorbonne on the MFA, of course, though our faculty are certainly open to future collaborations and partnerships with our institutional colleagues at the Sorbonne and throughout the country.

magpie: What would you say was the significance of the NYUAD MFA for the development of arts education in the region? And more broadly for the development of a culture of art here?

NYUAD: An MFA is required to teach at the university level. The UAE was not able to offer this previously, and people had to leave the country in order to make this career step. We will now have more in-country trained artists and educators.

This is significant; artists are producers of culture. They will be able to grow their careers in the UAE and also grow the cultural sector. As the country continues to establish itself on the world stage, being both an active participant and producer of contemporary culture and global dialogues is vital. The UAE, as a hub of international finance, travel & tourism, is also well positioned to be a leading force in cultural and artistic exchange, to further global dialogues about the most important issues facing our increasingly interconnected and fast-paced world.

Tarek Al-Ghoussein has recently been named as Program Director for the MFA course. He is already Professor of Visual Art at NYUAD, a noted photographer who has been exhibited widely (including his recent Third Line show Odysseus, which we liked a lot), and an artist whose work explores the boundaries between landscape photography, self-portraiture and performance art. In particular he uses his practice to explore how identity is shaped within a context of inaccessibility and loss, an inescapable part of his background as a Kuwaiti of Palestinian origin.

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