Dutch Masters

Master’s programmes have a peculiar position within the field of the arts. Part education, part platforms for research, experimentation and production, they are hard to pin down. They are schools but they also take active part in public programmes and exhibitions. Open and closed, visible but impenetrable at the same time, one never really knows where one is at with Dutch master’s programmes. And they are gaining ground, becoming a force to be reckoned with. What are the Dutch masters?


Master’s programmes came into being and proliferated all over Europe after the Bologna Declaration of 1999. The aim of ‘Bologna’ was to create an integrated European higher education framework which is compatible and comparable for all member states, in the Anglo-American tradition. The Bachelor-Master, or BaMa structure, allows for more mobility of students between European countries: a Bachelor’s degree gives access to Master’s programmes in most European countries (Master’s programmes are accredited by official governmental bodies) and a Master’s degree in turn gives access, in theory, to a PhD trajectory. Underlying the Declaration were ideals of the mobility and employability of European citizens, of a society based on knowledge production, of a strong and united Europe.

A Master of Fine Art (MFA) is generally a two-year programme following a three- or four-year BA course. The BA course lays the foundations for aspiring artists, introduces them to basic skills and disciplines. An MFA deepens this knowledge through discussion, reflection, theory, research and contextualization. This theoretical aspect is combined with making work. An MFA focuses on the individual development of the students, helps to clarify and voice their position in the art field, and makes them, overall, more robust and resilient artists. Most MFA programmes will focus the first year on a more internal process and let the outside world in during the second year. The programme is usually organized around topics and themes, often changing depending on what the students are concerned with, and combines one-to-one sessions with group discussions and group projects. All students will at a certain point engage in workshops, conferences, symposiums, exhibitions or publications. They learn as much about their own artistic practice as about the inner workings of the art world. The structure and focus of master’s courses are strongly connected with their directors.


For this article, I spoke to the directors of seven Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programmes. Robin Punt is head of the Frank Mohr International Masters in Groningen, Miriam Bestebreurtje is course director of Master of Photography and Master Fine Art at the AKV|St.Joost (Breda and ‘s-Hertogenbosch), Henk Slager is Dean at MaHKU in Utrecht, Lucy Cotter runs the Master Artistic Research in The Hague, Gabriëlle Schleijpen is director of the Dutch Art Institute (DAI) in Arnhem, Krist Gruijthuijsen is course director of the Sandberg MFA, and Vivian Sky Rehberg heads up the Fine Arts programme at the Piet Zwart Institute (PZI).

Each of the master’s seems to have a more or less similar profile: a strong focus on theory and (artistic) research. It is only at a closer look that you see the differences. What makes the seven Dutch master’s programmes, roughly speaking, different from each other? There are a few factors. First there is the difference between a one-year and a two-year programme. MaHKU is the only one-year master’s. Another difference is the style in education. Some prefer the individual approach, most operate in a more or less collective way through projects and workshops, or in combinations of both. Most master’s programmes offer a private studio, some don’t. A special case is DAI, which structures the education in course weeks, bringing everybody together for seven days a month in an intensive day and night programme, with communal lunches and dinners. Frank Mohr stands out for having a master’s devoted to painting, while the Master Artistic Research, The Hague is a collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire, with up to one third of its students having a background in (experimental) music practice. The Master Artistic Research, The Hague also distinguishes itself through its artistic research workgroups who engage with specialized areas, often in cooperation with outsiders. Another way of telling the master’s apart is through the intricacies of the programmes – themes, tutors, special group projects.


The seven master’s programmes are all connected to art academies and have a sort of love/hate relationship to them. Some master’s have a strong connection to the academies; others operate rather independently from them. Master’s are more internationally orientated than the bachelor’s programmes and we could even state that the master’s programmes adhere to a different vision of the artist. If, generally speaking, bachelor’s have a rather traditional, autonomous, artistically driven and medium-focused character, master’s are more engaged with knowledge production and network-related production. The artist being shaped by and being catered to by the master’s is therefore a true product of our times, in which notions such as ‘excellence’ and ‘knowledge society’ dominate much of the policy debates surrounding education. Artists are expected to hold their ground in this field and be able to reflect on and talk about their practice in a way that goes beyond the logic or discourse of the white cube.

Whether they provide a private studio or not, the master’s programmes all have a strong focus on group processes, on the artist as a collaborative individual. All of the programme directors stress that the groups are little communities, families even, where students learn as much from each other as from their tutors. Process is often more important than product – the journey, not the destination. This is different from the Netherlands’ three postgraduate institutions (De Ateliers, Rijksakademie and the Jan van Eyck Academy), which are more focused on individual development and an ‘end product’, in terms of art works or exhibitions. Rehberg voices the differences between the master’s and the postgraduate programmes as follows: ‘Our students are happy to be students.’ She elaborates, ‘A master’s is not just about a studio space or your individual professional career. You have to participate in a creative community and in pedagogical dialogue.’ Schleijpen stresses another difference to postgraduate programmes, which she considers more oriented to the art market: ‘We are not the right place for white cube artists or careerists. Our master’s fits those students who are open to the discursive side of art, to the production of meaning beyond the confinement and exclusivity of the art market.’ Some master’s programmes, like those of the AKV|St.Joost, MaHKU and Sandberg, have taken out the walls of the private studios and created one big room. Slager explains that group dynamics are the learning model at MaHKU and that being with each other in one big room is the best way to facilitate this. ‘Students who want to work in a private studio are better off at one of the postgraduate programmes.’ Gruijthuijsen stresses that the Sandberg MFA is a course with structure and obligations: ‘This is not about doing whatever you want for two years.’ Most master’s have a rather dense programme, with lots of meetings, workshops, seminars and assignments.

What is also at play in the relationship between the master’s courses and the postgraduate institutions is what Gruijthuijsen calls the postgraduate-complex. ‘Dutch master’s programmes struggle with this complex. Almost every student knows of these three institutions and aims for them. They hardly know the master’s.’ Schleijpen agrees and adds: ‘The master’s programmes are more interesting than the ones offered by the postgraduate institutions, with the exception of the Jan van Eyck’s as it was offered until recently. Our projects are more innovative, we are more connected with current discourses in the art field. Still, the status of the postgraduate programmes is higher. In the Netherlands we have not yet reached the same level of recognition for a master’s degree as abroad.’ And the master’s programmes still cannot offer the same level of stipends and material services like the postgraduates can.


Bestebreurtje sees four principal mechanisms at play in how students choose a certain MFA programme. There are students who have completed a BA at a given academy and simply apply for the MFA of that same academy. Other students have friends enrolled in a certain MFA programme and follow their lead. Then there are students who make their decision because of a specific tutor affiliated with one of the master’s programmes. Schleijpen: ‘The first question is always, have you really specifically chosen us?’ Students have to make a conscious, deliberate choice for a certain MFA. A master’s course is intensive; there are limited places available and you need people who are willing to take up the challenge.

What might complicate making a deliberate choice is the fact that the individual profiles of the master’s programmes are not very clearly defined. An on-site visit and interview are necessary to grasp the nature of the institute. Bestebreurtje: ‘We would benefit from outlining the profiles of our master’s programmes more clearly. This would help students to make a well-advised and thought-through choice when applying for a programme.’ Rehberg: ‘We are being pushed to carve out a niche. There is pressure and competition. And this competition is not helpful for the students. We need to find out where we can productively overlap. After all, the mission we each have is to educate. One way of distinguishing ourselves is through the teachers and tutors we attract and the projects we are involved in.’ Slager adds, ‘The Dutch master’s programmes are like islands. There is little interaction and little consultation. There is always a sense of competition. We are like seven stores who are all vying for the best students.’

Bestebreurtje: ‘There will come a time when the question will be asked what the raison d’être is of having seven Master of Fine Arts programmes. This question can only be answered from the perspective of a clear profile of the courses.’ Punt agrees that it would be good to ‘sharpen the profiles of the master’s.’ Cotter sees some positive changes in this direction: ‘Our annual Marchive publication is partly a response to the need for more transparency. A dialogue between master’s programmes is slowly starting to happen. And given the times we live and work in, it simply has to.’


There is a connection between the identity and formation of several MFAs and the debates around the vexed issue of artistic research. Both had their origin around the same time, in the late nineties, a time dominated by the demateriatization of art production, relational aesthetics, the rise of the knowledge industry, and the related wish of the European Union to embed art education in a more or less controllable system which would enable art students to be included in other educational structures. The aforementioned Bologna Declaration had far-reaching effects on the infrastructure of higher education, one being a strong focus on research in arts education.

Art as a system for knowledge production has been the focus of discussions ever since the late nineties – not only in and around art schools, also in museum programmes (A.CA.D.E.M.Y. at the Van Abbemuseum in 2007), in articles and conferences, and through large-scale exhibitions such as the dOCUMENTA, editions 11 and 13. The debate on artistic research mirrors, to a certain degree, discussions surrounding the presumed measurability of art education.

Next to research in its broadest definition, theory plays an important role in all MFA programmes. Discursivity might even be called a sine qua non for this form of education. Students learn how to think and talk about their work, how to contextualize it and how to reflect on their position within the art world. Some students make a pretence of complaining about the amount of books they have to read. Most are inspired for years after their stay in the intellectual high pressure cooker of the MFA.

While all master’s programmes stress their interest in the seamless relation between theory and practice, artistic research is an explicit focus for only a few. Even so, artistic research is a ‘hot potato’: talking with the course directors about this concept, their different personal and even critical reactions are enlightening. Rehberg: ‘The term is meaningless. What is artistic research? We use a more holistic, integrated approach towards theory and practice. They are, after all, intertwined, two sides of the same coin.’ Gruijthuijsen: ‘“Artistic research” is a marketing term. Theory is simply part of a certain practice.’ Schleijpen: ‘I am rather tired of this term “artistic research”, to be honest. It is a gimmick. It is not new.’ Bestebreurtje: ‘We have to be strict with this concept. Artistic research demands self-criticism. The dangers are circular reasoning, and art illustrating a certain theory. But it also offers possibilities.’ Punt: ‘We don’t use a fixed structure or methodology for research but rather guide students in developing their own artistic system.’ Cotter: ‘Debates surrounding artistic research have been dominated for too long by discussions about the Bologna Declaration and academic definitions of research. As dOCUMENTA 13 made manifest, artistic research is something far broader and more integral to art practice than this. It has to do with reinstating art works in the flow of thinking processes and making space for their natural connectedness to other disciplines and to the world.’ Slager, as one of the protagonists in the international debates around artistic research, not only has an opinion on the matter but also a warning for the future: ‘Theory and practice were for a long time separated – the studio dominated discourse and education. Now they are more intertwined or blurred and the discussion about the separation has become less relevant. Research-based practices are now quite common. Recognition for artistic research was an important battle to fight. Now that we have created this reflective space and awareness within the academy, we have to think critically of the next steps. And we have to be mindful for the risk of academization and petrifaction.’


This brings us back to the question of the future of the master’s programmes. As Bestebreurtje points out, the creation of what the government likes to call ‘top talent’ cannot be programmatically secured. You can foster it, nourish it, but there is no formula for success. Bestebreurtje sees an important role for the master’s degree, given the fact that the ‘demands being placed upon artists are becoming heavier and heavier. Master’s programmes help students gain skills in how to create a meaningful context and environment for their work, how to live and work in these so-called hybrid constellations and how to relate to society.’ Schleijpen adds to this a quote from Vaclav Havel: ‘It is our duty and role to think about what art can mean for society.’ For Rehberg, the importance lies in the ‘support of production, of contextualization, of the viability of certain artistic practices.’ Cotter stresses the responsibility master’s programmes have for the larger art field: ‘Following the cutbacks, master’s programmes in the Netherlands have that bit more financial security than many other contemporary art institutions and we need to take extra responsibility for how we contribute to and co-create the field at large.’ Slager: ‘The master’s programmes have an important institutional role to fulfil: they are catalysts for change in art education, also on the BA level; they are platforms for experiments and innovation. We have to keep fighting for our freedom as ‘free places’, as sanctuaries, and not be dragged into the rhetoric and discourse of creative industries, neoliberal thinking and knowledge production.’

With some of the master’s courses still being very young or having recently undergone dramatic changes, it is not strange that this field is still in a sort of formative phase. Things are crystallizing, finding their form and direction. The next couple of years will be vital in that sense.


Take a look at the following articles as well:
On post-graduate institutes
On PhDs in the arts
On Changing Artist Practices
On Small Art Spaces
On Kunsthalles