Interview with Mr. Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of College of Imaging Arts & Sciences

Interview with Mr. Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of  College of Imaging Arts & Sciences

at Rochester Institute of Technology

What are the top three reasons that students choose to pursue a graduate degree in the visual arts?

Students pursue graduate degrees in the arts for a variety of reasons. To prepare them for teaching careers, to be competitive as visual artists by developing a personal vision demonstrated through the development of a body of work, and to further their technical understanding of their field are some of the primary reasons.

Professionally speaking, why should students pursue graduate programs in art? What advantages can they attain from it? When is the best time to pursue one?

The credential is necessary for anyone serious about college level teaching. To this end and for the professional development of artists in general, graduate programs require greater dedication, focus, and the personal development necessary to understand both the demands and discipline of being an artist as well as what is necessary for the education of an artist in an academic setting. Often students become involved in technical research and experimentation either to satisfy personal artistic goals or to advance the technical aspects of the field.

There is no best time to pursue the degree. Each student has his or her own agenda. Some know what they want from early on in life, while others change career goals midstream, while still others find their love for art later in life. They all have much to offer and bring great diversity to the educational setting.

What are the three most important factors that prospective students should consider when evaluating and choosing a graduate program in the visual arts?

First consider your own motivation for pursuing a graduate degree in the arts. Some programs are more suited for those interested in teaching as a career. Some focus primarily on the contemporary art scene and exposing students to the people in it. Others have a narrow focused direction, i.e., representational or abstract expressionist approaches. Others focus on the solid development of the individual and the achievement of their personal goals.

By knowing what you want, the schools will sort themselves out. Internationally known artists on the faculty might be appropriate for making contacts in the art world but not necessarily for reinforcing the solid fundamentals necessary for a career in teaching art.

How is your graduate art program different than those at other schools? How is technology integrated into your programs?

We work with the individual to help them attain their own personal goals with respect to the contemporary world of art. Technology surrounds the artists at RIT. Computers and high-end output devices are available everywhere for every purpose in large labs or specialized equipment in studios for the fine art student, the computer graphic designer or animator.

How selective are graduate schools for the visual arts, and what are some hot tips for getting accepted?

Graduate schools are relatively selective. There needs to be a strong sense of commitment and desire coupled with the demonstrated ability to create a high caliber of visual work. Serious students should make contact and stay in-touch with individual faculty members in the specific program they are interested in. Do not just send in an application and sit back and wait for an answer.

How do most students fund their graduate education? How available are scholarships and other forms of financial assistance at your school?

Most students cobble together work, scholarships, assistantships, and loans, along with personal or family savings in order to afford the increasing cost of graduate education. We can only cover about half the tuition with the highest levels of scholarships and assistantships in our programs.

Can an MFA include a focus on just about any visual art discipline? What's the difference between an MFA with a specialization and an MA in any given specialty?

We offer MFAs in most visual arts disciplines. While we don't offer the MA, we do offer the MST for one year of advanced study in some specific disciplines. The MST does not require the in-depth involvement leading to a body-of-work thesis required for the MFA.

How does your school help its students to find jobs in the visual arts?

Networking between students, faculty, and past grads along with posted job offers are the best avenues.

Tell us about some of your MFA graduates.

Recent graduates are flung across the world in a wide variety of positions. Most of our Fine Arts graduates maintain active exhibition schedules while at the same time working at art related jobs. A few of them have tenure track teaching positions at universities while others are teaching in adjunct capacities. Three recent grads have gone onto doctoral programs. Two are working at prestigious arts organizations in New York City. A number of others have found a niche in the corporate sector using their creative, visual expertise for interactive multi-media projects. Our Medical Illustration graduates are working in a great variety of venues. Some have successful freelance businesses. Most have landed jobs with companies specializing in the medical field from medical-legal consulting firms to medical centers, medical journal publishers, multi-media companies, and pharmaceutical and medical/scientific equipment companies.

Tell us about some of your noteworthy faculty.

Keith Howard, head of our printmaking area, is world-renowned in the field of non-toxic printmaking. He is a pioneer in new techniques, processes, and materials that make printmaking safer and environmentally friendly. His book "Non-Toxic Intaglio Printmaking" is the main resource in the field. While teaching full-time at RIT, he continues to be invited to conduct workshops around the world. This past year alone he was in China, Scotland, Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. At the same time, leading printmakers from around the world arrive at our shop almost weakly to work with Keith and exchange ideas and information about new advances in the field.

Painter, printmaker, illustrator, Alan Singer was included in the show "Pushing the Envelope" at the Norman Rockwell Museum. His postage stamp illustrations were part of this show on the art of the postage stamp. Alan also curated and had work in "Botanica 2000" a show of botanical illustrations from the most prominent botanical illustrators in the world today at the Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, NY. His watercolor paintings of Erie Canal Locks kicked off the Canal Conference in Rochester, NY and have been shown extensively in the area ever since. Finally, "Wildlife Art", a book on the most prominent wildlife artists of our time, written and edited by Alan, was released this past year.

Please write and answer three other questions you think of that would benefit prospective students.

How important is self-motivation for a graduate student?

Do not even bother to apply if you are not a self-starter. Graduate school, especially in the arts, requires students to work independently and push themselves. If you need to be guided and directed constantly and if you only work well when given specific assignments, then you are not suited or not ready for advanced study.

Is the reward worth the expense?

While private schools are extremely expensive and the jobs, especially for fine arts students, usually provide meager compensation, I have yet to talk to one of our graduates who regrets the decision to pursue this degree. Happiness is not measured in dollars.

Once accepted, what is the most important thing to remember?

Meet and talk to everyone. While feedback from your immediate faculty is extremely valuable, you will find that other students, faculty, and staff are a more valuable resource than you could ever imagine. Staff, especially, have a wealth of practical information that is often missed or taken for granted by faculty. You will find connections and interests in other fields you never thought to be viable avenues of exploration for you.

Graduate Program Profile: Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Art

Enrollment: The School of Art has 20 graduate students in Fine Arts Studio (Painting, Non-toxic Printmaking, Sculpture), 5 in Medical Illustration, 15 in Art Education. There are approximately: 300 graduate students in all visual arts programs at RIT.

School Tuition (in-state/out-of-state): $20,928.00

Student/Faculty Ratio: 15/1

Graduation rate: 80%

Graduate degrees and programs offered in visual arts: In the School of Art we offer the MFA and MST (Master of Science in Teaching) in Fine Arts Studio, the MFA in Medical Illustration, the MST (Master of Science in Teaching) in Art Education. There are other MFA programs in visual arts at RIT in the School of Design, the School of Film and Animation, the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, and the School for American Crafts

The mission of your graduate art school: The mission of the School of Art is to be a recognized leader in the education of artists. Providing an educational experience that unites technical expertise with artistic vision, the School of Art will prepare students for careers in the arts.

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