Five years in, Duke's First MFA Still Evolving

MFA grads are artists, teachers, curators -- all with work that resonates

"Boys Hospital Lane," by Tamika Galanis, 2015 graduate, Duke MFA/EDA program

Five years ago, Duke launched its first master of fine arts program. The MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts debuted in fall 2012 in the retrofitted Carpentry Shop near Smith Warehouse, a big, airy, gritty workspace housing artists from a variety of backgrounds.

This MFA program turned the traditional model on its ear; Rather than having students focus narrowly on one area of art – like film or photography – it requires that they work and experiment in a variety of documentary mediums.

As the program enters its sixth year, program director Tom Rankin takes a look back. Here are excerpts from his recent conversation with Duke Today.

Tom Rankin Q: Do you consider the MFA program a grown, mature program at this point?

RANKIN: Programs like the MFA are never fully mature, but instead always developing, always advancing, ever evolving.  At times recently I think of the MFA|EDA like an adolescent or a start-up enterprise—it’s full of energy, regularly adventuresome, optimistic about the possibilities ahead.  As we move toward a more mature phase we will have to think about considerations of sustainability, while also making sure to maintain the energy and intuitive excitement that is essential in the arts.


Is it, at this point, the type of program you had intended it to be at its start? Why or why not?

RANKIN: I think it’s hard to fully imagine what a new initiative, a new graduate program will be. You can envision all you want but you can never fully see and feel the creative pulse that comes from the range of students that ultimately arrive and the artistic power their interaction with faculty and the community can create.  Those of us who dreamed of the MFA hoped for the kind of energy and creative success we’ve seen, but there is no way to anticipate or predict what brilliance arrives at the door, what motivated and insightful artists will create, where they will take their light when they leave, or the lasting marks they leave for us all.


What sort of places and what sorts of things are the program’s graduates doing?

RANKIN: Where our students go and what they do after graduating from Duke is perhaps the deepest and most important witness—and measurement—of our work.  Duke MFA grads are curating/directing documentary archives, running galleries and artist residency programs, teaching at major universities across the country, exhibiting films in numerous major film festivals, shaping documentary programs, and perhaps most importantly, creating work that has resonance and impact.  I’m proud of the number of our students who now are designing their own classes and programs at universities, and others who are quickly becoming the artistic and cultural leaders in museums, archives, and documentary organizations. 


Was there a learning curve or challenges you faced that you’d want someone else starting a MFA program to l know about?

RANKIN: The vision or idea of a program is one thing, and refining the ideas and implementing is quite another.  You have to stay true to the vision to overcome all the impediments, all the rationale that says ‘probably not possible’ at many turns.  There are always ample times that institutional culture and precedent suggests a ‘no’ to any and all new proposals.   And even more so in the practice-based arts.  We are blessed with a home base for the program at the former Carpentry Shop on Campus Drive, a building that is so perfect for the MFA.  The proximity to CDS and Smith Warehouse (with the Arts of the Moving Image program and Art, Art History and Visual Studies) has been essential to our success. 

I recommend anyone thinking about an MFA consider the constellation of facilities, location, and partnerships from the very first day.   My final humble advice is that it’s the details and the day-to-day that make or break a new initiative. The MFA|EDA at Duke thrives in large part because of the care and commitment of a small core staff and an invested faculty, a truly collaborative spirited of our arts community, and the interdisciplinary embrace of the culture of Duke.