The Changing Role of Art School

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?
Evan

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3 thoughts on “The Changing Role of Art School

  1. JC

    Hi! You posted a link to your article in your answer to my question at conceptart. This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I do agree with the fact that for many aspiring artists, art school tuitions are absolutely unfair. Many people just don’t have the money or the opportunity to afford four years of doing nothing but making art. It is a luxury for sure.

    However, while I’m not too familiar with this topic, people looking to get into fields such as animation, concept art, visual development, etc., have a better chance at getting careers than someone majoring in say, fine or studio arts. There’s demand for the former and it’s usually difficult to gain experience working in these sorts of fields unless you attend specialized schools. Then again, there are many online resources available, but it definitely takes a very dedicated person to teach themselves.

    I guess depending on which branch of art you choose, art school could be a very valuable investment.

    That’s all I have for now. Let me know what you think! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Evan Winston

      Hi JC,

      You’re not wrong. There is demand for the former, but employers aren’t going to look at where you went to school or what you majored in, they’re going to look at your portfolio. And it’s criminally easy to go through art school and leave without a professional career-ready portfolio. It’s not just about the online resources. You can’t get too far on online resources alone. It’s connecting with other artists, practicing your craft, talking out your personal obstacles that will help push you. Art school can be a great place for that, but you cannot approach art school as a career investment.

      Art school puts in front of you the people and tools to help your career. My argument is simply that art school isn’t the only avenue for this, and the certification itself will help you literally not at all. The best you can hope for is this: someone hears where you went to art school, tells you they know of an opening, asks you to send in your portfolio/reel. Most often, you’ll apply for a job and, unless it’s as a production assistant, they won’t even both looking at your resume.

      Attending specialized schools will not gain you experience in these fields. MAYBE you’ll learn how to use industry tools and software, but these honestly change so fast that a lot of art schools can’t actually keep up, and most of these software suites aren’t going to take four years to learn. At best, you’ll work a semester-long internship, or gain access to other ground-floor internships only available to students enrolled in accredited art schools (a funnel for human capital). The experience will come after, and the one thing that art schools, or even full universities, will ever sufficiently prepare you for, is how to take that first step.

      I get it. Art school is the only answer for miles around; the only structured path or solution with a guaranteed return (a diploma). For better or worse, though, you’re entering a career where you’ll never get that kind of a path or crutch again.

      So if you do choose to go to art school, make the absolute most of it. Meet everybody. Practice hard. Get to know your teachers. Reach out to people whose work you admire. Don’t let it lull you into just going with the flow. I hope it’s a wonderful experience for you that makes all the difference in the world. So make it one.

      Evan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Magali Mebsout

    Thank you for your input JC
    Here is mine 🙂 Since I am French one of my regrets is actually not going to art school. Education there is much more affordable. And knowing myself, if I could go back and choose between teaching myself and keep the money or spend 700 euros-ish/year to go to “Les Beaux Arts”, I wouldn’t think twice.
    I don’t know French private animation schools though but I would guess they are still cheaper than in the US. I guess what I am saying is that another solution for those who don’t do too good teaching themselves could be to look at other countries …

    Liked by 1 person

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