No, GO to Art School

In the post-Internet age, the traditional model of learning a discipline in the creative arts—i.e., completing a four-year program at a brick-and-mortar college or university—is being questioned.

With rising tuition costs, more people are asking, “Are art schools worth it?” Criticisms leveled against art schools are many. And even though I agree with some of them, I will always advocate for art schools. Here’s why:

THE ISSUE

The critique of art schools goes something like this: They can saddle 22-year-olds with debt in the six figures. They kick graduates to the reality curb, arming them with only a subpar liberal arts foundation and an unremarkable portfolio. Their level of instruction on running a business amounts to “You can write off some of your rent!” Their student/teacher relationships are rife with favoritism. Impressionable students willingly change their natural styles in exchange for better grades. Some teachers are recycled graduate students, or out-of-touch, or worse: opportunists. And unbridled tuition increases climb ever higher—leaving the middle class behind.

The alternatives posed involve some combination of:

  • Online classes

  • Online mentorships

  • Webinars

  • Books

  • Visits to galleries, museums, or shows

  • Workshops

To a certain degree, the argument against art schools makes sense. It preaches responsible money management, and it encourages self-motivated learning. What’s more, with an Internet connection, a library card, a small donation, and one or two larger expenses, you could have access to about as much information as a comparable class at a “top art school”—at a fraction of the cost. And therein lies my first counterargument: college is much more than information.

THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE

I completed an accredited four-year undergraduate illustration program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Many of the lessons I learned at RISD were found in the space between classes. The experience gained, the friendships developed, and the life lessons learned still enrich my professional life today. 

Yes, you could join an open drawing class, or a local critique group, or an online community. I encourage you to. But none of these options is the same experience as attending a respected college in which the students are all vetted, talented, and dedicated. More than the college experience, more than the lessons taught, the value truly lies in being in the same room, all day, every day, for four years, with some of the best young artists in the world.

Steven Guarnaccia, Associate Professor of Illustration at Parsons The New School for Design, put it this way: “I think the greatest benefit of going to art school is the shared experience of discovering, debating, and practicing one’s craft and ideas about art with a group of one’s peers, under the tutelage of a skilled guide, i.e., the teacher.”

Guarnaccia goes on to say, “To be in a close setting with fellow students going through the same rigorous training and the same activity of challenging one’s perceptions and preconceptions is an invaluable experience that I don’t think can really be replicated in any other way.” 

Our college experiences vary, of course. My classmates came from all parts of the world, with interests in all kinds of disciplines. We were forced together—and that taught me perspective (not the three-point kind). You can’t really gain that experience by focusing solely on seminars, conferences, and online communities—where people are more likely to enjoy similar things, and think in similar ways.

“The search for what to paint and how to paint it is difficult to achieve in isolation.”—Marshall Arisman, School of Visual Arts

Marshall Arisman, Chairman of the Master of Fine Arts Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts, adds, “Students thrive and grow in a structured environment that expands their definition of what art is. The search for what to paint and how to paint it is difficult to achieve in isolation.”

WHY RISD?

In what is becoming the slogan of the anti–art school crowd, a top art school tuition is “more expensive than Harvard!” While true, that brings me to my second counterargument: “top.

Remove “art” and “school” from the equation. That leaves “top.” The top anything is going to cost you. Saying “Don’t go to art school because RISD is expensive” is like saying “Don’t drive because you can’t afford an Aston Martin.”

I’m sure I got my first design job (at Simon & Schuster) due in large part to having RISD on my résumé. It sure as hell wasn’t from my portfolio, which was a piss-poor Dave McKean–inspired mess. But I didn’t have to go to RISD . In my college search, Maryland Institute College of Art, Savannah College of Art and Design, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Syracuse, Carnegie Mellon, and Cooper Union were all considered. 

I’ve learned, many years later, that it doesn’t have to be “top art school or bust.” I would have been fine going to any other good art school.

CHERRY PICKER

I’m a big fan of online classes, webinars, podcasts, and blogs. They’re highly specialized content produced by highly respected artists. And yet, this brings me to counterargument number three: specialization.

So much of what we learn from college doesn’t necessarily come from the classes we want to take. Requirements force us to take classes we wouldn’t take on our own. Pat Cummings, Professor at Pratt Institute, agrees. “With a DIY approach, I don’t think you get exposure to a range of media and disciplines that school ‘forces’ you to experiment with.” This more structured setting teaches range and accountability. You have to learn it. 

“It’s about taking creative risks and maybe seeing multiple solutions they didn’t even imagine.” —Tom Garrett, Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Art school also presents different ways to think and create—a wider view. Tom Garrett, Professor in the Design Department at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, says, “[Students] are encouraged not just to mimic others or polish existing work. Instead, projects are developed to challenge and to push the student outside of their comfort zone. A good classroom experience should be a safety net and allow for failure as part of the process of experimentation. It’s about taking creative risks and maybe seeing multiple solutions they didn’t even imagine.”

Outside of this classroom setting, we aren’t challenged as hard. That’s my problem with the sentiment that everything you want to learn is online—you could force yourself to learn different disciplines, but the reality is that a lot of us don’t. As a result, we tend to fall back on what we already know.

In any given semester, the varied techniques introduced to students help broaden their skill sets. To this day, I still use what I learned in figure drawing, Renaissance painting techniques, sculpture, and others to inform my book design choices. 

WANT A JOB?

Minimum Requirement: a four-year college degree.” Look familiar? If you check the job boards, you’ll find counterargument number four: Full-time, career-track positions require a degree.

I’ve hired quite a few full-time book designers and interns, and in every case, I’ve asked for a degree. Designers with a formal education are simply better suited to fill the needs of a children’s book art department.

At the same time, when my designers and I hire freelance illustrators, we don’t look at your degree. I know a few talented and successful illustrators who never went to art school. Art directors just want good art. That being said, I suspect that most illustration we see published today is good because the illustrator went to art school.

STUDENT EVALUATION

Art school is valuable to the student who sees the experience as valuable to them. —C.F. Payne, Columbus College of Art and Design

All of what’s been said so far in this article assumes that the student will uphold their end of the bargain. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. C.F. Payne, renowned artist and professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design, explains: “Whether it is art school or any college institution, the student attending has to have a level of maturity, discipline, and focus. Art school is valuable to the student who sees the experience as valuable to them. The student who dutifully does their homework on time, is self-motivated to create without prodding and is open to the instruction that is designed for personal growth puts themselves in a better position to succeed. The student who recognizes the value of establishing bonds and friendships with equally serious classmates increases their chances for success. And this is with an understanding that success is not defined the same for everyone.”

To you the illustration student, here are some words of advice:

  • Take your four years seriously. This isn’t summer camp. You or your parents are paying dearly for this privilege. You owe it to yourself, your family, and your classmates to make the most out of this education. 

  • Grow up. College is a test run for the real world—a world in which you will be counted on to meet deadlines, communicate maturely, contribute effectively in meetings, and acknowledge the contributions of others. It’s not funny, cool, or original to be chronically late, asleep in class, or nonparticipatory.

  • Learn to communicate online. After graduation, a large part of your workload will involve emailing clients. I’m not asking you to be robots. Your personality can shine through in communicating with clients; but leave the LOLZ at home.

IT’S NOT ALL VAN GOGH SUNSHINE AND UL DE RICO RAINBOWS

I’m not going to convince you that an illustration degree from one of the top art schools is worth several hundred thousand dollars. That’s because no one can—not even art schools. Critics of high tuitions will never be fully convinced—nor should they. As a father of three similar-aged children, putting them through college in ten years could collectively cost my family half a million dollars

If my kids want to go to art school, what will the landscape look like? An anonymous professor at multiple art schools says that art school is facing a time of great change. Fewer eligible high schoolers are being produced by the American public school system—placing a strain on the more talented students and the teachers in class, and on the schools’ budgets. Another source shared this frustration: “Our administration isn’t in touch with the professors. You don’t meet them. Some aren’t even artists.” This isn’t exactly what I want to hear as a parent. To be fair, I imagine most colleges and universities are facing similar issues.

So many years after graduating from RISD, I firmly believe it was worth it. Having said that, it wasn’t perfect. It was very good, but for the money, it should have been excellent. I was poorly prepared for the real world. I don’t think I got as much out of my tuition as I could have. Some (if not a lot) of that is my fault. I should have demanded more information, pressed teachers to show more and say more. I never once asked for names of art directors!

At school visits, I now tell students to ask for more. More advice. More information. More honest criticism. More recommendations. More job prospects. More art director visits. More exposure.

I interview a fair share of recent grads from top art schools, and some of the things they don’t know or don’t do are shocking. I’ve seen cobbled-together portfolios, horribly executed résumés, missing websites, poor interview skills, you name it. Before I make recommendations on how art schools can provide more value, here are a few caveats: I’ve never run a school program. Some art schools out there do what I’m proposing. I have friends and colleagues in academia, and by no means does this take anything away from the good work they are doing. Ultimately, the students are responsible for themselves.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR UNDERGRADUATE ILLUSTRATION PROGRAMS

  • Partner with a publisher. Work with several editorial or children’s book art directors on real assignments (a magazine spot or a book cover). The winning piece would get published, and the student would be paid. All students would gain the experience of working with an art director. And they’d make polished portfolio pieces.

  • Mailing list. The biggest hurdle for most new illustrators is the dreaded mailing list. There should be a semester-long assignment in the fall of senior year in which students are taught how to make their own list. Whether they pass or fail the class would be contingent on submitting a list of two hundred contacts for review. Voilà, everyone has a mailing list.

  • Promotional piece. Now that the students have a mailing list, ensure they have two hundred good promotional mailers, and a book of stamps.

  • Approved website. No art student should be allowed to graduate without a good website. Period.

  • Proficiency in programs. No art student—in any discipline—should be allowed to graduate without good working knowledge of at least InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. “Proficiency in Creative Suite” is a minimum requirement for most full-time art and design jobs. Let’s say you want to carve marble for the rest of your life; you’ll still need these programs to help with your website, mailers, posters, logos, and any other visual support needed for your business.

  • Invite more clients. Bring in editors, agents, and art directors far more frequently. I know it’s easier said than done. This is an administrative issue about which I know very little. However, the benefit for the students, the school’s profile, and the faculty far outweighs the cost.

  • Where are the students? I visited a few dozen school websites during my research, and on most, the websites of the students were either many clicks deep or nonexistent. It should take no more than two clicks to get to a student showcase page featuring the senior class and their URLs.

  • Use Alumni. Again, I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of every Alumni and Career Services department in every art school in the nation. I’m simply basing my views on my experiences. And in my experience, I get asked for money more frequently than I get asked to hire or meet students. I would love to receive a newsletter every April (at least!) that showcases the graduating class in both illustration and design.

  • The “boring stuff.” While discussing copyrights and contracts, a teacher said to my graduate class, “This is the boring stuff.” I know what she was saying—it’s not as exciting as making art. But I think half of my class stopped listening. This “boring stuff” is the difference between a career and no career. As boring as it may be, it’s incredibly important, which is why a class called “Copyrights and Contracts” should be mandatory for all illustration students. Bring in an agent or attorney or some other contracts specialist to teach the class.

YOUR CALL

Payne cuts through the minutiae of this debate by pointing out that “art school is not for everyone. I would note that statement equally applies to all majors for all colleges and universities.”

The unavoidable fact is that art schools do cost a lot of money, and there’s no guarantee of employment. Should people go to art school? That’s difficult to say because we all learn differently, and we all come from different backgrounds. In Arisman’s view, “All education in any field is too expensive. Having said that, if you feel that being surrounded by a community of fellow artists, a distinguished faculty, exposure to writing, history, and philosophy will have a positive impact on your artistic voice, then art school should be considered.”

Whitney Sherman, Director of the Master of Fine Arts in Illustration Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art, believes that the focus is too firmly placed on cost and not on the importance of an education in art and design. She explains, “The discussion of cost for education often gets more ‘press’ than discussion on the value for education, especially on learning in subjects that are undervalued in the broader educational system. We still see arts programs cut in financially difficult times in elementary through high school, which reinforces the thinking that art practices are a luxury, further placing art colleges in jeopardy of being seen as a low return on investment.”

The entire art school debate is predicated on one thing. Without this one thing, nothing else about the debate matters. I’ll let Payne explain the one thing, and have the last word: “The business of art is constantly in flux [on how] artists can achieve success, and art schools are doing their best to adapt and redesign their curriculum to adapt. All the changes, all the adaptations, all the effort, and all the schooling can’t change the one thing an artist must have to be successful. You have to be good.”


I’d like to thank Marshall ArismanPat CummingsTom GarrettSteven GuarnacciaC.F. Payne, Whitney Sherman, and Laura Stiers for their time, generosity, and invaluable contributions to this article. This is an important discussion—with good points on both sides of the argument. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.