Environmental Art and Social Practice M.F.A.


The Master of Fine Arts in Environmental Art and Social Practice is a unique graduate program that trains students to critically analyze, understand, and respond to the challenges of our contemporary era through creative artistic inquiry and project-based research. The two-year program is designed for the student who seeks a career in the field of environmental art and social practice artmaking as these forms relate to environmental justice, social justice, public policy, and multimedia art practices, criticism, and theory. One of the first of its kind in the country integrating this dual focus, the program builds on the unique intellectual reputation of UC Santa Cruz as a leader in promoting social justice, ecological thinking, and inventive explorations of the nature/culture interface, and contributes to this ongoing legacy through the world-transforming potential of creative practice.

The field of environmental and social practice artmaking continues to develop rapidly in relation to the urgency of social and environmental pressures, requiring artists to learn new tools and strategies for effective engagement in society at large, along with important aspects of traditional artistic training. Within this frame, the program invites students to utilize a breadth of approaches, art mediums, research methods, theoretical frameworks, and technologies ranging from the traditional to the most contemporary, with the understanding that all media can be relevant in developing new approaches and responses to environmental and social issues. The program’s interdisciplinary emphasis also encourages students to engage with other departments, divisions, centers, and faculty across the university to deepen and enrich their research, and to partner with groups and organizations outside the university in the development and execution of their projects.

Graduates of the program find employment in the art world and in academia as well as qualifying for job opportunities in hybrid and developing fields, including in green technology, environmental policy, public arts policy, community planning, public space design, and other forms of advising and design where creative approaches to problem-solving is called for. Depending on the focus of their thesis project, graduates’ access to academic positions is not limited to art practice fields, but may include political theory, humanities, and social issue curricula, as well as hybrid and cross- disciplinary art programs linked with science, social science, and the humanities. Graduates may also work as arts administrators in a variety of institutions or seek employment in curatorial positions, journalism, research, and editorial positions, as well as in audio-visual production and in the digital economy. Some graduates may also work as self-employed artists or in unique positions that defy existing job categories and are specifically tailored to their skills and interests.


The M.F.A. in Environmental Art and Social Practice program supports the development of a student’s artistic practice in relation to issues and contexts relevant to these two related areas of study. The program aims to train students in practical skills as they relate to project-based arts research in the areas of: creative methodologies, critical analysis, historical perspectives, ethical standards, collaborative strategies, reflective critique, and art pedagogies. 

Students learn to conceive and execute projects, articulate narratives to support their ideas, and establish working relationships with other practitioners in the field. They develop methods, perspectives, and concepts to support lifelong artistic inquiry and thriving careers, and to contribute to, and further develop, the emergent fields of environmental art and social practice.


In the first year, students work collaboratively on practice-based research topics while studying methodologies, histories, theories and pedagogies relevant to the field. They also take electives relevant to their research interests chosen from course offerings throughout the university. In the spring of their first year they also take a 2-credit thesis course in which they develop a working bibliography and thesis outline. 

In the second year, students develop and realize their thesis projects. They identify a focus and geographic location, find partners and design a project individually, or in collaboration. Each student’s creative research is supported by a series of core critique classes as well as electives chosen by the student to deepen their knowledge and fine-tune their research direction, and by 2 credits of thesis advising every quarter. In the spring of the second year they also take a 2-credit curatorial class focusing on the public presentation of their MFA research.

Course Requirements

A minimum of 72 credits are required for the Environmental Art and Social Practice MFA degree. Fifty-two credits are required core courses and 20 credits are electives.

First Year

Students take the following core courses in their first year. ART 230 can be taken in the first or second year.

ART 210APractice-Based Research Group: Sites


ART 210BPractice-Based Research Group: Systems


ART 210CPractice-Based Research Group: Contexts


ART 220Methods and Histories


ART 230Theory and Practice


ART 240Art Pedagogies


ART 250Writing Matters


Second Year

Students take the following courses in their second year. If students did not take ART 230 in their first year, they should take it in their second year.

ART 260Curatorial Collective


ART 299FThesis Research


ART 270AProject Development and Critique I


ART 270BProject Development and Critique II


ART 280MFA Project Production


ART 299F is taken each quarter of the second year for a total of 6 credits.


Students take 20 credits of electives selected from the list of approved electives. In addition, students may take any upper-division art studio course. Students may take no more than 15 upper-division credits. Additional courses at the university may fit into a student's research interests and be suitable as an elective. Students should consult their faculty advisor or director of graduate studies in the program if this is the case. Elective courses can come from other academic programs and departments at UC Santa Cruz or the Art Department, and are available throughout the academic year. Up to two 5-credit independent study courses may also contribute to fulfilling this requirement.

Other Requirements

First-Year Review

At the end of the spring quarter of their first year, students will undergo a first-year review by Art Department faculty in order to advance in the program. The review committee will be selected by the student and approved by the graduate program director and the dean of the Graduate Division. The review committee is comprised of the student’s faculty advisor, another Art Department Senate faculty member and a third faculty member who may either be in art, in another department at the university, or someone from outside the university whose expertise is relevant to the student's project and who can commit to following the student's progress through their thesis review in the spring of their second year. (The external committee members are selected based on their research interests and close work with the student). The same committee will later become the student’s Advancement to Candidacy and M.F.A. Thesis Review Committee.

The First-Year Review consists of a review and critique of creative research, along with confirmation that all first-year core courses and electives have been completed with satisfactory grades and in good academic standing. For the review, students submit a five- page paper outlining their creative research, and they perform an oral examination where they present their preliminary proposal for the project they will pursue for their second year. The committee will assess the student’s progress in terms of creative research, comprehension of methods, theories, and practices in environmental art and social practice, and commitment to the program.

Advancement to Candidacy and Capstone/Thesis

Advancement to candidacy happens in the fall quarter of the second year. At this time, students will present to their committee a final project proposal, revised and developed following the first year review, that will serve to direct their thesis research. Proposals will outline the focus of the project, conceptual and theoretical grounding, materials, location, partners and/or collaborators, preliminary annotated bibliography/list of related artworks, and a step-by-step plan for carrying out the project. Proposals will be evaluated based on clarity and quality of purpose, concept and plan, feasibility within the time-frame and budget proposed, evidence of established relationships with partners/collaborators, and potential to make a significant creative contribution to the field. The thesis committee must approve the thesis proposal/project outline no later than the end of the first quarter of the second year.

For the M.F.A. thesis capstone, each student is required to host a public exhibition and/or other public presentation of their creative work and submit a thesis paper that adequately defends their thesis, research, and findings, which will be no less than 25 pages. Students will also be required to pass an oral examination. The final exhibition may take place in the context of the group MF.A. thesis exhibition or at a site off campus with an accompanying component in the group M.F.A. thesis exhibition. The M.F.A. thesis review committee will review each final thesis project in the spring quarter of the second year or after a student has completed a minimum of 72 credits. While form and media will vary greatly, completed thesis projects will reflect original creative research and professional level production (individually or collaboratively authored), as well as command of the field.

Applying for Graduation

Students should contact the department advisor to confirm all requirements for the degree have been completed. Students must submit an Application for the M.F.A. to the department for review by the end of the second week of the quarter in which you intend to receive the certificate.