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 reddotblog.com, 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.

31 Comments

  1. An excellent article as always, Jason.

    I have a BA in Journalism and recognize the value of having a college education under my belt. But at nearly age 60, I’m short on time to get more training. One thing the pandemic has gifted us with is an increase in accessibility to quality teaching via Zoom. I’ve taken some serious, in-depth Zoom classes over the last year as well as met regularly with other serious artists to talk shop through Facebook Chat, What’s App, and other video calls. I’ve been able to craft a fruitful and serious course of study that has greatly improved my work.

    And we can’t forget the best course of all—lots and lots of time at the easel.

  2. The advice we are giving our almost-college aged children is to get the degree that will teach you what you want to know, that will challenge and excite you — not for what kind of job you hope to get after. Nearly everyone I know who got a degree to jumpstart a career ended up doing something completely unrelated.

    1. I have a Bachelor’s of Fine arts. At the time most of the studio courses were very unstructured. I spent a lot of time in the communal studio space, often at night so as to be undisturbed. I don’t think I would have done as much work had I not had imposed deadlines.

  3. Love Gina Morrow’s last line. Miles of canvas or whatever IS the best teacher, when combined with simple self-critique, the ability to say “this isn’t working,” or “that works!” I’m not talking about beating oneself up, but an objective review that doesn’t tear you down. There are groups that are wonderful for the self-critique part…and some that aren’t.

    I think there is a difference between highly-educated and being well studied. I didn’t have the privilege of having the time, support, or money to get a formal art education, but I studied hard, focusing on the impressionists, from Monet to William Wendt, and have looked carefully at some of the best contemporary DVD’s out there. I love looking at other artists’ processes! That said, I’m not much of an abject follower of anybody.

  4. I took a certificate course at the National Academy of Art (which, curiously, is in New York not DC, as most things called “National” are) and the two best things I gleaned from the program were related to work habits rather than technique or authentic expression. One is that art is, to some degree, a job like any other. Show up in the studio, buckle down, and do the work. The other was that artists are real people. One teacher (not at the Academy) whose work I find particularly elegant and transcendent said in class one day “I get a lot of stuff at the Dollar Store.”

    My work is most closely related to cave painting. And, as best I know, no one teaches that.

  5. This is an article of great interest to me.
    I have always pondered this as I am one who has chosen self exploration.
    From childhood, I began my creative journey. Art education was not a family understanding although I received positive encouragement. My parents didn’t finish high school for various reasons and couldn’t guide me through the college process aside from great support. I chose my major based on what was offered in our local college as there was not a thought of going away to school.

    With a degree in psychology and a short employment in social services, I realized my creativity needed to grow. I started a journey, as I admit, through the back door into a decades long career in interior design. I had no education in the field and enjoyed a successful career and mentored many students from several colleges, as well as designers new to the field.

    Retirement allowed me the opportunity to discover my interest in painting. I have taken classes and workshops, but not academic training. As with my interior design career, I sometimes revert to insecurity regarding my credentials in fine art. Finally, I always conclude if someone appreciates what I do, that’s the reward.

    Thank you for addressing this topic.

    1. Well I am not really sure! I’ve known several artists that are masters and do not have an art degree. Many have degrees but not in art. The ones that do seem to puff out their chests and act as if the degree makes them a better artist. I am really glad I choose my journey my way. I’ve never been a rule taker and love to experiment. I have some education but never got a diploma. I’ve taken workshops from master artists who inspire me. I have read many books, gone to museums (I even have an ink drawing in permanent collection) and have even shown in some . Go to all the shows I can and galleries too. All are wonderful experiences that I think has led me to be a well rounded artist. I have taught some and since COVID I watch videos and joined groups. And painted and painted. I feel like I never want to stop learning and I will always be glad to share what I have gleaned. Thank you Jason

  6. I earned both a BFA and MA in Art Education which put me in the teaching profession for a while. When I found my way into the interior design field, I learned that my design education transferred easily. Design is design no matter what medium you work in. I did continue my interior design education and became a professional licensed interior. designer where I work for 30 years.This experience working with textiles, color and design enhanced my ability to pick up my fiber art work on an advance level when I retired and started working on my art full time. I believe that education both formal and experiential is important in an artists credibility.

  7. Jason;

    A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I achieved both a BA in Art (77) and a MEd in Art Education (78). However, educators are generally grossly underpaid and life’s challenges and hurdles often alter our course. Due to family crises, I was forced to seek a better paying occupation to weather life’s storms. I found that having an education proved highly detrimental to finding a career outside of my chosen path. But, changing course was a necessity to survive and survive I did for 38 years in the business world. That being said, I would not trade my formal art education for a refund at all! Now, I have retired and am able to pursue my artist’s life in my home studio daily. Life has come full circle. The formal training I received pursuing my degrees, though locked away for many years and sometimes finding myself behind, at this point in materials knowledge, was deeply imbedded in my mind and has burgeoned into a sort of self renaissance. I was surprised by how quickly the knowledge returned. I am now “happy as a pig in a sty” as they say pursuing my life’s calling. And, I attribute my rebirth in my painting to the knowledge gained in college. Has it proved to be a financial boon? Not yet. But, it most definitely has been the sprouting source of my art, my reawakening. My education was beneficial to me, in an unexpected and perhaps unique way.

    G

  8. Being dyslexic and having such a hard time getting through school, college was not an option for me. I did not become or even thought about becoming an artist until age 32.I did start a silkscreen business and had that for 11 years and a jewelry business and that is what got me interested in becoming an artist. I wanted to be an artist so badly and I think sometimes passion and desire to do something can sometimes be more important than going to school. Did I miss some things from not going to school, I am sure I did, but for me just doing and experimenting and reading about artists gave me the courage to continued on and a very supporting wife! I am not saying that art school is a bad thing as there are many advantages for sure. You just have to see what works best for you. I do feel sometimes a bit of “well where did you go to school?’ attitude but I wear not going to school sometimes of a badge of honor and I did ok without it. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same thing. My dad thought I would be a failure without going to college of some type and I think I was out to show him and the world I could do it on my own. So 32 years later still making a living from my art and we had a successful art gallery for 18 years and sold it a few years ago. Finding what is right for you, passion, talent and timing are really important among other things….

  9. I’m actually very proud of my education. Even though I did not complete a degree, I received one of the best training courses available. So, I am a very capable artist, and I understand Art History to the extent that it pertains to what I’m doing currently. That being said, I sometimes (not that often) feel that my technical training is a limitation to my creativity. When I look at art by others, if it’s not drawn correctly or the perspective isn’t right, or the color is too exaggerated, or if design and composition is poor, I’m disappointed. I’ve been accused more than once of being a snob. I guess that’s just the way it is.

  10. I have a degree from art school. It is in Art Education. To survive that course (in the mid 60s) I had, besides the academic “ED” courses, a studio minor and an academic minor. The operational wisdom of my school was an arts educator (art teacher if you want), to be effective must be a producing artist as part of their life and to be acquainted with the process of art making and understanding.
    It was a grueling schedule to be sure but it has made all the difference.

    I really believe there is a false dichotomy. 5 years ago I was not convinced.
    The reason for the change is the realization that I have to stand and deliver production results.
    While Jason won’t say it this bluntly I will. Production is the measurement. No one gives a damn how the artist in question gets there.

    I benefitted greatly from my schooling but it was a fit for me. It’s not universal.

  11. It used to bother me that I hadn’t finished a 4 year degree in anything, but especially in art, since that has been my full time profession since 1993. But as time passes, I’ve come to see that those who have spent years in Figure It Out U can be just as good as those who went the traditional route. Likewise, those with degrees can be just as good as those who have attended the life-long school of Figure It Out. It is a privilege (and a relief) to be in an unregulated industry where one can pick both the route and the destination.

  12. One more thing I left out that I feel was really important. We did out juried art shows for 11 years and that was a real education in so many ways. It gave you a good education on how art biz works, keeping up with doing your art so you can travel to these shows, talking with people about your art. Back then in the mid nineties, social media was not like it is today so it was really important to get your work out there. Not to mention the other art friends, gallery connections and a chance to travel and see this great country of ours….

  13. When I was 18 I went to a state university and earned a degree in teaching. I taught 6th grade for 4 years and it was great training for me to develop my teaching skills which included working within an organization, working with parents and inspiring kids. Almost every culminating activity involved an art project! Teaching was not my passion, however.
    After taking several community art classes, I began doing editorial illustration work for local publications and media. I became involved in the national organization, Graphic Artists Guild. I opened my own design studio. Wanting more professional education in illustration, I enrolled in art school affiliated with our large state university. I decided at age 48 to pursue a degree in painting with a minor in Art History. It was perfect for me. My interaction with the other students in classes was invaluable. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I learned a lot from them was well as the faculty. I worked 4 times as hard as I had on my first degree. My art history has served me well throughout as I turn to artists of the past when I am bogged down in the middle of a painting. The only part of all of this journey that was not addressed sufficiently in school was the business side and Jason and the Art Business Academy Have do e a wonderful job here.

  14. I really appreciate your balanced comments. I have no formal training, however my dad attended art school but it didn’t stop there, he continued educating himself throughout the years with books about “the Masters” etc. I think it took him into later life to really find his own personal style. Since I was a toddler I’ve learned from him, and practiced with different mediums. Learning technique and the basics is I think a jumpstart to making quality art, but at some point one must be able to break off a bit, and be free so as to create imaginatively and personally. I had been learning to copy his exact style until I stopped painting with him. Once I have myself space, I really find my own style, sort of stumbled upon by having fun, but educated basics helped me get there.

  15. I was pushed as a child to pursue my art interest by getting an education in it. I went to art school at a state university close to my home and I admit I was immature and not ready for the rigors of hard critiques and weird assignments. I left there to go West and enrolled in another college that really did not have a great art dept. I got out with a degree by doing the least amount of work required. That was in the 70s. I swore I would never go back! But as my 2 sons decided to attend college at the same time they challenged me to return and I did at age 56 and it was the best experience. I realized there would be shortcomings in some of the education ( universities rarely teach how to get along in the art world outside the rarified bubble of academia). I was definitely confidant enough to handle critiques and be a self starter. I loved the fact that I got to experience all the University had to offer from the intense art classes to the writing and art history classes. In fact the university had everything I needed to try everything from sculpture, and ceramics to printmaking and book arts. To be honest…my BFA has not paid for itself monetarily as I rarely sell art and I am not interested in teaching..but the exposure to a world beyond the safety of my studio was opened. It even gave me the chance to travel in a study abroad experience that has led to my travel bug being ignited. For me the pursuit of a degree had to be a goal of exposure to the world of learning and not the degree itself. I am probably inordinately proud of my second degree but it was a means to get moving in my art. Not for everyone but it was good for me.

  16. I taught studio art at the university level for 30 years and to be honest , unless you are studying graphic design or some other well-trained digital expertise for design and manipulation of imagery, etc.. eg: architecture, interior design, a degree in fine arts can be very exciting and illuminating but not necessarily an advantage when it comes to selling your art. Most people are not interested in owning edgy, challenging, socially confrontational works of art in their home. Many contemporary techniques do not even lend themselves to being in a home as they need a huge space and a crew to install the work.
    The upside to a degree is awareness of art history, time– lots of it in the studio, learning different ways of seeing through various techniques, being encouraged to innovate, and having a support system in your colleagues and teachers. Never again will you ever find that kind of intense interest, support, and willingness to critique your work, which may be reason enough to at least get training. That is a very wonderful, expansive experience that schools and certain universities may offer. But to sell your work in galleries? You will have to decide: are you aiming for the MET, MOMA, The Guggenheim, the Louvre? Then, get those degrees, go for grants, spend your time getting into international biennales and become important– or possibly notorious. It’s a long shot but people do it. Otherwise: do your art. It’s valuable to visit galleries and museums and to keep learning. Being represented by a gallery– one in which your kind of art fits well and, like Jason says, a gallery with owners who earn their living that way, is just one goal, but then when you have representation, keep up the good work, continue to improve while seeing the value of your work and stay alert. Degrees can be irrelevant because outside of school, your art work must stand on its own. If you are passionate about what you do, and you keep at it, and you believe in your gift, a way will open up, degree or no degree.

  17. The reason is art education not good in USA because of lousy teachers. Look at the Russian art schools they have great teachers. I know some artists in America they have education in arts and they don’t know simple art techniques, and they have to take classes from other artists learn how mix paint , how to stretch canvas e.t.c,

  18. I think a self education is far more worth the money. In fact it can be free. I’ve gotten my art (and art history) education from the public library, Amazon Prime, Youtube, my own online research, and meeting regularly with a group of other artists. And of course practice, practice, practice. I feel I got far more from my efforts than my artist friends who went to college, and I don’t have any student loans.

  19. Thank you, Jason, for the thoughtful and helpful essay. My own art education was early on in life and not toward an academic degree. I took oil painting lessons with a professional artist during my teens, stopping at about age 20. I also attended a high school where there was a graphic arts specialty. My academic education was in history, with an early modern specialization. But I have continued painting and drawing throughout my life. On one hand, I often think that I could have learned more about technique from my early teacher — on the other hand, my historical work led me to look carefully at 17-19th century art, read old works on painting techniques, and try to learn from them. I have no idea what an art decree might have done for me. I my sense is that my present work is what it is largely because of practice and constantly asking myself how I can achieve particular results. And I do have gallery representation and a fairly consistent acceptance into exhibitions. The learning process, in any case, has for me been primarily at my easel.

  20. The high cost of going to college is going to hurt this country, aside from any pro/con stance about an art degree. Higher education is necessary if our population is going to be able to fill the jobs that require it, as well as have enough people who have had the experience, so we’re overall an educated, thinking, open minded, and not gullible people. I have seen the quality and amount of education decline as the cost went up and the result is not good for any of us. While not everyone needs to go to college, or wants to, those who do, should be able to do so regardless of income. It’s an investment in us as a country. I do have an art degree, but got it when tuition was really cheap. I value the overall education as much or more than what I learned about art. If one only wants art instruction, there are cheaper ways to get it than pursuing a university degree. It is true, too, that experience is the best teacher; the percent of your whole career spent in a classroom is small by comparison. Good art teachers make the relatively short time with them very worthwhile, and help shorten the learning curve. You also make some connections that may last a lifetime. One thing college didn’t emphasize for artists when I went was the business side of art. It needs to be part of a curriculum. I know quite a few artists whose “day job” is their art, some had college, some did not, but somewhere along the way they learned how to run a business. When I was younger I worked in the arts industry, jobs I got because my degree helped me get a foot in the door. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have to find a different way, because tuition is outrageous, and even people graduating with degrees that “pay well” are struggling to pay off student loans. That should not happen in a “first world country,” we should be making education a priority.

  21. Jason,
    I am primarily as self-taught Artist (painter of abstract art) and a Senior citizen. Since 2012, I’ve sold enough paintings to make my life interesting in my senior years. I found helpful the following:
    * Xanadu Gallery’s representation of my work in 2012 in its “Studio on-line” gallery for several years.
    * your book “Starving to Successful”
    * representation in brick & mortar gallery outside Denver, Colorado
    * Xanadu’s Art Business Academy classes
    * several Continuing Education classes at School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (2004 – 2007)
    * guidance from a Menor
    * workshops in watercolor
    * participation in local, regional, and one international Art Festival(s)
    * my independent study of Art History
    * study of Techniques of drawing and painting with acrylics

    I’m okay with the fact I did not go to Art School; it might have been too restrictive for me.
    I majored in Television and Film and graduated from Northwestern Univ. in the early 1970’s.
    I worked in TV for two decades, then graduated from law school and worked in Law for over a decade.

    My TV experience (and life experiences for 70 years) is what I draw upon when I compose my paintings

  22. I graduated from The Cooper Union in NYC a long time ago. It was tuition free then and is considered one if the top art schools in the country. I also believe that no education is ever wasted.
    Having said that, in an art and design career of 40+ years, I think I’ve been asked where I went to school 4 times. Your work quality is most important.

  23. I got a BFA back in the 70’s, but the teaching back then was very unstructured. I learned far more by hanging out with successful artists, who were always happy to talk about their work and techniques, and connected me with great galleries. The best advise that I got in college: “If you want to be a professional artist, take business courses.”

    Most of my professors in art school made a living teaching art. Very few knew the business end of art. From professional artists, I learned that the work MUST be well crafted, but as Sol LewWitt once said: “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution. On the other hand, it is difficult to bungle a good idea.”

    I made a lot of bad work, but I learned from all of my mistakes. I refined my ideas over a lifetime. I learned to push myself until I failed. Failure is an excellent teacher.

  24. I enjoyed reading all the comments. I paint primarily in watercolor and have been for about 30 years. I teach some classes, sell a few paintings. I continue to learn. My degree is an associate degree in Graphic Design which in 1972 was called Commercial Art. I learned a lot of discipline from artists who worked in the field and were my teachers in school. I learned the how to and the why in that degree program. That has helped me be a better teacher of adult art classes. The downside of spending a 35 year career as a graphic designer is that it tightens you up in your personal work. A graphic designer’s purpose is always pleasing a client. However, my passion for making art started as a child. I think that passion is the driving force for any artist no matter how they learned and honed their skills.

  25. I was artistic as a child as early as I can remember. We were very poor, so I couldn’t even think about going to the school I really wanted to attend after high school graduation. I attended an in-state art school in the late 60s and early 70s. I had a very naïve belief that I could make money and still do what I loved in commercial art, which I majored in. I loved my freshman year, where we studied the important elements of design, perspective, basic drawing and learning how to open our eyes and really “see” what we were drawing: shadows, highlights, experimentation in color usage, learning how to mix colors, etc. But we were not taught how to use the mediums; we were left to learn that our own. We were given a variety of different mediums and tools in our basic design kit to use in and out of our classes. The thing that bothered me most about art school were the instructors. They were very caught up in themselves and seemed to want to create little clones of themselves except one, who was my drawing professor for 2 years. I loved that man (as a teacher) because he let me be me, which was a realistic, naturalistic artist in a world of abstract, surreal, and off-the-wall contemporary art and professors, many of whom were as high as some of the students. He judged me based on my composition, balance of light and dark, color usage, etc. and I appreciated that. I learned a whole lot from him, and that, along with my basic design and other drawing courses, was invaluable. Sophomore year we began to specialize in our chosen fields, which was Communications Art & Design (commercial art) for me. Gone were the special assignments of going into this or that park on this or that street (it was a city environment, foreign to this rural country girl) and come back in with “X” amount of sketches of what I saw. They were replaced with newspaper ads, copy writing, designing milk cartons and toothpaste tubes, book covers, etc. Things I hated. In my junior year it got even worse. Photography and filming, among them. I learned that I hated commercial art! But I was in too deep to be able to afford changing majors to fine art, which would set me back at least a year. I also had had to buy a 35 mm SLR camera, which my mother took out a loan for, but a movie camera would be needed for the next semester, and I KNEW my parents would hit the ceiling at that. They would also go ballistic when they learned I’d have to write, illustrate, and publish a small book for my graduating thesis for the following year. In 1972, this would cost a small fortune (no computers or print-on-demand back then!), and my father, who had been against my choice of major from the get-go, would never countenance it. We were already having too many fights, so I quit in the middle of my junior year. I paid dearly for that personally because I felt like a failure, especially as I got older and entered shows that requested my educational background training in art. I actually even gave up art for about 8 years, but got back in when I needed to make some kind of income and was not skilled enough in anything else to hold any kind of a job in the very rural area where I lived. so I went into shows, honed my skills, selected wildlife art as my specialty field, and entered every show I could get to and was accepted into. These were juried shows for acceptance, so I learned much from that, as my work was critiqued just to get into the show as an exhibitor. Once there, I learned much from observing the works of the best national and international artists in that field. I lived and developed in that world for forty years. I learned from the school of hard knocks, never had a course in my chosen medium of pastels, but probably would’ve saved me a lot of frustration as I dealt with how to best use the medium. My education in my freshman and sophomore years was invaluable. All this being said, education has its value, but it’s not impossible to get what courses or school can offer on your own. Just may take longer to acquire that background education of what is important in a good composition, whether it’s abstract or naturalistic. I wish I had a degree just for my own personal satisfaction, but I don’t believe I would have done anything differently if I did.

  26. This is a very good article. In my view, a degree does not matter, your talent is your identity. Thank you for sharing this informative thought.

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