Full disclosure before we begin: I’ve never been to art school. I came close, once, but I didn’t have the money or time to make it work. I’d already earned my bachelor’s degree, too, so I wasn’t entitled to financial aid or easy loans.
Noah Bradley says “The traditional approach is failing us. It’s time for a change” (Don’t Go to Art School). This is an opinion I’ve heard over and over again from artists of all levels.
Let me be clear, I don’t disagree in the slightest. BUT traditional brick-and-mortar art school is, for me, an opportunity I never had. After all, where else can spend your entire day improving a craft? Or engage constantly with other artists facing the same challenges? Or feed off the huge well of creativity and ideas and… hell, what do I know? I’m sure I was some kind of ass at eighteen.
The fact of the matter is, while I have no personal means of comparison,
(1) an 18-year old me would likely have squandered the opportunity with which art school would have presented me; and
(2) I’ve been better prepared for freelance endeavors by grappling with distinctly unartistic pursuits.
Most art school graduates leave school to enter a freelance existence, not a salaried job market. Even more stable studio jobs can abuse and under-pay their artists, however. Noah Bradley has some more good insight on this here, if you’re interested.
Freelancing and gig-based employment throws a wholly different set of challenges at job-seekers. I don’t believe ANY school adequately prepares graduates for it. I’m not just talking about the ugly soft skills of entrepreneurship and self-marketing. I’m talking about navigating the complicated micro-industries and specializations that keep popping up and the increasingly complicated expectations and “best practices” of each. It can seem downright impossible to jump in the middle and hope for success. “Generalist” is almost a foul word these days.
Furthermore, if the primary value of art school is to hone technical skills then I say it’s an EXPENSIVE means of skill-training. For better or worse, art is not rocket science. It CAN be learned and practiced on your own.
The alternative argument is that the primary value of art school comes from the personal network of peers and teachers. This is valid. It’s true that it can be challenging to connect with communities of artists the hard way. Reaching out. Assembling a meet-up. Setting up an art share. Investing in remote personal connections and friendships can seem like a time-suck with no return. But it’s not impossible. It’s even getting even easier. Supportive communities like the Oatley Academy (or dare I say it, Boneshaker) continue to crop up. Over time, maybe they’ll level the playing field for the next generation of artists.
The point is, it can be done.
Art schools can be marvelous, like any university experience. But art school will provide more benefit to some than to others. and some art schools will always be better than others. I have no desire to do away with the traditional brick-and-mortar art school experience. Instead, I want to better equip those who can’t take that path. And maybe add one more voice to the call for an end to criminally expensive education.
So what exactly is the alternative?
There are bundles of resources out there for the technical part. We’ll talk plenty about these going forward. For now, let me just put it into perspective. It CAN be far more helpful to spend four years mastering your skills and cultivating personal relationships for the costs of living and of materials. Or you can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into four years of institutional art education.
The real challenge of the independent route isn’t separating out the good information from the bad. It’s surviving the personal flak and criticism you’re sure to have to endure. Many young artists face a challenge to convince their families that art school is a sensible professional choice for them. Now, tell those same artists to convince their families that the wiser choice is in fact four years of unemployment spent in ascetic training, hemorrhaging rent money without the promise of a diploma at the end.
This is the true challenge; the heart of a true need for reform. The resources and attitudes and dues to be paid in the world of professional illustration are not well understood by and are even more poorly communicated to would-be artists.
Please note, I’m not advocating unemployment as an alternative. I’m advocating focus and training as an alternative. None of these are free. They cost time, money, security, or more. But four years of focused improvement is better than four years of questionable tuition. IF you know how to focus, and how to improve.
With a lot of effort and a bit of luck, Boneshaker can grapple with some of these issues. We can consolidate the information and misinformation. We can try to make things that much clearer and more hopeful for artists-to-be.
So let’s hear from the community. Let’s hear your thoughts, and questions, and responses. Let’s hear about your own art school experiences, or your own efforts at training independently, and we’ll share ours. We’re going to do our best to shape the dialogue for the future, but why don’t you let us know where you want to take the conversation?