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.

 

 

 

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

29 Comments

  1. Hi Jason. To answer your questions, yes, I have a fine art degree, and no it hasn’t helped. Would I do it over again? Yes, with a caveat. I think that ALL fine art programs should include a mandatory (at least) one or two semester seminar in Art Marketing. Along with that, there should be mandatory business classes that focus on small business interests.

    Art school students should be made aware, from the beginning of their schooling, that they will (in a lot of instances) be small business people, and be given the tools necessary to be successful at making a living as artists.

    Frankly, I think folk like you should approach community colleges, art schools and major universities with plans and suggestions (and textbooks such as yours) to teach Fine Art Marketing Skills 101. It isn’t being taught, to my knowledge, and it would’ve been a big help if such a class was available when I was in art school.

    1. I AGREE that art schools should make mandatory the art of marketing!
      My daughter is about to graduate a very high ranking art school in the US and she has been offered an INSUFFICIENT amount of education for marketing.
      She’s a strong and wonderful painter and is TERRIFIED about what she knows she doesn’t know.
      Care to further share your insights how or where she/we can move forward on it???
      To help her get steamed I promised her I’ll take over as much as I can…..

      1. Hey Cheryl. Congratulations to your daughter. I applaud both you and her for giving her the encouragement to pursue her passion. I hope she will have a long and successful career in the visual arts.

        Now. As to what I would suggest as to how or where she can move forward with her career as an artist. I think Jason’s book would be a wonderful place to begin. Going through this site with a fine toothed comb and getting every insight that he provides is a great thing to do.

        Next, if there is an SBA branch in your area, taking seminars and classes they offer, in a lot of instances for free or reduced cost, is something that she may want to look into. Making and selling art is, as Jason tries to show, a BUSINESS; therefore artists should think of themselves as business people. Get the necessary skills to be able to conduct business. Your daughters’ commodity is her artwork. She must get the skills to be able to sell her wares. There’s nothing wrong with that.

        One last thing I’d suggest is this.

        It’s just as important to know what one DOESN’T want, as it is to know what one DOES want. In fact, it may be more important to figure out what you don’t want. By that I mean that she should figure out what “kind” of art she wants to produce. Painter? Sculptor? Printmaker? And further, how she wants her art to be seen or received. Does she want to show in museums? Art fairs? Galleries? Does she want to teach art? If so, on what level?

        Honestly, the more narrow her focus (at least for now) the more she can figure out how and where to target her work. If later she decides to try a new medium, there’s always room for that.

        Again, I so wish that there would’ve been people like Jason around when I was in art school. Learning the “business” of art would’ve made a lot of difference.

  2. I hold a BA In Fine Art “with distinction” (sort of like A++, I suppose). Technique was not taught, or at least not taught well, at that time. The beneficial aspects of the degree program were the art history and humanities courses, which provided context, and the interactions with some wonderful professors and other artists. No “business of art” or career opportunity courses were offered other than a lukewarm suggestion that artists could “teach or go to grad school.”

    By and large my skills and vision have developed through self study, research, workshops, time spent with mentors, online course work, and hard work. I feel that this combination has given me at least the equivalent of a graduate degree, if not more so.

    In short, I feel that formal education is nice, but not necessary. I think it is more important to be willing to work and to be open to the idea of building on your experiences.

  3. I disagree with the notion that “creating what someone else is telling you to create” is stifling or a waste of time. I have a BA in Studio Art with a concentration in ceramics. In the many classes I took, I feel that the parameters given with any one assignment forced me explore subjects and processes I would not have tried on my own. To paraphrase Marguerite Wildenhein, “Even the the most artificial and arbitrary rules will stimulate an artist’s imagination.” The direction of my work changed dramatically because of my education, as well as the way I think about my work – and all art. I didn’t pursue a Masters degree mostly because of where I was in my life. I sincerely wish I could have. Not because I was planning to teach or go into academia, but because I would have been forced to concentrate on developing a body of work in a relatively compact period of time. I had vowed to pursue this goal on my own, but I would have progressed much faster in pursuing the degree. I am not saying that an advanced degree is necessary, but it is a strong catalyst.

  4. When I speak publicly or in interviews, I am often asked this question. My answer is this: having a degree does not make you an artist. In the end, being tenacious in your efforts at creating is what makes you an artist. Aside from technical skills, college does not teach you any of that.

    I have a B.F.A. Except for one glorious year at a small community college not far from NYC, my college experience was not really of much value. I ended up teaching myself everything I needed to know about materials and methods and the business of being creative. Most of all I taught myself to persist and keep going. I taught myself to take risks. And, I had to learn all on my own what it means to put yourself out there in order to seize opportunities.

    There are a few advantages to having at least an art degree, or, even more so, an MFA. If you want to teach at a college level many institutions will not be interested unless you do have a graduate degree. That is one check in the plus column. I’ve also heard that, surprisingly, there are also dealers who are only interested in where you went to school before they will look at you or your work. Sad, but true.

    But, those examples aside, making art and living a life as an artist has nothing to do with having a degree. It is really up to you to build that life by being consistently productive.

  5. I spent 5 years at 4 schools and got a 2 year degree. There is a sense of incompletion, but I’ve learned to live with it.

    Some of the teachers I had were very helpful and encouraging, and some were just appalling in their strange assignments without instruction (“Design a container for air”) and critical attitudes (“Just because you can draw doesn’t make you an artist”). Art instruction was not practical in the late 1970s and early ’80s. There was nothing taught about framing, gallery representation, marketing, reproduction, copyright laws, developing a style, or choosing the subject matter.

    My customers are only interested in the quality of my work, how well it represents our area, how effective I am with my private students, and how easy it is to work with me.

  6. I think you have given the only meaningful answer that exists. The importance of any specific sort of education depends on the individual, their art, their needs, and their goals. An advantage to art school that I don’t think you mentioned is the value of friendships and diverse human connections developed during the course of study, with other artists, including students, teachers, museum directors, and gallery owners. Some of these connections are likely to pay dividends for the rest of the artist’s life.

  7. My formal education and profession are in academia and the sciences and a life-long passion has been in sculpting. I can’t speak for gallery owners or critics and only from my own experience, but I agree very strongly with Jason’s statement that “education has almost no direct impact, though it can have an indirect influence”. Though people often express surprise that a professional scientist could also be a professional artist, I have no evidence at all that my background has had any negative impact on receptivity to me, my work or its marketability. For me, those indirect influences have been deep, powerful, and constant. Two examples are that the scientist’s constant practice of visualizing relationships in terms of graphs has been perfect exercise for visualizing 3D forms in sculpting, and the scientific need to solve physical problems in research helps me in uncountable ways to face the technical problems of working with materials in art. My website has many other examples of similar benefits. It is up to me to make those benefits clear to others through the quality of my work and, lacking formal credentials in art, I have had no real choice but to do that.

  8. It’s really interesting to read your perspective on art education. When I went back to college in 2002, I took every “hands-on” art class I could get into, even though my major wasn’t going to be art. Before graduation in 2006, I was told I only needed art history to graduate with two majors, one in art. I chose not to do it, for three reasons; every student I talked with hated the professor who taught the class, and #2, I didn’t feel like I had anything to “prove” at my age (48), plus it wasn’t my primary major anyway. It’s funny now because my art took off selling faster than doing anything in my primary major. Those were the doors that happened to open. Not having that degree in art hasn’t prevented me from selling art or having gallery representation. I have however run across people who like my art, but are more interested to know if I have a formal art eduction. Once I say no, their demeanor changes and they walk away. You can’t do anything with that. I guess the one thing I got from my art classes, was a backbone to take rejection. After all the critiquing you get from professors, you get thick skin. A professor’s critiquing was to help me get better, but because someone thinks it takes an art degree to validate your work is another. I just don’t let myself go there. You’re right about the cost of education, and I think that is something every person has to decide for themselves. I also think it’s important that everyone continue some sort of informal education, whether from other artists, seminars they attend, or reading. I continue to do all three because I love learning new things, and experimenting with different techniques. I get bored doing the same thing over and over, and over, because it’s no longer challenging. I’m sure this is a weird perspective on art, but at the same time, continuing to educate myself on art, pushes me to fine tune my techniques and get better. Your best education comes from the effort you make to improve yourself.

  9. Georgia O Keeffe said it beautifully and I couldn’t agree more! She said that in art school they taught how to paint a painting like the artist who created the original painting. That wasn’t art! She wanted to paint something that came from her. In addition, when you are teaching kids to paint or draw it is best not to demonstrate how to draw the subject. Let them make there own interpretation. And and and, don’t give them color books. Art shouldn’t be about doing it right or making someone else happy. Give kids blank paper and let them explore. Okay, I’ll step off of my soap box now. And I agree with everything else Jason said. 🙂

  10. As a gallery owner over the years I have heard many accomplished, artists who never attended art school express their concern when it came to outlining their resume’. It is important to bear in mind that art school is not for every artist. Look at how many great artists have provided the world with masterpieces, and they had little, or no formal education at all. Today’s art schools are very different than they were years ago. In the past, it was a place in which an artist could gain direction, skill and knowledge. It was a place in which an artist could experiment as well, and find the starting point of his or her career. Today’s art schools possess very little formal structure, and expect the student to claim a style upon entering school and stick to it. At one time it was the instructors who were the strong talented individuals who had something to offer. Today the standards are low, and I encounter very few art instructors who have much to offer the fine art community from a professional standard. Is art school still worthwhile?…The answer to that is conditional. The student needs to do his research much better, and locate a worthwhile program and find a truly talented set of instructors. If you don’t have an art degree behind you, allow your work to speak for itself. Any intelligent gallery owner knows good art when they see it, and understands that it is the image which overrides any degree.

  11. Quite often those critical of an art school experience did not go to art school. On the other hand I do not remember ever hearing a person who did have an art school experience disregarding those who are self taught. My experience at the York School of Art in England was a stunning, mind blowing experience every day and a lot of nights. My first day in a life drawing class was intense, as I scribbled timidly in the middle of my paper. John Bunting the teacher and a fantastic artist watched my timid effort for a moment and then tore the paper from my board and threw it on the floor. Bunting stepped on the paper and actually did a little dance, rinkeling and scuffing up the surface with his dirty boots. He then picked up the paper and carefully pinned it back on my board. “There” he said, “the surface is ruined”, now relax and draw. What an impact that very personal experience had on me, it was wonderful. I would not have learned all of the lessons that were contained in that one demonstration by myself and so quickly. And that was only the first day. Thank you, you old York School of Art.

  12. I have a Degree from BA in Fine art, I was a poor student according to my Professor, I did not draw large enough according to the professor, and when I told her I wanted to be a Portrait painter I was told I should not prostitute my art with making money.
    I learned most of what I know on my own. I don’t think a degree is important unless you want to teach in a school or College. There are many schools that teach art and do not give degrees. I would rather have gone to the Art Students League in NYC, where they have professional artist teaching class, you pick whom you want to learn from. Unfortunately I went the other route.

  13. I agree that there is no one right answer. I know artists who have never stepped toe in a college, but they found a niche and are making six digits a year as artists. They self studied and are highly determined individuals. I know people who got a 4-year degree and ended up leaving the field altogether. But these individuals had personal issues that they couldn’t quite make themselves push through.
    I have a 2-year degree where I learned a great amount of invaluable art theory and am just finishing up a 4-year degree that is more academically-oriented. The 4-year is from a major university, and I was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. I got a full ride through grants and scholarships. The program was a LOT of hard work, and there is no way that I would have skipped the experience in hind sight. The artists, writers, information and experience that I was exposed to was transforming. My confidence is the best it has ever been in my life. I, personally, needed that confidence.
    It’s all of these different paths that makes each one of us unique as artists. We all need to find our own paths on this journey. I’m being invited to go on to earn a master’s degree, and I’m opting out. I have no intention or desire to teach, as I’ve been a teacher of other disciplines for decades. Now, it’s time to produce.
    What I can say for those considering college is don’t skip the financial aid office. Apply, apply, apply for the grants and scholarships. Grants are issued based on income; scholarships are issued based on academic performance. Work your butt off to get a scholarship. It’s fulfilling and they pay for your classes. There’s a ton of money that is not being claimed…a ton. If you don’t qualify for one or either, you can choose not take student loans and go the independent route. Make sure the college/school you are choosing is accredited and see about transferring any previously earned credits you might have. And keep following Jason and his family. They are good people and know the business.

  14. I have a BFA in Painting and Drawing, and a degree in University studies with an emphasis on Art. I attended 3 different art schools. One as a 17-19 yr old with no desire to go to school but I had gotten a full ride academic scholarship at a well regarded State University..so I went. But it was very difficult because in 1971 we weren’t taught foundations, except for life drawing we were expected to be avant gard, modernistic, and I was not that at the time. I went to a conservative private college after that and their art program suffered because of their conservative take on art. Hyper realism was valued. There was not much there to help. I quit after getting the university studies degree…I just wanted out. Fast forward to 2006 and I was 56 with 2 sons in college and they challenged me to return to school and I did. This time to a state university with a tremendous art and art history school. I had to take everything and I loved it. I made connections, artist friends, found a community. I relished the art history. Yeah I probably didn’t need the degree but I was actually freed from all the previous restrictions of the other 2 schools. It was a tremendous experience. That said, I really think that some formal education can be beneficial. Seeing what others are doing, getting constructive critiques, deadlines and camaraderie are invaluable. But i would not go into debt over it. And I would be very picky about the school and what direction they go in the arts. I do think it helped me get a work ethic and a knowledge of the art world I would have had to research on my own otherwise. I am a proponent for schooling..to widen horizons if no other reason…that can be done with workshops also. Take advantage of education.

  15. Going to Art School in the ’70’s in New Zealand introduced me to a world that would have been difficult to discover in my small home town. I was encouraged to explore and have carried this through out my career as an educator and artist. While much I learnt as far as technique and media goes has been superceeded by new media and ways to apply it, it has been a marvelous stepping stone, and hope I never have to stop learning. Art school was so long ago I can also be considered self taught.
    I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if the person has worked hard to develop their craft.

  16. I was over 50 when I went to college (a promise to myself after working 12 hour days to send four sons through college debt free.) I have always been an artist and produced a lot through the pre-college days. However, I wanted to open my mind and learn from not only teachers and professors in the various disciplines, but from other students as well. I have always thought that the real purpose of any type of art is to make a person think in a deeper, more meaningful, way…not to solve the problems of humanity but to help understand and accept them and possibly help people address them.
    I intentionally have never made a living at producing art even though I have sold pieces through the years. I think one of the reasons is that the selling of the work is far less important to me that the process of creating the work. My best work hangs in the homes of my now married children by their choice.
    After I received my MFA, I went to work at the University School of Nursing as a grant writer and realized how beneficial creating art in all forms was for healing and health. I went back to school (working full time) for my PhD and developed and taught a graduate class (and later an online class) on Utilizing the Fine Arts in Healthcare.
    I am now retired, but I must say that my college education (all 10 years of it) was one of the most gratifying things I have done. It made me a much more thoughtful person and deeper thinker. I now realize that any truly good work of art at the very least should have a historical reference, a political reference, and a personal reference hidden in the work.
    Is it necessary to study art to be an artist? There are Folk artists everywhere that have never even seen other people’s work…so no. Art can be anything and everything. However, a deeper understanding and appreciation of art and what art can be takes study and hard work from the artist as well as the viewer.

  17. If someone wants to purchase a work of art that they just have to have I don’t think they would not buy it because the artist didn’t have a college degree.

  18. I really appreciate this. I am a criminal defense lawyer of 25 years with a business degree for undergrad. I also feel like I have one more career left in me and I want it to be art. I spend at least 10 hours in the studio per week, usually more, and read books and watch videos. But still, I have had this nagging feeling that I will be judged for lack of an art degree and that fear has been more about other artists and gallery owners rather than by consumers. At this point, I am not spending much time with other artists, though I am now taking steps to do so and this has really been kind of a fear of mine. This makes me feel much better. You know, when I am with my fellow criminal defense lawyers, we spend zero time talking about our educations. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different in the art world. At any rate, thanks for this entry and for the blogging. I am reading a lot of it.

  19. I don’t have an art degree and have been a professional artist for over 25 years now. In my opinion, the only people who care if you have a degree or not are the pretentious asses who themselves have BFAs or Ma’s. Sadly, these people are often the gatekeepers to galleries, museums, and other institutions.

    I’ve often considered adding an MFA to my art resumè and calling that act itself ‘art’. 😈

  20. I had always held a fascination for all forms of art, and as a 17 yr old freshman contemplating a major, art was definitely near the top of the list. Then, several events happened, I went home, gave away my brushes and paints, back to campus and settled on a major in engineering.
    That was sixty-five years ago.
    On my eighty-second birthday my wife presented me with all the paraphernalia needed to resume artistic activity along with the admonition: “Don’t you think it’s about time you start up again”?
    In the past year I have completed eighty-seven paintings and will be in five shows during this coming year. (Lord willing)
    Now, would an art degree have been a better way to go? I don’t know. In my case I actually ended up in geology -advanced degrees.
    What I am finding is the wealth of information is staggering in the world of art. You just have to be willing to look and listen. …and work. I also discovered long ago that a piece of paper on the wall does not help a lot when faced with a problem that needs resolution.
    My advice: Read everything you can, try as many avenues as possible, and don’t slow down.

  21. I already had been selling art at 21, when I thought maybe I should go to art school. A friend recommended I meet with a friend of hers , who happened to be an instructor at Art center in Pasadena. I met with him. Upon seeing my work, he emphatically said I didn’t need to go to art school. I was flattered. But I still wondered if it was smart. I had a successful run in the art business. But looking back, now that I am older, Im torn. I kinda wished I was exposed to a broader art community. I also would have been introduced to a variety of mediums and how to use them. On the other hand, I quickly had to learn the battles of the art business. Something art schools dont teach you. I developed a thick skin quickly. I have always been able to sell, shown in galleries and museums and some great commercial prohects, not as much as in the 80s and 90s but learned to navigate the waves of the art biz. I came to know and sell along side those who did go to art school. I continue working. Developing my skills and loving what I do is what keeps me going despite whats going on in the business. Art education doesn’t make you an artist. But it can make you a great artist.

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