Does an Art Education Matter?

Whenever I’m talking to artists about their biographies or resumes, the question of art education, or lack thereof, often comes up. Artists who have completed extensive academic training want to know how best to leverage that training to build their credibility. Artists who don’t have formal training, want to know if it will hurt their prospects for gallery representation and sales.

Both those that have been formally trained, and those who haven’t, are curious to know how much I think art education matters. I suspect, those who went through extensive schooling want to know if it was worth it. Self-taught artists wonder if they should matriculate or face the consequences.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to the question, “Is an art education worth the investment?”

Let me approach it this way – the following list can be advantages to a formal education:

  • Technical Training. For some styles, subjects and media, a formal, academic environment is an efficient, effective way to learn the techniques required to become proficient in creating the work.
  • Structured Learning Environment. Some artists are predisposed to learn best in the formal environment that an educational institution will provide. The academic classroom and atelier, along with the relationships built with teachers and fellow students, can nurture learning and development.
  • Expansion of Horizons. In addition to learning techniques specific to your style, during a formal academic education, you will likely have the opportunity to try your hands at other media, styles, and techniques. This exploration will broaden your horizons and enrich your understanding of your craft. Art students spend time immersing themselves in art history as well, giving them perspective on their work.
  • Credentials. A degree in the arts can help you on many levels, especially if you wish to teach, or take a position in an arts organization.

I also see the downside to pursuing a degree:

  • The Cost. Tuition continues to climb, and you can count on a BFA or a BA costing tens of thousands of dollars or more. Unfortunately, according to AOL Finance, a fine arts degree is one of the ten lowest paying college majors.
  • The Time. Four years spent in art school creating what someone else is telling you to create, instead of creating what you want, can feel like a waste of time to some artists (an expensive waste of time . . .)
  • Stylistic Constraints. I met a gallery owner years ago who said he wouldn’t typically represent artists with degrees because he felt they were too uptight in their work. I think he was probably exaggerating his opinion a bit, and I also think that broad prejudices like this are counterproductive, but it does make some sense that some artists who are trained in academia might be more artistically conservative.

There are certainly many other benefits to both sides of the equation, and I’ll count on you sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

As a gallery owner, however, when the question is put to me, the artist is generally wondering what impact their education level has on my decision whether to represent their work in my gallery.

The truth is, education has almost no direct impact, though it can have an indirect influence.

When I’m evaluating an artist’s work for representation, the key factors are the quality and consistency of the work, the personality of the artist, and the artist’s track record of sales. I can’t remember a time that I asked or thought about the artist’s education.

With that said, there have certainly been artists that I’ve selected for the gallery whose work is of the quality that it is because of an academic background. Some artists can only achieve their vision and their artistic destiny by gaining an academic training. For these artists, an art education is a critical means to an end – it can’t be an end in and of itself, and an education alone doesn’t guarantee artistic or commercial success.

There are other artists who will better spend their time gaining their own education in non-traditional ways.

One final thought. Of my top ten selling artists, four have degrees in fine art, six do not.

How Important Do You Think an Art Education Is?

Do you have a fine art degree? If you do, do you feel it’s helped you? If not, do you feel you’ve been handicapped by the lack of a degree? How much impact do you think an education has on an artist’s career? How much impact do you think it should have? Please share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the comments below.




About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. You wrote a very nonjudgmental article, showing both sides well. I agree with you on all of the points you made. In my own personal experience, I was trained in an unrelated scientific field, then pursued my art and my art training, via workshops on the side while still in a day job. My career really took off when I left the day job to pursue art full time, since I had more energy to give it. I have never had a gallery to patron ask me about my education. All they really seem to care about is the art that is in front of them.

  2. The best investment I ever made in my artwork was to work closely with a mentor whose work I greatly admired, and who was successful in the business side of art (teaching, galleries, commissions). I spent several thousand dollars on time with her, covering everything from materials to framing to painting techniques, and, when I was ready, the process of entering shows and gaining gallery representation. Yes, I did put in the work, but her guidance was essential to becoming far more successful than I ever expected. For me this was the most cost effective training I could ask for. And no, no gallery or client has ever asked if I have a BFA.

  3. Short answer: not much. I have a degree. It would only come in handy if I were to teach in public schools or college. Like Terry who comments above, I’ve learned from studying with mentors, but that said, what it has come down to for me, is putting my head knowledge to work with practice and experimentation.

  4. I am currently studying for a BFA in sculpture, and about halfway through my studies. Before I started this, I would have been among those who said that formal education doesn’t matter. Once I began, though, I realized that I had been wrong. I thrive in an academic setting and it has enriched me in many ways that I could never have done for myself – and I get access to all the school’s facilities and networks. For example, I can use the school foundry to pour my bronze sculptures, paying only for the raw bronze, which saves me a lot of money. And I get opportunities to show my work in the student galleries and outside galleries that are affilated with the school. Support from fellow students and instructors is great to have, too. Too often the work of an artist is a lonely one.

    All that said, I don’t think it is necessary to go into debt or attend a ludicrously expensive art school in order to get these benefits. I spent two years at a community college, and am finishing my education at a California State University which offers an excellent art program at a minimal cost. With the federal and state grants available to me as a low-income student, not only am I getting a university education for free, I’m getting some of that grant money as a refund! So I am being paid to go to school!

    Don’t look down on community colleges – the ones where I live (the SF Bay Area) have instructors that also teach at the UCs and at Stanford. You get as good an education at the CC as at a major university for a fraction of the cost. I’m sure there are community colleges and state universities in other states that are just as good of a bargain.

    I’d recommend that prospective artists at least try taking a class or three at a community college before deciding whether to go for a university education or not.

    1. My brother-in-law is a chemistry professor at a community college in a different state. When I attended a CC for specific training after already having a BA, I remarked to him on the quality of the professors at my school. He said that CC profs are not trap in the proverbial “publish or perish” cycle. That they are at CCs because they really enjoy teaching more than researching. Have you experienced this now that you are at a university? I think the others might like to know.

      1. I used to tach chemistry at a community college and that indeed was my experience. My colleagues were at the CC because they wanted to TEACH, and they were extremely dedicated to the craft of teaching. Now that I am retired, and working at learning to be an artist, I’ve had the same experience from the instructors. They want to teach, and are very dedicated.

      2. I attended several universities and subsequently worked for a CC. I know what you say to be true. The teachers at the CC are much more interested in teaching and in their concentration of study.

    2. Though I don’ t have an art degree, I am with a group of artists who do. I envy their experience with a huge variety of media, their knowledge of countless techniques, and their familiarity with the work of countless artists past and present. I do not doubt the great value of art education.

  5. My work frequently leads to discussions about my education. One of the most insulting thing I’ve recently been told is that I paint like a second semester sophomore, which happens to be the ending point of my collegian experience.This was from the big boss man at a medium sized city museum.
    Last fall, a house guest with a MFA told me I had the outsider thing going on. I should have let him sleep outside but his darling two year old would have been disturbed.
    Two many people spend four years and then a few more for their “Mighty Fine” and quit growing. They never do enough work to find a personal style and at best they become a Sunday Painter, even with their monstrous investment of time and funds.
    I’ve been seriously creating art since I was fourteen. I am sixty now and celebrated Christmas, at the easel, with a fifteen piece series of zinnias. I don’t give a rip of what anyone has to say for them. I don’t have to sell to live, but I do have to create to survive.
    I grew up next to a fine portrait painter who cut my hair and when I should have been drunkenly sprawled at some fine institution of higher learning, I was an assistant to a sculptor slash designer, who was one heck of a teacher and he paid me.
    On the other hand, I know a guy who was classically trained in Italy for eight years in portraiture. He has a piece in a major museum and he sells me supplies at the art store.
    Your work should speak for its self, loudly, clearly, and without criticism from a room full of unwashed student loan recipients.

    1. You should be a writer! It is refreshing to hear someone tell it like it really is. I would definitely buy your novel and a ticket to the movie that came from it………….

  6. Hello Jason,

    Thank you for your post,
    For my part, I must say that the 5 years I spent at the Ecole du Louvre were a real enrichment and opening to knowledge of Art History and Archaeology. I do not have the degree though. What was the most thrilling for me was the classes that we had in all Parisian National Museums and how to study and analyse artworks by being in direct contact with them, and not only photographs in Art History books. Besides the Art theory and history classes, I am self taught as I have learned by copying famous works of art, so I could learn from them. The best school i have found, were my travels abroad. Louvre is a big name and yes, I do mention it in my resume but, I do not think that this will have any impact on being represented by a gallery or not…

  7. I did receive formal training and while I believe it helped to open my mind and enhance my growth as an artist, the older I become the less important it has become. I have never had anyone ask me if I hold an art degree. Most people are more interested in my process, how I’ve grown and what inspires me to produce art. Because of that interest I no longer include my educational background in my bios or statements when entering shows. I think the quality of the work speaks more about the artist than the quality of their education.

  8. Thank you, Jason, for the thought-provoking post. I am largely self-taught, though I took a life-drawing class. Professionally it looks like a wash, but it certainly looks good on a resume to have a degree. Some artists think too much art schooling can be detrimental. Jason is right, schooling would have taught me to work proficiently in different medias. I certainly could have used more life drawing classes, and understood better the mechanics of drawing. However I did make a modest living from my art on-and-off over the years, selling direct, mostly. There is pride that I am self-taught, though I can always do better. This year I am going to work on my figure drawing, with quick painted sketch studies based on the works of Winslow Homer, Maynard Dixon and Edward Hopper. They will be my mentors.

  9. Amen to the work speaking for itself! I did art classes every day from age 9 until I graduated high school at 16. this was how it was done in Jamaica at the time., We were taught art and needlework!! I still do fine, elaborate needlework pieces and somewhat strange off-the-cuff artwork on fabric, which is now screened by ‘the experts’ in the art community. My only comment is that canvas is a fabric, too..they just cover it with oil paints instead of using other processes to apply the colors.

    1. That’s what I say, too, when fiber art is scorned — what do you think oil painters use??? (yes, I’m also a fiber artist!)

  10. I have a degree… in science. But it’s irrelevant to my artistic career and, to be honest, was largely irrelevant to my previous career as a technical writer, too. I do admit to a feeling a small buzz when people ask me, in an artistic context (usually in general conversation), where I studied.

    In conventional careers, I gather that qualifications cease to matter very much after a few years of working life. Is art really that different?

  11. In a perfect world it would be required that an artist have the credentials of an art education to be considered professional as it is in many other professions. As it is anyone can grab a brush and slather some paint and proclaim that they are an artist. Yes there are many examples of people who have a natural talent to produce art without any formal education. I think there are many more who are terrible artist and they are flooding the ever diminishing number of real galleries for representation. the galleries can typically recognize them but instead because of the huge number of submissions they don’t have the time or the staff to even look at submissions and instead send out a form letter saying they are not looking for new artist or worse just delete the e-mail submission. Just because someone takes an encaustic workshop and was able to sell one of their pieces to their friend does not mean that they are worthy of gallery representation. Sometimes too much art education will produce an artist that is so conceptualized in their approach to art that they are not understandable to a general public and their art goes over the heads of the viewing public without a 30 page written treatise on what makes it good art. I think another important question is should Gallery owners and their staff have an art education?

    1. I think the public should have an art education. It is tragic that so little time is devoted to it, if at all, in the public schools. Heaven forbid that it is ever a “perfect world” where art is appraised by entitlement. Many can not afford the education that they would like or deserve. It is an accomplishment that anyone has the courage to do art so I appreciate all artist, amateurs included. Today’s amateur can become tomorrow’s professional given enough time and endowed with enough talent. It is a reward in itself to do an original, uncompromised work of art.

    2. Kevin, in a short comment, you have touched on many arguments, both pro and con.
      I agree that there are many amateurs who are eager to sell after their first sale and I despair sometimes that this is the kind of work which sells, frequently at a low price and fills the walls of purchasers while fine artists languish for eons to make sales because they will not sell at the price of materials and framing.
      I know some gifted artists who have taught themselves through observing masterworks and deserve to be purchased and praised; I know artists with degrees – Masters and Doctorates , some who are great artists and others, deplorable, who never sell.
      I taught for a number of years and then lost my position because I didn’t have a Masters (and it was too late to get one), as an art school went from “school” to “institute status. I was informed that the cut-off for accepting submissions was an MFA and there was no point in applying if I didn’t have one. It was a blessing in disguise – I got another job, not art related, and I found time to paint
      Your comments show that it’s a mixed bag out there in the art market. There are great artists who have never had a commercial gallery to promote them. There are others who thrive in the commercial environment.
      Then there is the question, is an artist aiming at commercial representation or museum representation?
      After 50 years of gnawing on these issues, I have become tolerant – all artists are on a path of learning and creation. Some improve with age, others are content to stay still in their area of accomplishment. Some eagerly embrace discovery and invention.
      The important thing for me is that my work is true to myself and exploratory. It has to say something (Too conceptualtized, you say?) , whether”this is my idea of beauty” or “I want to make my viewer engage in a concept” – political, social or psychological. In the latter, I strive for the best technical skills always, but there has to be provocative content as well.
      My view at this stage is that I do artwork because I have to. After so many years of art practice, I have had some satisfying recognition. The creation of artwork is self-affirming and a necessity for me. Money is good, but it’s not the primary goal. Good art making is.

  12. I spent the equivalent of two years studying fine art, one at a liberal arts college and one at an art school (Boston). I learned so much about technique, how the old masters did it, design, materials etc. The school in Boston had a two hour lunch break where either successful artists talked about their work or teachers who had gone to NY to visit galleries that week came back with slides of what was being done. This is was invaluable, because I realized how naive I was about the art world–and that I ultimately wasn’t ready to enter the fray. I would advise against studying painting (as in a open studio kind of arrangement) with an artist who insists you paint in their style, because you end up being a mini-him or her instead of finding your own vocabulary. But the foundation courses are real short cuts and years later (I am trying to enter the fray now) I find a have a box full of tools that I can still access. Bottom line: you don’t have get a degree, in my opinion, unless you want to teach, and you don’t have to re-invent the wheel with years of experimenting.

  13. I had just gotten a degree from UMASS and was teaching 4 classes of art at Bay Path College. The powers that be actually said I should get a graduate degree in order to teach there. So I enrolled at MASSArt and got a degree that provided me with the theory to go along with the practice. It was a great idea, because it backed up the years spent in the studio! However, it really was fulfilling a personal goal. It has been a long journey from realism to abstraction, but have found a personal style that suits me. I believe my education helped me, because during those years, I spent a good deal of time looking at art, mostly at the MOMA and the Whitney, and the Guggenheim. I have sold to corporations and resorts and to individuals through online galleries.

  14. I am in my sixties, and have been primarily a self-taught artist. I did fine with that and attended workshops periodically with other artists I admired. A few years ago, I felt like me art just hit a plateau and I decided to get a Fine Art degree. In my state, I can attend for free since I am over 60, and have a high end institution in my city. Admittedly, I have had to “unlearn” much of the content taught in the painting classes, especially when I got to the upper level and they started preparing students for graduate school, but what it did do was to open up my vision for myself and give me a tremendous boost in confidence. I have not limited myself to only the painting discipline, but have opened myself to drawing, sculpture and printmaking. I have found the additional disciplines give me new insights to my painting (which is my love) and has added a dimension that wasn’t there before. It will probably take me a couple more years to finish but in the mean time I am thoroughly enjoying the creative environment. I don’t know that it will make more sales for me, but I think the extra confidence I have achieved will enable me to be more open about my work which should have a positive impact on sales. I would venture to say that the majority of the art students today may never achieve their dream of supporting themselves with their art and I believe they should get some “life” under their belts first before trying. The education will never hurt and if anything will give them a broader view on what life as an artist will do for them.

  15. My formal art education changed my life; I wouldn’t have the skills I do today without it. I’m forever grateful for it. But I didn’t get a degree. I took a lot of continuing education classes (with some *wonderful* and sometimes renown teachers) for several years (probably enough hours to merit a degree) but I never got the formal piece of paper. I went to a well-known art school in one of the largest cities in the USA.

    Since then I have studied with some amazing artists in workshops and private lessons which also helped my skills greatly. I still, of course, feel like I have a long way to go. Thanks to these wonderful teachers, my art is marketable and my sales are increasing every year (but I still need to up my game and sell even *more*!).

    So, that’s my backstory. Now I will give my opinion of art degrees. It depends on the school and the style of work you’re doing. I benefitted from my schooling because I cherry-picked what classes I would take. In my case I wanted figure drawing, figure drawing, anatomy, figure drawing, color theory, figure drawing…do you see a theme here? I *knew* what I wanted and didn’t have anyone talking me out of it. I wanted to draw better and took the classes needed to get me there.

    While at art school, I observed many times students working for their degrees who were woefully shortchanged in basic skills (like drawing). There were artists with MFAs who had VERY poor fundamental skills. Sometimes they were being taught by teachers who also had poor skills. (You can’t teach someone how to draw very well if your own drawing skills are sub-par; this I saw firsthand!) Some of these students had no idea that their skills were not competitive and graduated with the belief that they “had a degree” therefore they were ready to take on the world.

    This caused great problems for them when their style of work relied on using skills that they had not mastered. (For example, if the student never got the necessary skills to draw or paint realistically, but wanted their body of work to be realistic and representational…) Some artists get a clue and seek out additional training; others sit back and say, “But I must be good enough already, I have a *degree*!” and don’t seem to connect the dots.

    My takeaway from all of this is that the degree is only as good as the person who has it and if they aren’t aware of what they lack and won’t acquire the skills necessary to get where they need to be, then that education is mostly a waste of money.

    I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has met an artist who likes to mention their degree, but when you look at their artwork, you scratch your head and wonder, “What did you actually *learn*?”

    Of course, there are plenty of artists with advanced degrees and you can see that the education was money *very* well spent!

  16. I have a BFA, and it was the right decision for me, but I don’t think it matters if an artist has a formal art education or not. Is the work good or not is really all that really matters.

  17. I think “formal” needs some definition. I think it is meant to be the same as getting a BFA, or MFA. I would think apprenticeships would count as well as “a lot” of workshops.
    A few factors I think you missed:
    1. Fun. Art School was just about pure joy for me and for possibly others.
    2. Development of contacts and exposure to the art scene around the area of the Art School. Our school heavily emphasized making contacts and finding venues and competitions to show your art. This is hard for many artists and may be the one area that artists would want some help.
    3. Limits. Few self-trained artists learn to paint within externally determined limits of subject (and, to a lesser extent, media). The value of this surprised me in Art School. And was very valuable.
    4. Time. I think it is the rare self-taught student that can learn as rapidly outside of a formal environment; not that self-taught students learn more slowly. It is just that learning while making art as your first priority puts learning new things as a second priority. Depends on the artist.
    5. Mentoring. This is arguable the most important factor for me. I had a really, really good mentor. Many students don’t have this experience, unfortunately, so it is pretty much hit or miss.
    1. Technical training. Can be uneven. I went to an Art School that, typically for schools at the time, tried to teach “the big idea”. I actually learned more about Watercolor in a Botanical Gardens Certificate Program four week course (still formal training, however). Depends on the school and the instructors. The trend is now towards more technical training these days I hear. Life Drawing, on the other hand, was extraordinarily thorough.

  18. I don’t have a fine art degree. I like learning about art history. I like learning about my practice by myself, at my rythm. I don’t like to learn technical practice. I prefer autodidact artist more often. They seem to me different. I like reading about feeling in art. I like to visit museum of contemporary art. I understand that even if I had a degree, it would not help me. The people who asked for it, don’t like my work and suggest I should have. I have to be proud of my work, and explain it simply.

  19. I agree with Bathsheba that having the privilege of access to a foundational art program can cut years off your development of your art, and give you the visual analytical tools to mov your work forward much faster. I do have an MFA and 30+ years of teaching on the college level and teaching/mentoring self-taught artists. The greatest gift I ever gave myself (as an almost 30 year old) was my undergraduate art education and permission to go to graduate school. As a farm kid having access to people who understood the field sped up and filled in the gaps in my learning (especially art history and philosophical/theoretical underpinnings of contemporary art) and helped me figure out how to be an artist. I have no regrets, though it took years to pay off the loans. Giving myself that three years as a graduate student made it possible for me to develop a body of work, my own voice, and figure out how to guide others to do the same. That said….as someone who has taught I also agree that you should look at the student work of people you are considering working with. If all the work looks the same, than the teacher is only offering exercises in how to be like them. However, if the students work are wildly different than its likely the instructor privileges hoping students learn to think their own thoughts through their art and develop their own creative and critical voices. Many students who finish an art degree are NOT making art 5 years later. They may have learned a lot about art, but not how to have a voice and a career as an artist. Everyone is different. All visions have multiple paths to them. Decide where you want to go and work backwards. If a degree is useful than go for it. Otherwise just figure out who can help you get what you need to take the next step toward your greatest vision for yourself and your art. Learning happens in lots of places.

    1. Well said. I have a BFA and am so grateful that I had that experience. I continue to take workshops to expand my creativity and knowledge. I also teach workshops emphasizing that each person have their own vision and only use what will work for them in their own work.

  20. I am self taught in most everything I have done and I have done well. I do appreciate those that have put forth so much effort in their education and how they take immeasurable pride in devoting 4 years or more to this pursuit. There is so much available these days to help you learn. I don’t think I will ever stop learning and I know that I can always improve. That being said, I do think that creativity is innate and while it “could” be learned, I think it is more about what comes from the inside rather than a book or video. I think being mentored, trusting your gut and your heart, and allowing yourself to “go with the flow” are your biggest teachers.

  21. this discussion goes along with with the endless quandary over art and crafts being distinctly different.
    I make metal speak, from ironwork to copper sculpture to silver jewelry, and I am an engineer and have a mechanic journeyman certificate. I would like to relay what I just learned in a fabulous book ‘The nature fix”: all that matters and counts – your creation awes someone. Period. That’s what we should strive for, and art education matters little in that context.

  22. I’ve been discouraged from ‘higher education’ with “You might lose your uniqueness. You already have the skills….” etc. but I think it doesn’t hurt anyone to keep learning and growing. The art learned in art school I believe can help, but studies have proven art learned in a state college can hurt creativity. It always looks good to have a degree listed after your name. I suppose it is what you do with what you know that matters. Essentially I think talent is something within that can not be taught or learned. Perhaps it comes from lifetimes of doing art, from devotion, from a particular mind set or even handicap like Van Gogh’s astigmatism..When the goal is to DO ART it seems as if everything else is a hindrance, including academia.

  23. Throughout school my intention in life was only to create art. I fast forwarded through 2 intense years and started art college. After some time I realized that I did not want to be a teacher, and could not expect my parents to support me in the wild hope that I could actually sell my work. Determined not to feel regret, I went to work in a bank, which, surprisingly, I loved. Fast forward about 20 years, marriage, children, emigration to Canada from The UK. After my father died, I decided to try a watercolour class – what I considered the most difficult medium. Thank goodness for city run classes like this. I found an artist mentor and moved into mixed media. Over the 15 years since I have found success, both personal and financially, creating what suits my style. I have, of course, taken many workshops with other teachers, who have all had an influence on my work one way or another. I’ve learnt confidence, and I believe my work is professional in its technique and presentation. Still no regrets, if I had stayed I would have been a different person from who I am now, and I quite like myself now, so I’ll be happy with that.

  24. You have made fine points, which all artists and aspiring artists should read and consider.

    There is, however, a hybrid category to which I belong; specifically, artists who lack academic degrees and are not self-taught, who have nevertheless spent countless hours (and money) over many years in classes and workshops while poring over thousands of pages of books.

    As you rightly pointed out, the cost of a formal art education versus the financial return in that particular job market lead many artists, like me, to pursue other full-time careers.

    There is a great deal of satisfaction from working hard and seeing the fruits of one’s labor.

    The downside is that while I exhibit and sell on a fairly regular basis, I often feel have to work harder to be taken seriously by gallery owners and show jurors.

    Overall, I have no regrets and the path I chose works well for me.

    1. I too studied and was taught by others but no degree. The degree give one another choice for the day job, teaching. My day job was working in art supplies, framing and galleries. I now own my a custom frame shop and gallery of my own. I paint in my shop so it has become my studio too.

  25. I’m half and half.
    I’ve been creating since I can remember, because I have to in order to live. Creation is who I am. I literally eat, sleep and breathe it. If I’m not creating for a moment, then I’m reading and studying others work I like.

    I went to an art college for two years and received my Diploma in Fine Art with Distinction and Honours. I really loved experimenting with different mediums and techniques and enjoyed Art History. My writing classes also helped me to properly communicate my ideas., and the engagement with teachers and students was very supportive. I decided to go back to finish my BFA and I am currently at a top University. Again I have great marks, however; I’m feeling that I’m not creating what I want to create. I feel like I’m doing it for the teacher, which makes me feel that when I’m attending I’m not being honest in my work. Its also very tight and refined and can be suppressing. The other thing is is that the world is changing so quickly and art does imitate life.
    So that’s where I’m at now. I’m in third year of my BFA program. However; I’ve decided to leave because I feel for me that I have gained everything I can from this particular institution. Therefore I am going to be going it on my own and attended all types of classes and learning with other artists whose work I enjoy. I’m going to create what comes from within me. I’ll be very honest, the paper would be nice to have, and I’ll miss the mentor ship program which comes from being in fourth year along with the opportunity to work in a gallery as part of the education to see how things really work.

    So…my thoughts, if you don’t want to be a teacher or work in a gallery then go to school, get your MFA, but if you want to take a stab at being an artist then get some education, but maybe only two years from a really good “Art School” that only concentrated in the arts. Learn your art history as well, it’s really important to see what other artists did before you and then work with a mentor and spend as much time in your studio as you can. Go learn business and most of all find the guts and nerve to put yourself out there, that’s the biggest thing and believe in yourself, for without this, all the education and great marks mean absolutely nothing.

    1. L.Wood, what do you think would happen if you made your own art while finishing the last of your BFA? Usually that means a stunt is ready to graduate. Then you would have your degree and be making your own art… I used to tell my students to fulfill the requirements of the class as the creative challenge but that beyond that it was up to them what else happened in their art. Of course you know whats best for you.

  26. It is an interesting question. I started out totally self taught and my work round about 1980 was described as being Outsiderish , though I was also getting some very trivialising epithets, such as ‘ charming and decorative.’
    My first degree I had already embarked upon, in English/Italian Literature. But when I graduated there were 500 graduates to one job and I decided to be creatively unemployed. I tok two two-year part-time courses. one in panting, the other in working with mixed media. Both introduced me to new techniques, some more education in the history of art, but less useful.was the way my work was denigrated as being ‘devorative’ if I did not start with an image in real life, I often fund this objection confusing.
    There was a second recession on the UK, nothing was selling, no one was interested in my work, I needed a day job so I used my academic degree after getting a Tesol qualification to teach abroad.

    I am based in Budapest Hungary and basically there is nothing, you ate nothing, without Papers. A full degree that is. The doors really did seem closed for a long time. More recently now there is a growing more open alternative scene in which I actively take part. And more sales, though not for huge prices. But there is more appreciation for what I do. I still get toldnit is all about getting a Name, but I don’t know how much money I would have to throw at competitions get that.

  27. I studied art for five years at a state university known for its pharmacy school, not its art program. Until I attended school I was completely self taught. Art education was not part of the curriculum in the south in the 1960s (even less so now I imagine). I learned the basics of course–stretching canvases, mixing color, etc–and I experienced my first life drawing class, which gave me the direction my art would follow for the rest of my career. What I DIDN’T learn was the business of art. The business of how to make a living creating. If I had it to do over again, (and I was more mature) I would rethink a university education in favor of finding a mentor/apprentice situation.
    The education proved useful when I needed steady employment at one point. It got my foot on the door in the aerospace industry as an illustrator/graphic artist (space shuttle program) but other than that, I don’t think those thousands and thousands of dollars in student loans were worth much at all.

  28. Thankfully, we live in an age that supports learning in non-academic environments i.e the internet age… I am mainly a self taught Artist & am becoming very well known & successful. I have been learning far more than the ‘Academic four paid years’ & am still learning & will continue to learn.

    I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks about my formal art education or lack there of, I care what they thing about my Artwork & if they want to collect it & they DO!

  29. This is a great topic of discussion and am so interested in reading what everyone has to say. I think if one can financially afford a fine arts degree then by all means, go for it. From my experience, it is a great environment to be exposed to all sorts of things as well as a wide range of creative people and a safe place to explore, especially while you are young. However, I do not have a BFA and got to where I am in a slightly , off to the side kind of way. I went to an art school for design but I wouldn’t say my formal education there was what taught me the most – it was more everything around the school that had the biggest impact. One summer I worked for a sculptor and the skills I learned from him helped me launch myself into my new art career 11 years later. I don’t think whether a person has a fine arts degree or not will make an artist more or less creditable. It’s up to the artist’s own ability to persevere and carve their own path regardless of their educational credentials.

  30. Like you I grew up surrounded by art and artists. For that my art education started early at home. When I decided to get more formal training away from home, I went to schools in NYC where it was primarily drawing, painting or sculpture 8 hrs a day with many working beside me who already had a degree. Art history was mostly by my own interest in the subject and is an ongoing lifetime study.

  31. No education is ever wasted. There can be a reverse snobbery by saying “I’m self-taught” as if that somehow negates the value of formal training. Can you be a good artist and be self-taught? Of course. Can you be a bad artist and be self-taught? Yes, again! We are all “self-taught” to a degree in that we have to take what we are learning and apply it. I have a BFA. Was I an accomplished artist by the end of 5 years? No, but it provided me with a foundation on which to build which I would not have gotten otherwise. I was able to be exposed to and get some experience in a variety of mediums. I learned art history and I had other liberal arts courses which were life-preparation, not just job-preparation. Making a living from my art education has had more to do with my personality and life choices than whether or not I have a degree. But I would make the same choices over again.

  32. I’ve never had anybody ask about my schooling. I have a BS in Home Ec (Textiles & Clothing) and a law degree — strange bedfellows? I took some art lessons as a kid and took some art classes as an undergrad; but I learned to sew at an early age from mother and grandmother. I create textile art because I have to create. It’s such a personal decision whether to study formally or not.

  33. thank you for your informative article. I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of pursuing an MFA in art. I’m not so sure it is worth the time, even though I can get an MFA for free. As for whether or not my previous education has been helpful – yes. I am trained in graphic design; this helps my overall sense of balance etc on the canvas. I am a retired psychotherapist; existential questions inform my work. I am playing catch-up with accumulating a more comprehensive understanding of fine art materials and mediums, and think the MFA could provide that. For now, I’m getting that information from artist-friends, workshops and also reading art history books.

    1. If you are able to get an MFA for free that means you give yourself a two year residency with art as your job, developing a body of work while getting feedback from professional artists. (Feedback you can take or leave.) When I was deciding if I should go on for an MFA O was bemoaning the fact that I would be 35 before I graduated. My spouse, without looking up from the coffee in front of him said, “Your going to e 35 anyway, why not have done what you are passionate about in the meantime?” If I were a faculty in an art [program I would be delighted to have you as a student because you already have a lifetime of material for your subject matter. Its a great time to take risks and you have access to the school’s equipment. Equipment that you can experiment with (Large scale printers, 3-d printers, etc). Just thoughts. Could be quite a creative adventure. Again, you know whats right for you.

  34. You need formal academic training in the medical fields; doctors, dentists, radiologists, nurses, etc. Teaching, architecture, engineering, the sciences. It’s a pretty short “must have” list.
    An artist, no. You don’t tack your degree on the wall beside your framed painting. If one seeks a curator position or an auction house, you need art history. Maybe.
    A person wanting formal training and knowledge can find it in any number of places besides art schools or colleges. Had the Internet been available in my youth I would not have spent two-plus years in school. I realized too many with four-year art degrees still couldn’t paint and I didn’t go back. The only time I regret that decision is when writing a CV, not what I would have gleaned from sticking it out. *shrug*
    College tends to teach the mid-level student. If you’re already a skilled artist the curriculum will bore you. If you’ve not been intellectually curious prior to beginning art school no college will teach you to be an artist. It’s like trying to bring a class of twenty kids to an accepted level of proficiency … the slow learners along with the kids that should skip a grade. It serves neither well. Mentorship is rare these days. The real void in art education is marketing.
    What I did receive from college was art history, some technical knowledge, some skills, but more so awareness. Then my art education really began … since then I have spent untold hours in museums, not to admire but to learn. I study my accumulated personal art library as a constant resource. There is an almost unlimited inventory of art related video online.
    I could name drop several acclaimed artists that I took workshops from. I learned more in a three-day weekend with one than a semester in college. The others added to the whole … I took what I wanted and discarded the rest. Your self awareness as an artist will tell you what you can use. It seems to me if a young artist wants to better themselves workshops are a unique opportunity to do so without saddling yourself with heavy student debt. Your academic investment will rarely be overcome by your projected income. Yes, any acquired knowledge is desirable… but how much time and debt do you want to consume before you launch?

  35. Inspired by the words & works of Van Gogh I began painting. I was 16 years old and my bedroom was my studio. After graduating high school I took a painting class, drawing class, and design theory class at a local community college. All the while I continued painting. I got married and had kids and my garage became my studio. Through the years I worked as an illustrator for a local supermarket chain, a music publisher, the local opera company, and a furniture builder, spare room became my studio. At age 60 I went to school to learn textile surface design…met computers head on and realized I loved the act of hands on painting not stylist on WACOM pad. Now 70 made a commitment to myself this year that I will finally begin to build a “body of work” and began entering local shows with some success. For years I was intimidated by my lack of formal education but now when asked where did I learn to paint I proudly answer, ” My garage.” And to the question every artist is asked too many times, “How long did it take you to paint this?” I calmly and sweetly answer, “50 years.” Because in my mind every new painting is a the sum total of every drawing, painting and piece of art that proceeded it.

  36. Commitment in creating work and development of a life and business plan I’ve observed help artists more than education alone. However if additionally you have the benefit of art education whether a school, mentor or workshops you are lucky.
    I have an art education but in today’s world the type of lengthy education I enjoyed is almost non existent. I am very saddened when I learn of young artists who studied fine art and have huge school debt and would always encourage young artists to find ways of education that may be alternative ways to set them on their artistic path

  37. I think art education is very beneficial, although a degree may or may not be helpful. In art, as in most professions, you don’t know what you don’t know.

    I have a BFA in Painting. The degree itself was helpful when I applied for jobs in which preference was given to those with degrees.

    Getting a good foundation in art skills compares to a would-be musician learning music theory. Those basic skills are part of the tools of the trade—forever. Some of the great artists in history left art school after learning the basics, but extensive study in a college or other intensive environment is a wonderful opportunity—as described in the replies above—and I would recommend it to anyone who can afford it.

    In college, I got to study with great living artists. What a gift! But, if one can’t get in the front door, by all means, one should go in through the window. Independent study with excellent artists can be wonderful, too.

  38. I’ve just finished University studying ‘Fine Art’ as a mature student. Did I need the degree? NO!
    If one of my children came to me today and told me they wanted to study ‘Fine Art’ I’d say don’t!
    You do not need a degree to be a good artist, I have a degree now but know there are many out there who don’t and are better artists than I’ll ever be.
    Art created from individuals untouched by academic teaching is far more original than that produced by academics conditioned through so called conventional training.

  39. My first comment is a reply to a post by Mary Anita Winklea . Some one asked her how she learned how to paint. Her reply, ” was in my garage”. Outstanding, Go girl..Some part of these posts have to have a bit humor…I have a BA in fine art. It was an introduction. Not an end. While art education provides principles, it does not teach passion…Both sides of art education and self taught have their merit. What ever your art is, follow your passion. Don’ ever give up…Where ever you are in your art, marketing seems to be relevant.

  40. I do not have a formal education in art but I wish that I did a foundation course. Not that it is badly affecting my work, I just find it frustrating that I need to learn things from scratch now and again. I am not satisfied working in one medium so I am always looking for new ways of creating and new techniques. It would be nice to have that background so that I didn’t have start from 0. Youtube is a great tool for me as is advice from other artists. I am researching armature at the moment.

  41. My story is yet different from others. I had the privilege of group lessons from an outstanding old-school, formal teacher for three years of high school. She took us through just about every subject matter and style in several media. Apparently, the teacher took her other students and me to something near a BFA level, as my college freshman-level art classes felt like pre-school. I gave up my thoughts of an art degree, went with English, worked as an editor, and raised a family. Now I am studying with a well-known “outsider artist” (though he was formally trained as well) and teaching. Each step has given me something; I’m very thankful for all of it. I agree with others that the most important thing is to pursue growth and learning in whatever form seems best for the artist. Also, it is vital to develop appropriate confidence. I have heard of a university art program in which the professors routinely ridiculed student work. If some avenue of learning is undermining confidence, it is toxic and should be abandoned by students and shunned by the art community. The most important thing is that the artist can communicate well with the viewer; education and lack thereof can each help and hinder that communication, depending on circumstances.

  42. Hello,

    I finished an Art School (Fine Arts) and University (Fine Arts) in Belarus. Thus I studied more than 9 years. This is a typical education way of an artist in Belarus and Russia as well. We didn’t have Master or Bachelor degree but Diploma and state examinations. During that time I learned everything. Anatomy, composition, history, theory, design, art pedagogy, ceramics, sculpture, folk art techniques… with thousands of workshops. This was a very important time in my development. The problem is, like Jason said, the Academies are to conservative, especially in Belarus and Russia. And mostly artists become conservative.
    Helen Shulkin

  43. Someday, hopefully , debates on a Self Taught art education versus a College art education will finally be put to rest. We’ve heard this discussion almost to ad nauseam and does it REALLY matter? Having a degree in art I have to say there are many benefits to getting a college education and I Definitely have to say that I was never felt curtailed in the creative process, in fact quite the opposite. We as artists were told the rules had to be taught but then to go out in the world and ‘break’ them as we wished!! But WHY do artists of both avenues have to continually defend their positions?? An artist’s WORK should do the talking!

    1. Nancy wrote: “An artist’s WORK should do the talking!”

      It SHOULD be! I hope it does! It sounds like a lot of galleries and collectors don’t care what the background of the artist is as long as they like their work.

      What causes problems is the snobbery on both sides. “I’m SELF taught!” (Surely you don’t mean you’d refuse to get some education if you had the opportunity?) or “I have a DEGREE, you know!” (Am I supposed to all of a sudden think your art looks better when I know you have a degree?)

      We should be focusing on the quality of our art and bottom line, if we’re going where we need to go and it SHOWS in our work, that’s what matters!

  44. I spent far too long trying to finish my BFA, which I finally did after 20 years I had acquired so many credits by then that I also took a degree in Art History. The experiences I had in college were mostly very good. Some of them were more learning than encouraging experiences. But now I am working hard to get past some of the over teaching I received.
    It was wonderful being in the milieu of students and critiques and studios. Very exciting. However, I found teachers to be more jealous than encouraging. Once I confronted a professor when I saw the design I had turned in to him appear months later on a billboard ad. He facetiously told me I could sue him if I wanted to do so.
    Looking back, I wish I had just gotten the degree and gotten out. It would have been much better for my career as an artist. One of the things that kept me in academia, I think, is that I didn’t feel like the education I had would get me a job in the art industry. The confidence I would have had in my work would have been much more beneficial to me professionally than any degree or teacher. Workshops I have taken have been wonderful and helpful. The art groups I have joined have been helpful and supportive.
    Once when working as an administrative assistant at a college, I noticed my boss’ degrees on the wall in her office and I mentioned I should put my degrees up in my office, she said “why would you do that?” So much for an academicians opinion of my degree.
    Well, all that said, I loved the people I met and the experiences I had in college, but as far as my career as an artist, I should have just gotten a job in a museum or gallery and continued working on my art on my own.
    This blog is a wonderful source of instruction, ideas and insights. It is generous and relevant and I share it with all of the professional contacts I meet.

  45. I think art education is very important as it gives you all the information and skills to try every type of art in a comprehensive way. There is a body of knowledge to be learned as there is in every discipline. Learning on one’s own is nice but college makes you get all the world’s knowledge in an intensive way. This leads to more experimentation and getting a whole lot more information and experience in in a shorter amount of time. Often people working on their own do not even understand why certain info is important, let alone why or where they should even search for those specifics. It also takes longer to explore everything. End result is less creative exploration or hackneyed subjects. Listening to critiques is invaluable in a group art training session. One learns a lotvobserving others going through the same thing. Ongoing experiences with this aspect are a wonderful way to inspire a person for future art making. I believe few gallery owners are concerned with ones education but are more into consistent good work and cooperative attitudes.

  46. I agree with the article, and I have some formal training and am glad that I did it, but I want to say that I think it would be extremely hard to be self-taught if we didn’t have the Internet and Youtube. So few people have access to mentors enough to do well on their own.

  47. Yes, I have a BFA. I have to dispute the notion that an art education constrains the artist. Particularly for me. I went to a strictly fine art college – San Francisco Art Institute – and it pushed our creativity rather than put it in a box. We had to already have the academics to be accepted into the school. I will say I don’t ordinarily mention it unless asked about my art education. It’s not what makes me or my art. But that little piece of paper gives me credibility to make it worth the time and money to get it.
    My benefits from having the degree go way beyond the art world. Just having a degree in anything will give you an edge in any career path – art or anything else.

  48. I am not sure I can add anything here except my personal experience and ideas on education. I attended a very good art school at a state univ. right out of high school. It was the hardest thing I had ever done and I was 17 and not committed to it. I wanted to travel and my parents and former art teachers wanted me to go to college. As a result when I did not fit in the post expressionist way of making art..I got terribly discouraged and went west to work for the summer at age 19 and get my head together (1970s). I was talked into a private religious college by new friends and I attended there for a few years and hated it. I figured in spite of my intellect and was not for me. I managed to eke out a degree and said never again. The one bright spot was learning printmaking but back then I could not continue the practice because there was no access to printing presses out side of school. I was so harshly criticized for my art that I swore I would never go back to school. Fast forward 2005. My oldest son began attending college. Then my youngest son. They challenged me to do my art again..which I had dabbled at but not much else all those years after my college experience. I decided to look into art history which I love.My new adviser suggested I learn a language..I was thinking Italian but I was told to take German and I was in my late 50’s and decided there was no way I could learn German. So my husband was laid off and I put school on the backburner. In 2006 I went to The University of Utah back into the studio arts. Fear and trembling of severe criticism had frozen my art making and thank fully my new teachers guided me through. I had foundation classes that I had never had before. I learned so much and of course more art history to satisfy not only graduation requirements but my love of art history. I relearned to be an artist by being challenged and having deadlines. I am proud to say I was on the dean’s list the whole time. Won a few scholarships and prizes. No I did not really formally learn how to sell my art. But I had art teachers who were also professional artists in galleries. I learned much from them. I made new friends of all ages and genders. I am still in touch with many of the teachers and young students since graduation. The whole experience helped me understand my art making, my reasons for doing it. It gave me the confidence to continue. Yes the BFA in painting and drawing does not sell my art or impress my art friends but it is deeply satisfying. I believe the education I received was the beginning of my “second life” as an artist. and I am currently learning Italian, and I am traveling as much as I can.

  49. Both paths can lead to success, but I’ve rarely heard of a “self-taught” artist who hadn’t been mentored by a successful artist or who hadn’t taken workshops and more informal courses.
    I would not have had the width and breadth of my art practice if I had not had formal education. Teachers and professors have enriched me and my work; but in the end, it was my dogged and persistent determination to understand the underpinnings of art, the basics, the foundation that changed my work from amateurish to more polished, mature work.
    Along the way my colleagues – other respected artists – have also been my teachers, and their open generosity in sharing information has been gratefully appreciated . We learn much from each other.
    Does it matter whether one is self-taught or formally schooled? Maybe it needs to be both.
    What I find, in the end, though, is that when conversations of art arise, I find myself most comfortable with those who have a broad understanding of art history and ideas, a depth of understanding of materials, art concepts and techniques and a deep commitment to the practice of art making – with no matter whether it is from a self-developed or a formally taught individual; but there are more of those who have formal education who speak that specialized art-language than otherwise.

  50. The big point I don’t see raised here is the depth and breadth of critiquing skills that one gains through a good art education. Yes, you can learn a lot about critique from the many generous and wonderful artists, workshop instructors, gallery owners, and curators one comes across in a career. But it’s hit or miss, and artists are likely to associate with like minds. I use the foundation gained in my excellent college and MFA programs every day, both for my own art and for teaching and mentoring artists who are missing so many of these valuable insights into seeing and understanding how their art could be improved.

    Of course, to the question “If something sells well, does that prove it is good art?” I get to say no, whereas a gallerist might not have that luxury.

    To draw a parallel in movies: the critic brings depth that helps to raise the bar, while most people just know what they like and may not notice or care about the flaws, and the industry mainly wants a box office hit. The values are different, so an education may be most important to the first group.

  51. I think an art education is extremely important… one that provides context through examining art history, basic color theory, drawing basics, exploration of a variety of mediums before choosing to concentrate on developing and refining skills in the use of one or two… but this does not have to mean art school. All this can be learned in libraries, workshops, through finding mentors for feedback and dedicating countless hours in the studio practicing your craft. It is not the degree you are handed in a ceremony declaring you an MFA that makes you an artist, it is you making the art.

  52. Good topic…one I’ve thought about a lot. I have both a BFA and an MFA in my area (photography), I’m a working artist, have a strong community within my discipline, teach at a community college and have helped others evaluate their programs. It really depends on the individual, how they learn best and what their end goals are. For me, my undergrad was oriented towards commercial work and had lots of technical training and a rigorous approach (much like the marines!) which prepared me for the real world and gave me a career in a very competitive field. I met many who were self-taught in this area – but no one who wasn’t educated. Often they’d come from a science or art background and stumbled into photography and loved it.
    When I decided to leave commercial and pursue fine art, I also wanted to teach as a way to support my family – so I returned to school for my graduate degree. I was careful about my student loans and I had a hard game plan for getting work after graduation.

    For me, it’s been a very good choice – I get paid to learn, teaching has forced me to stay current and explore areas I might never have done on my own. The key was keeping my student loans low, having a game plan for after graduation (I sent out job packets to 50 schools during my last semester) and that gave me options. Right now, we’ve got a wave of faculty retiring…it’s a good time to think about teaching. Depending on the school you go to, you’ll get a big introduction to all kinds of art, you’ll develop lifelong mentorships with artists who will help you build community and all of that is a plus.

    My experiences with self-taught artists have been positive, I’ve met some very successful ones…but there’s one consistent thing I’ve noticed…that’s a lack of a broader understanding of the discipline, and often an insecurity (and defensiveness) about it. My thought is – why wouldn’t you want to learn more about something you love? I still take classes (short ones) because there’s so much that interests me and the world is rapidly changing. Whichever route you take – keep educating yourself!

  53. After over 30 yrs of telling myself I would never return to school, I found myself applying for an MAFA in painting (AAU), for only one reason. My work was ‘in the middle’…not the worst and not the best. I was stuck and not able to move forward on my own. Workshops were not enough. I wanted be as good as artists I admired, tweak my skills and fill in gaps I knew I had. Encouraged to work in my own style, I have been pushed in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It’s rigorous and hard work. Halfway there, what I have accomplished so far is way beyond what I ever expected. I was asked by an artist friend if I thought my style will change. Another artist friend (an art professor), after seeing my current work, stated, ‘You’re style isn’t changing, it’s even MORE YOU!’ Whether anyone else cares about my education is irrelevant. Most important is that I care and am meeting personal goals in spades. And when my ‘homework’ gets juried into a national exhibit, or sells, it’s icing on the cake!

  54. Thank you, Jason, for this fresh perspective on the value and disadvantages of an art degree. I have advanced degrees in language and literature, but not in art. I have taken many university courses in studio art along the way, but my primary arts education has come from ateliers and apprenticeships with master goldsmiths and sculptors. The classical, old-master techniques that I use in my work are not practiced by most university professors and are simply not available in most college degree programs. I also think that my academic training in another field has enriched and deepened my work as a visual artist. I do believe in spending some money on top-quality instruction and coaching because we all need the expertise and experience of others beyond our level in order to improve and keep growing professionally.

  55. I have an MFA in Ceramic Art and I don’t regret any of the years I spent at school. As a ceramic artist you have to have a great deal of technical information to be successful and versatile . Also the mentorship of leading professionals in the filed is important. Back when I was in school, it wasn’t considered part of the curriculum to teach artists how to actually make a living at their art. Now, at one of my schools, RISD, there is a lot of emphasis on preparing artists to be business people as well. I wish I would have had that. Also, I think it really depends on there person when it comes to being self taught. I personally know a number of people who could benefit from a strong critique. When you are self-taught you don’t get that. It wastes a lot of time. I went through my education on scholarships and grants so had no debt. I do think it is important not to have debt in this field since there is little chance of high salaries. You can find good teachers and bad teachers anywhere. Just keep looking and don’t stick with the bad ones.

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