It has become commonplace for American art schools to mount exhibitions for their graduating Masters of Fine Art (MFA) students—it is far less common, however, for a former director of the Whitney Museum to organise one. But David Ross, who headed the Whitney for eight years in the 1990s, agreed to judge this year’s MFA National Exhibition, which opened yesterday (23 July-14 August) at the non-profit First Street Gallery in New York. From a pool of around 150 applicants, Ross sel ected 20 recent graduates to show their work at the annual event’s latest edition.
The painter Sallie Benton (Yale, 1994) launched the competition in 2011 to help ease the rough transition between art school and the professional world. “I felt sort of abandoned when I graduated, not by Yale, but because you have this wonderful cushion and then you have your MFA and that’s it,” Benton says. This event gives winners a boost for their CVs and a chance to mingle with jurors, who in past years have included the Brooklyn Rail editor Phong Bui, the New York dealer Asya Gesiberg and Susanna Coffey, the professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Notably absent from the current exhibition line-up are students from Ivy League universities and most other top-tier art schools. Instead, winners hail from far-flung institutions including Clemson University in South Carolina, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Arkansas. Only two exhibitors graduated from universities in New York City—Parsons the New School for Design and the School of Visual Arts, where Ross is currently chair of the art practice MFA programme (the applicants’ names and universities were disclosed during the selection process).
“If you have just an exhibition from RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] or one university, you get an idea of that university,” Benton says. “Here you get an idea of what’s going on across the entire country.”