The weather is warming and that means that the end of the academic year is coming. I am a first year student pursuing my M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Art. The school, located in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, is small—only 150 students total. Many of us here call it the ‘island.’ Right now, my friends and I are gearing up for the break and trying to get the last bit of use out of the school’s facilities before we leave the island and return to normalcy for the summer. This year, I will be staying in Detroit and working to establish roots in a place targeted by the media during the financial crisis. But the biggest thing that has been on everyone’s mind for the last three months has been the degree show.
At the end of each year, Cranbrook Academy of Art puts together a giant museum exhibition to showcase the work of each year’s emerging graduates. As you can imagine, because each year the school produces 75 M.F.A. graduates with work ranging from painting and 2D design to sculpture and architecture, this show can get easily cluttered.
Several attendees of last year’s show likened it to a three ring circus and this year’s show was similar. In an interview with one of the artists-in-residence, we spoke of how each year there is always “a house, a car, and a song and dance show.” This time, with the exception of the car, the show proved to be quite a spectacle. There were three performances at the opening, each drawing a huge crowd, and one fully functioning house and several other house-like pieces. “In a show with this many people, everyone is trying to get seen,” the artist-in-residence commented.
Ideally, the graduate exhibition should serve as an introduction of the artist to a larger art community and at the same time, use that community to check the quality of the work. That it is why the graduate exhibition is such a valuable part of the M.F.A. education. On its website, the College Art Association states in its M.F.A. guidelines that, “each MFA student should be required to mount a substantial final exhibition of his or her work.” It speaks of this as a way to critically judge the work of the graduates. This final exhibition can range in format from a small solo show at an on or off-campus gallery, to a larger big box museum exhibition like at Cranbrook. This year, the school joined with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to present Out of the Woods, a show stuffed to the brim with works by the school’s graduating class.
In reflecting on my own thoughts about the graduate exhibition, I began to wonder how my ideas correlated with those of my peers. So to get a sense of what it is like to be involved in one of these shows, I interviewed several of my classmates, first and second years. We talked about our overall impressions of the show and how being involved in it affected the general dynamic of the school. Instead of transcribing the dialogue for you, I thought it would be interesting to hear the words directly from the mouths of the students. Here are some of the answers I collected:
On expectations for the show:
On making work specifically for the show:
On what the purpose and function of the “Graduation Exhibition”:
After collecting these conversations, I started to realize just how big of a marker this event becomes in the timeline of an M.F.A. candidate. More than a formal quality-check of their work, the graduate exhibition, for many of my peers, had become a way of marking their accomplishments throughout the two years. In my interview with Trina VanRyn, she commented on how the thesis show was, “a right of passage,” a milestone earned through a whole two years of hard work. And even though we all seemed to want a more critical dialogue for the work shown at Out of the Woods, I think something very telling of all our experiences here at Cranbrook came out of one of my interviews.
The first person I talked to was Rosalind Carnes, a first year student in the 2D department, on her way to lunch. At the end of our discussion I asked her whether or not she wanted a more critical discussion for the show. This is her response.
Just like Rosalind, I also question whether or not I would want my thesis piece seriously critiqued.Corina Reynolds is an artist based in Detroit, Michigan. She holds a B.F.A. from San Diego State University and is pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiber at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Her work explores the different ways individuals process their surroundings through the use of interactive objects and performances.