I get this question often, especially from young artists (or the parents or young artists) who are seeking advice on art as a career and the role of higher education in that career. Artists that ask this question seem to lean towards the idea that higher education is a waste of time and money, and parents of young artists that ask it lean towards the idea that college is a necessity. Both are wrong to some degree.
Art school or no art school is an age old question, but one with an easy answer… if you find the right school it is worth the time and money, but only for what it teaches you, not for the degree/diploma that it imparts at the end.
The one thing I stress about artists considering art school is that your diploma is meaningless… no one in the art world cares about your degree in anything. All anyone cares about is your work/portfolio. That makes the learning part of art school all that really matters. If you find a school or program that is really going to teach you and help you develop your art skills then it would be worth your time and money to attend. Just know completing the program and getting that diploma means nothing unless your work is good enough to get the attention of art directors. (That said, companies like Pixar or similar sometimes recruit artists via some high end art schools like Ringling in Florida, Cal Arts in Southern California or the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Still, your work is what gets you hired… but having attended those schools does open a few doors.)
Another thing I stress is that you only get out of art school what you put into it. You can quite easily breeze through school with minimum effort and get that meaningless diploma… after all “grading” on something as subjective as art is quite different than something as quantifiable as engineering or medicine or law. There are no “wrong answers” in art, so good or passing grades are also meaningless. It doesn’t matter how good the school is if you don’t apply yourself and take advantage of the resources the school offers.
Art school is often very expensive. We have a school here in the Twin Cities with a good national reputation called the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It is one of only a handful of fully accredited colleges that offers a comic book/graphic storytelling program, as well as well regarded programs in animation, illustration, fine art, etc. It costs an average of $32,000 a year to go there. That makes a four year “degree” a whopping $128,000. You can buy a decent starter home in this area for that. Ringling costs $42,000 a year. The Savannah College of Art and Design is $34,000/year. You get the idea. At least at the higher end schools it is a VERY expensive education for a career that doesn’t usually translate into big earnings except in a few cases. That makes art college highly unpalatable, or just plain unattainable, for many people.
I went to a small art college in St. Paul called the School of Associated Arts, which was literally housed in an old mansion on Summit Ave. I think I had 30 people in my graduating class. After some expansions and name changes it was called the College of Visual Arts when it closed its doors for good a few years ago. I would have gone to MCAD had I been able to afford it, but even back in the late 80’s it was out of reach for me financially. I felt I got a good education at SAA, especially because all the teachers there were working artists who made their living with their art, and only taught on the side. That meant I got a lot of real world education and learned how to actually make a living with my art, as opposed to a bunch of theory and no practical application. No art director has ever asked me where I went to school or what my degree is. In fact I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and was an “Illustration” major. I have no idea where my diploma is right now.
The bottom line is that those seeking to learn to be a better artist need only find a program that teaches them something worthwhile and helps them expand and develop their skills. That resource might be an art college, given they can afford the costs involved, but before you start paying tuition be convinced you’ll be really give the opportunity to get that worthwhile instruction. There are other, less expensive resources out there as well… online classes, workshops, tutorials, books, etc. The same thing applies there: you get what you put into it. In the end it’s all about how much hard work and time you put into developing your skills, and whatever talent you had to start out with.
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