Is going to school for art worth it?

The discussion of whether or not it’s a good idea to go to an art school, is one I have read, overheard and been involved in many times. It’s a difficult question, one with a potentially very expensive outcome. In some areas of art, I do think it could be a good idea to go to art school. Photography, graphic design as well as 3d animation have very technical aspects to them that can be cleared up from higher education. One could possibly teach themselves all these aspects, but it seems more likely that higher education will really help these disciplines. So for the sake of this article, I’m taking fine art and illustration as a kick off point.

Reasons: So first of all we should figure out what the reasons there would be to go to art school to begin with. Of course the main reason should be learning new skills and honing the ones that you have. If you are lucky and don’t have to work while you go to school, you get the perk of being able to work on your art and thats it. Another perk that I have heard a few times is being surrounded by other artists. You get inspiration, learn tricks and form friendships with people that can alter your career for the better. Many colleges, such as the Academy Of Art claim to provide job placement once you are done with your stint there. Private art schools are also a good place to learn how to display your art, present it to potential clients and be prepared for the business side of the art world.

The Costs: The most important detail about going to school, is ultimately how much you will be paying for it all. It is not cheap once tuition, living expenses, materials and health care (which many schools demand you have) are all added up. You could be pushing $30,000+ per year. On top of this, some schools such as California College of Arts add one extra year on, so if you already have your A.A. your looking at three years until you get your B.A. Not too bad really, one more year of learning can really help your craft but that one extra year will be very expensive. Another thing that I have noticed is that many of the best art schools are located in very expensive cities. San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Pasadena and others. If your aren’t living in a dorm the cost of living in these cities is really high.

The Negatives: Everything has negatives, the idea is to minimize them as best as possible. Of course the cost of tuition is a big negative, but what are some of the other possible problems you might encounter? One of the main concerns I have had and one that I have heard from many others is getting stuck with bad teachers. I can think of nothing worse than spending all that money only to be taught by someone who shouldn’t be teaching. I have had some teachers that were quite hard to deal with, but they were still competent and very talented. I’m referring specifically to those teachers that follow the old saying “those who can’t do, teach”. Why learn from someone who in essence is a failed artist? You can help to avoid this however by checking out what others say about the teachers on sites like Rate My Professors.

What about those schools that offer job placement? Academy of Art offers this and supposedly their success rate is in the upper 90%. I would love to see what kind of jobs these are and where they are. When I took a tour of the Academy of Art I asked about the job placement and they were very vague about the details, and it seemed that if you did get a job it would be right in the city the school is at. So if you want to stay in the city you learned at, then you might just have a job waiting for you. As far as fine art goes, a degree from an art college will not guarantee your success in the gallery scene. I have seen artists with no degree sell out shows, and artists with degrees bomb. It’s about the art and area really.

The Alternatives: If you still feel the need to get a degree you could always go to a state college and concentrate on art there. Many state colleges often get overlooked and many have very good art programs. San Jose State University is a great example. They have classes in a huge variety of mediums and I have yet to hear bad things that would really push me away. The tuition is also 1/10th of the price of a private art school. There are also Ateliers that you can learn art, the most popular one is the ConceptArt Atelier, these are very hard to get into. So ConceptArt puts on these weekend learning workshops once a year. The industries best artists share their tips and tricks there and you get some hands on training. Shawn Barber stated that “these workshops are superior to any education you could ever receive in four days, anywhere. It rivals a four year experience”. I would go to these weekends anyway, every artist I have talked to so far has said that they learned the most on the job as opposed to in school. So these workshops are kind of like that.

There are also sites like Imaginism Studios and Entertainment Art Academy where you can learn online from some of the best in digital illustration. But what about the perk of being physically around other artists and forming friendships and learning skills? You could always start a drawing group in your city, see if there are any life drawing groups or maybe even a Dr. Sketchy’s. If there isn’t one Molly Crabapple (the creator) can show you how to start your own.

When it comes to the business end of art and displaying your your work, you don’t need an overly expensive art school to teach you how to do that. Learn from others who have gone to art school. ImagineFX magazine also has a lot of articles dealing with this, and you could always join forums like the ConceptArt forum and ask around there.

Conclusion: Regardless of what this article may come off like, there are positives to going to art school and I have met many people who are happy with their decision to go. I just want people to be aware of the possible negatives and to know that this is not a necessity. Many artists do quite well without ever going to art school. If you feel that the extra education could help, maybe give the state college a try or check out one of the alternatives I have listed above. If you have any ideas that I might have missed out on, please feel free to leave them in the comments area.

Edit: I would like to add one thing that has come up recently. In my own experience in looking at local colleges, many of them don’t have programs setup to really take advantage of what is going on in the art world right now. Digital illustration, advanced computer arts programs and so on. Many of the schools are also filled with teachers stuck in the 70’s. You don’t need a professor that will paint or draw like you want to, but you also don’t need a professor that might have skipped out on some good lessons so that they could further their style which is now dead. Private art schools often have young fresh teachers, and many programs in computers and illustration.

Image: Abandoned Art School by Tiffany Bailey. 2011.

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  • Reply
    Jan 4, 2008 at 7:10 am

    I found this to be very interesting/insightful. I, myself, am a “Art College Drop-out” Mainly because i was getting married and working a full time job. But regardless, i was always negative about going back. My main argument was that i didnt need a piece of paper (a degree) to be succesful in the Art World…i just needed a good portfolio. In a sense, its still kinda true. But honestly, i do miss school for the students…being surrounded by other amazing talents. It was always very inspiring and i’d barely be in a creative slump. I would definately go back for the inpiration.

    Thanks for the article :)

  • Reply
    Jan 6, 2008 at 12:41 am

    These days Id push kids fresh out of highschool to do the workshop thing. Unless your on the upper crust financially, and need academia for independent guidelines to get on the teaching “track”. Art school is 13th grade, and you probably wont gain solid job knowledge until your 3-4 years into it. Maybe seek out local art alliances/groups to work and learn from other artists, while building a portfolio. To each his own, I suppose.. Great article!!

  • Reply
    Mar 19, 2008 at 10:28 am

    I found I learned more traditional business and social skills through Art School that helped me greatly win out over people who just had strong portfolios. I notice allot of people who skipped out of these class options were also the ones who thought they could just wing it in the field with no schooling and dropped out. I really can only take them as being lazy.

  • Reply
    Mar 30, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Ah wow this was an interesting article. I’m 17 year old artist and have often wondered what i will do about further education, although i live in the UK, so some of the of the alternitave options you’ve stated aren’t available here. So somhow i feel like theres no other choice but to go to art uni. I’m worried that all i will be taught is the classic arts and the meaning behind them and so on, and not about techniques, modern meidums such as Pohotshop and the industry today, the Universities are very vague about waht they will teach you in thier websites.

  • Reply
    Jun 19, 2008 at 7:00 am

    Fantastic article!
    I’m adding a little bit to the mix from my own distorted perspective as an ‘old man, been there, done that’. I went to a semester of art school and finished at a state school. In between I spent a year learning on my own. Later, I learned on the job. All four areas have their strengths and weaknesses and you really have to evaluate (1) What type of art am I interested in, ie: fine art, commercial, graphics, large city gallery, small town gallery, etc (2) What is my motivation for pursuing art? Money? Passion? Prestige? Fame? Other? (3) What environment do I work best in? (I learned best as ‘self taught’ but not all can) (4) Will the $$ paid to an expensive art institute pay for itself later in greater financial returns? (5) Will compromises made while on-the-job-training hinder my goals and objectives?
    Summary: Whether considering art school, state school, on the job training, or other venue, closely scrutinize all areas mentioned above. Also, heavily evaluate the teachers: how they teach, the quality and style of their own work and the work of their students, and… are they ‘pushing’ me into art areas that I don’t agree with or feel comfortable with and really have no desire to be heading that way in the first place. Being a true ‘art rebel’ not only means rebelling against society and community but also against the established art community which will be your teachers and mentors. If you have no desire to satisfy a small town PTA board member, or even a New York/San Francisco snobbish art critic, but long to be your own free-thinking, free-spirited self… then you must learn to get the most out of whatever area/school/teaching/profession you pursue while at the same time reject the limitations they might impose on you. But at the same time don’t be arrogant or egotistical.
    Be creative, be artistic, but most of all… be wise.

  • Reply
    Sadie Valeri
    Jun 19, 2008 at 10:34 am

    This is a great article, very well written and good information. Someone linked to it in a comment on my blog, as I wrote a similar article: What I Wish I Learned in Art School (I went to a major art school and have often wonder if I needed to have such an expensive education).

    Hope it’s ok to link to my article here, people who are researching this issue might find what I wrote – and the comments – useful while they decide about art school. I also recommend ateliers. I’ve just spent 15 months studying at atelier workshops at various schools and can highly recommend that route. Here’s my link:

    Sadie Valeri’s last blog post..Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park

  • Reply
    Thom Glick
    May 6, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Great article. This is a little lengthy, but here’s my experience and opinion…

    I went the art school route, attended and graduated from Columbus College of Art and Design (OH) with a BFA in Illustration. Currently, alongside my full time illustration and gallery work, I also work for CCAD as a recruiter. I talk to parents and students on a daily basis about the pros and cons of attending art school versus attending general studies school versus no school.

    The biggest variable for each of these options is really the individual involved – what do they need in order to make progress? What do they need in order to make the right kinds of progress?

    For me, although I think of myself as an incredibly tenacious and driven individual, I still believe that attending art school was the best decision for me. Learning to be a better artist is like learning a new language. Although there are many ways of doing it, the best way has always been to live where the language is spoke. Same goes for art. Attending the right art school will take a student away from comfortable familiarity and force them to adapt. Force them to make progress.

    But attending art school isn’t like being dropped off in a foreign country alone. I had great teachers and fellow students to help guide, influence, inspire, and compete with.

    Just like being in a foreign land, trying to catch up and adapt, there are times when things can be frightening and overwhelming. But, I found that even those horrible moments helped to mold me into the stronger individual that I am today.

    Despite the price tag and despite the negatives, I still highly recommend giving art school a good hard look.

  • Reply
    Feb 10, 2011 at 8:14 am

    One thing that has to be worked into the equation is student loans vs. your potential income out of school. Graphic design, illustration, teaching, these are careers that don’t pay well at the entry level. If you have to take loans to go to private art school, make sure you understand that there is no getting out of paying them back. You cannot claim student loans in bankruptcy. Those payments are with you forever and the monthly payments can feel like indentured servitude.

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