School’s out?

Class­room de­bate Is con­ven­tional art school worth the out­lay? We gather post-grad artists and lec­tur­ers to make a case for your cash…

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Why go­ing to art col­lege might not be the best way to be­come a pro­fes­sional artist.

Those wish­ing to at­tend the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign (RISD) must com­plete its in­fa­mous “two draw­ing home test”. On white paper – mea­sur­ing ex­actly 16x20in – ap­pli­cants are asked to ref­er­ence a bi­cy­cle and then sketch one of the fol­low­ing: a made-up draw­ing in­stru­ment; a piece cov­er­ing both sides of the sheet; or 11 re­lated items drawn in a sin­gle day.

Pass and they’re ac­cepted into one of Amer­ica’s old­est col­leges, a world-leading art school whose alumni in­clude Shep­ard Fairey and Seth Mac­Far­lane. But it comes at a price: more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion dol­lars. More than MIT. More than Har­vard Law School. Just a few thou­sand shy, in fact, of Ox­ford and Cam­bridge com­bined.

“Artists are nei­ther doc­tors nor lawyers,” Noah Bradley wrote in a re­cent blog post ti­tled Don’t Go to Art School. “We do not, on aver­age, make six-fig­ure salaries. We can make live­able salaries, cer­tainly. Even com­fort­able salaries. But we ain’t usu­ally mak­ing a quar­ter-mil a year. An on­line debt re­pay­ment cal­cu­la­tor rec­om­mends a salary ex­ceed­ing $400,000 to pay off a RISD ed­u­ca­tion within 10 years.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from RISD, Noah built a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as artist and art teacher. So why is he against oth­ers do­ing the same? “I got lucky,” he says. “I was given a pile of schol­ar­ship money, and went to an in-state school with low tu­ition-to-grad­u­ate costs. I also hap­pened to get to a pro­fes­sional level fast enough that I was able to grad­u­ate and free­lance full-time im­me­di­ately. The ma­jor­ity of stu­dents aren’t half so lucky. They go to ex­pen­sive schools and grad­u­ate with­out any job prospects. And while they could be spend­ing the time work­ing on their portfolios, most of them have to work in­sane hours just to keep up with their loan pay­ments.”

a global trend

Fees and liv­ing costs per year – as shown on RISD’s web­site – to­tal $63,434. That’s $253,736 for a typ­i­cal four-year un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree pro­gramme. But it’s not the only col­lege with high costs. A re­cent re­port by the US Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion found over a third of the coun­try’s 25 most ex­pen­sive col­leges are art schools. It’s a statistic mir­rored around the world.

“I think it would take mul­ti­ple life­times for most artist to be able to pay off art school fees with the wages from art jobs them­selves,” says re­cent art grad­u­ate Ju­liana Xavier. “It’s not a fair trade.”

The Brazil­ian stud­ied se­quen­tial art at the Sa­van­nah Col­lege of

Art and De­sign in North Carolina. De­spite leav­ing with a good de­gree and run­ning her own we­b­comic ( www.luck­y­ she has strug­gled to find paid work. “I find it ridicu­lous that the most ex­pen­sive schools turn out to be art col­leges,” she says. “Al­though I ab­so­lutely loved my pro­fes­sors and learned a ton from them, I can’t re­ally say that was enough for the price we paid. Too of­ten, I felt like I was pay­ing to at­tend the school it­self and not for my pro­gramme of study. If there had been a way to sep­a­rate my course from the school, I think I would have got­ten a lot more out of it.”

“I look at the artists and stu­dents around me,” Noah says. “The artists, whether they’re pro­fes­sional or still try­ing to break through, are sad­dled with im­mense, crip­pling debt. The stu­dents are be­ing led down this path to­wards debt, al­most un­aware that it’s hap­pen­ing. Schools have the au­dac­ity to call loans ‘fi­nan­cial aid’. It in­fu­ri­ates me.”

Noah stresses you don’t need to go to col­lege to be­come an artist, and it’s time stu­dents turned their backs on the tra­di­tional art school model. Work pro­duced should be an artist’s only con­cern. He’s never needed to show his di­ploma to land a job.

The Amer­i­can was moved to put to­gether an al­ter­na­tive: The Ul­ti­mate $10k Art Ed­u­ca­tion. It pro­motes a mix­ture of on­line and ate­lier learn­ing. Noah has also set up his own back-to-ba­sics art camp. It fo­cuses on re­fin­ing fun­da­men­tal skills, which should give artists the tools needed to make a liv­ing from their work.

The stu­dents are be­ing led down this path to­wards debt, al­most un­aware that it’s hap­pen­ing

San Fran­cisco’s Academy of Art Univer­sity of­fers both on-site and on­line de­grees in all its ma­jors. It doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween the two and even of­fers hy­brid de­grees in which stu­dents take a mix of classes con­ve­nient to their sched­ules. “The univer­sity,” says Chuck Pyl, di­rec­tor of BFA il­lus­tra­tion, “has a cus­tom-built, on­line asyn­chro­nous learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, which is meant to repli­cate the in-stu­dio ex­pe­ri­ence: con­tact hours, work done and teacher-stu­dent in­ter­ac­tion.

“Asyn­chro­nous means stu­dents in dif­fer­ent time zones may post and get re­sponses within any week’s mod­ule con­tent – the class ses­sion – with­out hav­ing to show up to a live con­fer­ence on West Coast time. Teacher cri­tiques are vis­i­ble to the en­tire class, known as ‘the wall crit’. so that ev­ery­one can learn from them.”

Es­ti­mated ex­penses per year for an un­der­grad­u­ate, which are shown on the

Teach­ing on­line is fun. Ev­ery­one has a front-row seat. On­line classes at­tract stu­dents seek­ing skills over de­grees

Academy of Art Univer­sity’s web­site, come to $22,086. That in­cludes art sup­plies but not liv­ing costs. The sys­tem may be de­signed to save time, but it doesn’t save money.

Amer­i­can artist Mar­shall Vandruff, who has over 30 years’ teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, is in­creas­ingly mov­ing away from face-to-face sem­i­nars and to­wards on­line learn­ing. “It’s a new world of stu­dents,” he says, “and some have shown the quick­est progress I’ve seen in over 30 years of class­room teach­ing. Teach­ing on­line is fun. Ev­ery­one has a front-row seat. Also, on­line classes at­tract stu­dents seek­ing skills over de­grees. I love that vibe be­cause it cre­ates an in­volved at­mos­phere. I feel kin­ship with on­line stu­dents.”

Mar­shall takes sem­i­nars on ev­ery­thing from anatomy to drap­ery, drafts­man­ship to artis­tic de­vel­op­ment. Rather than the al­len­com­pass­ing ap­proach adopted by many de­gree pro­grammes, he says stu­dents should mas­ter skills that will pre­pare them for ca­reers in their cho­sen fields. And the best way to do this is through a kind of be­spoke, self-di­rected ap­pren­tice­ship.

“Once you de­fine your goals, choose teach­ers who will help you reach those goals,” says Mar­shall. “Ev­ery pro­fes­sion is dif­fer­ent: con­cept artists need more anatomy than car­toon­ists, who need lots of ideation train­ing, for ex­am­ple. A self-learner can cre­ate a cus­tom ed­u­ca­tion.”

“What about the ca­ma­raderie?” asks il­lus­tra­tor Erik Gist. “I gained as much from the other people in class as the class it­self. I can’t be­lieve how ac­cept­ing and en­cour­ag­ing the class­room en­vi­ron­ment was – and the healthy sense of com­pe­ti­tion that comes with it.”

Erik is a for­mer stu­dent at Watts Ate­lier of the Arts, where he now teaches. He says some face-to-face tu­ition is es­sen­tial if he’s to in­struct stu­dents to the best of his abil­i­ties.

“It’s very valu­able,” he says, “to be able to see the stu­dent at work. By only see­ing the end re­sult I’m stuck guess­ing at what causes the prob­lem. Through ex­pe­ri­ence, our in­struc­tors are very good at this ‘guess­ing’, but see­ing the stu­dent work in real-time is im­mensely help­ful.”

learn on­line and on-site

Classes at Watts start from $385 – on­line from $99. A Plat­inum Pass is $3,950 and of­fers un­lim­ited classes. While Erik rec­om­mends fledg­ling artists find at least some time for class­room study, many skills can be learned and honed on­line.

This means a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gramme of learn­ing, tai­lored to an in­di­vid­ual stu­dent’s needs, can be put to­gether a lot more cheaply than at­tend­ing even a mid-range art school. Artists then have the best pos­si­ble chance of mak­ing a ca­reer from their craft, with­out wor­ry­ing about bal­anc­ing the books and pay­ing off debt ac­crued dur­ing stud­ies.

“Our on­line pro­gramme is very af­ford­able,” Erik con­cludes. “And our brickand-mor­tar school is equally af­ford­able when com­pared to com­pa­ra­ble pro­grammes. Where our on­line school is most valu­able is for those who are un­able to re­lo­cate or as a guide for additional study for those who do take our face-to-face classes. Ei­ther way, it takes a spe­cial sort of per­son to stick with it day af­ter day, week af­ter week, year af­ter year, with the kind of ded­i­ca­tion be­com­ing good at art re­quires.”

Art stu­dents grad­u­ate with “crip­pling debt,” says Noah Bradley. Grad­u­ate Ju­liana Xavier says art schools charge too much.

Noah Bradley says you

don’t need to go art school to be an artist.

Chuck Pyl teaches at the Academy of Art Univer­sity, an art school that doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween on-site and on­line cour­ses.

The Academy’s “asyn­chro­nous learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment” repli­cates the

stu­dio ex­pe­ri­ence vir­tu­ally.

Watts Ate­lier’s Erik Gist says stu­dio time is an es­sen­tial part

of an artist’s de­vel­op­ment. With 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence, Mar­shall Vandruff in­creas­ingly finds him­self teach­ing on­line. Mar­shall says he loves the vibe of on­line learn­ing and its “in­volved at­mos­phere”.

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