master of fine arts

SFAI’s two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program provides a compelling interdisciplinary context for emerging artists to develop and refine their work while engaging the historical, theoretical, socio-political, and creative concerns of the contemporary moment.

Founded on the principle that critical inquiry and experimentation are at the forefront of art-making, the program fosters students’ use of their own questioning to generate a sustaining and vital creative practice. The program integrates both formal and conceptual aspects of production, while incorporating new technologies as tools for innovation.

In addition to maintaining an independent studio practice, students work one-on-one with faculty in graduate tutorials; participate in small, discussion-based critique seminars; engage with local and international visiting artists and scholars; participate in student-led collaborations, collectives, exhibitions, and curatorial initiatives; and take critical studies and art history seminars. This cross-disciplinary curriculum prepares students for the demands of art-making in the globalized 21st century.

Students at SFAI earn an MFA in Studio Art, and may optionally choose an emphasis in one of the Institute’s major disciplines: Design and Technology, Film, New Genres, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, or Sculpture. Declaring an emphasis allows students to focus their disciplinary interests, while still engaging with students and faculty across the broad array of approaches at SFAI. All MFA students—those who declare an area of emphasis and those who do not—are encouraged to be fluent in the discourses surrounding all approaches to contemporary practice.

The culmination of the MFA degree is the MFA Exhibition, which is annually celebrated for its intellectual rigor and diverse, cutting-edge creative output.

Optional MFA Emphases

Design and Technology

Beginning with the premise that technology is a platform for creating works of art and design, this program focuses on technology’s potential for innovative application and its ability to communicate meaning. Students who enter SFAI with disciplinary interests including graphic design, web design, interaction design, humanities, and science ultimately develop a conceptually driven art and design practice that is both experimental and experiential. Working at the intersection of studio and academic disciplines—and within the Bay Area, a hub of technological innovation—students move beyond the screen into realms of installation, interactive sculpture, sound, electronics, mixed media, and systems and networks. The program is oriented toward broad research strategies that are collaborative and forward looking, bringing together the ideas we live by and the things we live with.

Back to Top


A pioneering presence in experimental film, SFAI continues to value the medium’s possibilities for individual expression across genres and formats. Students develop understanding and ability within the existing film world, but also push the boundaries of the medium by integrating new technologies, exploring alternative contexts of production and distribution, and rethinking relationships between film and other media. Filmmakers are able to pursue various approaches—narrative, abstract, experimental, documentary, commercially based—as well as work with film in fine art contexts such as site-specific installation. The program culminates with a public screening that introduces Bay Area audiences to these compelling new filmmakers.

Back to Top

New Genres

SFAI’s New Genres program has its roots in the major conceptual and disciplinary shifts in art during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Expanding upon the art historical lineage for the traditional use of a given media, New Genres references the rich and more recent history of investigational contemporary art that includes Fluxus, Chris Burden, and Marina Abramovic, as well as SFAI alumni Jason Rhoades, Karen Finley, Paul Kos, and Tony Labat, among many others. New Genres artists often work in video, performance, and intervention, but the practice of New Genres transcends specific media—for each project, the concept, intention, and meaning drive the form of expression, making the idea the material from which the art is made.

Back to Top


The Painting program is dynamically situated between a legacy of important artists and movements that have been based at SFAI and the wide range of possibilities available to contemporary painters. Students work to visually articulate their technical, formal, aesthetic, narrative, and emotional concerns, and are challenged to push the physical and conceptual limits of the painting medium. The diversity of practices and the flexible structure of the curriculum foster honest and intensive interaction with faculty and peers, while the Winifred Johnson Clive Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Painting Practices offers students an unmatched level of engagement with internationally recognized contemporary painters.

Back to Top


The artists involved in the creation of the SFAI Photography Department—Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange—are the most noted in photography’s history, and the program still carries their legacy of fine art practice engaged with environmental and societal conditions. Understanding that the visual language of photography is central to the contemporary world, SFAI’s program addresses photographs both as formal objects and as modes of communication, documentation, expression, and critique. Students may work in analog or digital formats, considering what traditional methods offer unexplored potential, as well as how emerging technologies are shaping 21st century image-making. Questions of scale, installation, and performative or interactive possibilities are also important parts of the conversations around this evolving medium.

Back to Top


SFAI’s Printmaking program challenges artists to use processes creatively to translate ideas into print. The facilities are equipped for lithography, intaglio, screenprinting, letterpress, and relief, as well as digital printing and the making of artists’ books. Artists may work with centuries-old techniques or new technologies, choosing between—or mixing—the traditional and experimental applications of these media. While some SFAI artists become master printers, many build off the rigor, art, and science of printmaking to utilize the medium in unexpected ways that cross disciplines, explore concepts of multiplicity, or question the nature of reproduction.

Back to Top


SFAI’s Sculpture/Ceramics program hinges on the interplay of the material and the conceptual, emphasizing investigation, critical thinking, and problem solving as central components of artistic development. The program offers facilities for work in ceramics, wood, metal, plaster, fabric, and electronics, while also encouraging interdisciplinary experimentation and site-specific strategies. The program has a unique emphasis on systems and environments—sculpture as informed by urban studies, sustainability, ecology, architecture, public art, and activism—through which artistic practice becomes a model for social engagement.

Back to Top