Watkins MFA: Low-Res Hi-Growth

Interim Editor Jon Sewell interviews Kristi Hargove, MFA Program Director at the Watkins College of Art at Belmont University.


#:Can you describe a brief history of the Watkins at Belmont MFA program.

KH: We began researching the type of MFA program we wanted to offer at independent Watkins
College of Art in 2016. Several colleagues and friends (including myself) had pursued their
graduate degree at the low residency program in Vermont (now VCFA). The low-residency
format allowed us to foster the independent and interdisciplinary approach that was critical to
the mission. In addition, it provided an ability for working individuals to grow their art practice,
develop theoretical foundations and create a community since on campus time is concentrated
to a summer and winter residency. While we have tweaked the initial concept, we have stayed
committed to this rationale. We did a lot of research, and had discussions with potential faculty
and artist before outlining the structure of the program. and we decided on a longer summer
residency in order to add specific courses around theory and studio. We received NASAD
accreditation in 2017.

Up to this point, most of the legwork was done by me. Jodi Hays joined me soon after
accreditation to begin recruiting students to our new program. This was no easy task as we had
very limited resources since independent Watkins was small and tuition dependent. However,
the faculty was committed to the mission of the program and has been the life force that
compels the success of each residency. In addition, it turned out there were people in the
community who had been waiting for an MFA program so we had enough students in that first
incoming class to move forward.

We welcomed our first cohort of students in the summer of 2018 at independent Watkins and
then in 2020, we survived a merger and a pandemic.
The first class spent their final summer residency in a new educational environment (Belmont)
on Zoom because of Covid, and graduated on-line in the summer of 2020. By the following
summer residency (2021), our graduate exhibition was in the Leu Gallery at Belmont University,
with the first cohort of students invited back to exhibit along with the current graduates. It was a
true celebration.

We built the mission and curriculum based on the vision that art is a crucial force in society and
offers places of creative freedom and critical insight within the culture.
It is important to note that the same faculty that started the program in 2017 continue to work in
the program at Watkins at Belmont.
They are Tom Williams, Barbara Yontz, Terry Thacker, Jodi Hays, Lisa E. Williams, Moses
Williams, Ron Lambert, Armon Means.


#: How does it compare to other MFAs in the region?

KH: There are twenty colleges and universities in the greater Nashville area and Watkins College of
Art at Belmont offers the only option for an MFA in Visual Art, so it is hard to make a
comparison! The lack of MFA programs in Nashville has been a discussion in the academic
circles for a long time and there have been efforts made by various institutions to pursue
avenues toward building a graduate program in a joint venture.
In a regional sweep of the state, UTK, University of Memphis and ETSU have MFA programs.


#: What’s unique in this program compared to other models?

KH: We are a low-residency program that offers our graduates a flexible interdisciplinary focus
allowing them to build specific areas of interest in research and making. While there are a
number of low-residency programs internationally, and many have similar rationales and
formats, we are committed to integrating theory and practice so that all artistic practice is
informed by knowledge of histories, theories and interdisciplinary knowledge. Just as
importantly, the mentoring model is essential as a foundation for helping students develop a life
in the arts. Our method is non-hierarchical, recognizing we all bring something to the table. And
our non-competitive approach is designed to build a strong interconnected community.



#: What are its strengths?

KH: We are a passionate community. I would say, “ask an alumni!”
Strong, well experienced faculty. Experienced, professional artist mentors from all over the
country, who work with students in their studios in the semesters away from campus.
Cooperative, non-competitive community. We are strong in assisting students in their desire to
develop stronger work and better communication skills.


#: What are some of its weaknesses?

KH: We are only 5 years into this program’s life. That comes with some reflective growth


#: How does the structure of this program support lifelong practices of making and thinking?

KH: We are not assignment driven or project-based in our curriculum. In order for the program to
work, the student must commit to being “in charge” of their track of interests and self-motivated
to work in the “away” semesters. By designing a program with this pedagogical structure, the
student spends two years practicing what it feels like to make work based on research and
varied interests. These habits of creative processing stay with the graduate and they may
graduate from the program but they don’t leave the community.


#: How does this MFA’s flexible model provide an open yet still rigorous academic model?

KH: I think every student is a little surprised at the level of rigor that our low-residency model
demands. There can be a general sense of “less structure” equals “less expectations” attached
to low-res learning that may translate as “easier”, but the reality is the expectations tend to land
more squarely on the shoulders of the student. A flexible model demands that a student risk
following a desire or interest that a traditional graduate program may not be able to
accommodate. Therefore, open curriculum equates to more responsibility, more inquiry, deeper
dives, various methodologies, and cross discipline making.


#: Recently a local media outlet claimed there was no MFA program in Nashville. Are there
difficulties for a young MFA program to create awareness?

KH: It is hard and, at times, disheartening to be plugging away with colleagues and devoted students
and realize your community is unaware of what’s being grown. It was a difficult time during the
merger and pandemic and things got lost in the transition.
I believe we create awareness by our graduates and current students getting into the
community and making work, creating spaces, and sharing their experiences. I recently met with
an interested prospect who had heard about our program at a gallery opening where she
happened to be talking to a recent graduate. He convinced her to check our program.


#: Where is the program marketed?

KH: @watkins_mfa_nashville
Also, we are in the process of updating the visuals and information on the Belmont website:


#: Who is an ideal candidate?

KH: Someone who is interested in moving their art practice into a larger cultural/societal relationship.
Someone who is curious and passionate about learning. Someone seeking a community of
people to challenge and support their creative path.


#: What are some of the intended goals for its graduates?

KH: For some, an MFA= teaching. Others desire more professional art careers or want to enhance
their current practice and job. We want to make sure our graduates have a solid base of critical
thinking that has the potential to propel them into a number of different opportunities.


Student-run gallery, WAG, located at The Packing Plant in Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.


#: What role does community play within this program?

KH: And in regard to its interaction to the larger art scene locally in Nashville, regionally in the South,
and beyond?
As I mentioned earlier, community is the main word in our program. So much of how we learn
happens outside of mainstream classroom settings. We build community through sharing meals
together (Armon Means may smoke a brisket ALL DAY for us), gathering for social times at
faculty’s studios, and meeting for coffee to talk about readings and life. There’s a building of
trust that fosters a willingness to dive into previously uncharted waters for students, and
As for the Nashville community and beyond, we are blessed with a strong network of engaged
Nashville artists willing to be a part of our program through the “artist mentor” design of the
In a wish list, it would be great to have more affordable studio spaces in Nashville and more
exhibition spaces that are not driven by established relationships of gallery/artists
representation. Those are great to have but it would be nice to see more experimental spaces in


#: What’s next for the program?

KH: It is clear as we continue, we are building strong incoming cohorts of students. We continue to
connect with artists in the local community and across the country to be artist mentors for our
students. We will continue to be a place in the Nashville art landscape that is offering a graduate
learning community and feeding the creative energies of the city.

A PS follow-up: i’ve been encouraged to ask: how does Armon get such a good smoke on his
brisket? We need details.