Go to art shows in San Francisco and you’ll hear people brag drunkenly about how much sex they’re having. You’ll hear all about who’s dating who, who cheated on who and so forth. But what you won’t hear is people bragging about how much money they’re making from their art. The ugly truth is that most artists in San Francisco carry an outrageous amount of student loan debt yet nobody wants to talk about it because, well, it’s unpleasant.
So people talk about other things instead – Sex. Parties. Drugs. Music. Shitty jobs. Survival. Art. Facebook. In fact there’s an endless amount of things to discuss and almost anything is more interesting than debt. Besides, in an environment where everybody is living on borrowed money there is zero incentive to change the system. You can’t do anything about it so what’s the point of worrying?
Banks benefit from being the lenders, the government collects interest, students get to pay their rent and go to school, and so what’s the harm in it all? The harm I’d say is that boy-oh-boy art school is expensive!
Right now one semester at the San Francisco Art Institute will cost you a sobering $16,212. At the California College of Art a semester of tuition is a mind-bending $17,436 and at Mills it will set you back a cool $18,214. That means a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute currently costs $129,696.
You better hold on to your hats because with tuition rising each semester, a BFA will soon cost a whopping $200,000! Try paying that off with a minimum wage job! The simple fact is that student loans follow you and affect your credit and if not managed carefully they can ruin your credit and make it difficult or impossible to find a good apartment, buy a new car or – God forbid – buy a house.
Ironically, many of the companies that own vast student loan portfolios were themselves bailed out by the government. Bailed out to the tune of 800 billion dollars! Despite all the corruption, nepotism, bad business and out right criminal activities, the banks and other financial companies were responsible for was overlooked. They could default on all their loans, be guilty of a plethora of crimes including insider trading and still come out ahead. Remarkable, isn’t it? In fact a number of those companies now are showing some of the biggest profits in their history! Just imagine if in tomorrow’s newspaper we could see the headline ”Congress Passes The Student Loan Bail Out Act of 2011!” That would free millions of people from being indebted to the very financial companies who hold all of our loans and got the bail out in the first place. But don’t hold your breath, it will never happen.
Seriously though – isn’t it reasonable that if you go to school and get a degree that you should be able to make at least a middle class living doing what you were trained to do? After all, other professions have managed to figure it out. But how many artists in the Bay Area even make a middle class income as self-employed artists? Or how many poets, painters, potters, curators, administrators, gallerists, writers, critics, art teachers are being sustained just through their work? Does anyone really know? It’s the elephant in the room and nobody is taking about it.
Strictly speaking, as an artist wanting to be middle class, one would have to make at least $50,000 a year (give or take a few thousand). So if you sell art through a gallery, most galleries will take a 50% commission off the top. Then you still have to pay taxes on your 50%! So to make $50,000 a year selling your art you would really need to sell over $100,000 a year to get there. Something to consider, to be sure.
Put all these facts together and you get a compelling argument against pursuing an art degree. It is compelling except for one simple and very serious truth: Art isn’t just about money. It never has been. Art is a deeply human activity and is a vital part of how our culture expresses itself. Identity and creativity and innovation are all borne out of art education. Art schools are actually somewhat of a shelter from the consumerist mentality because they teach people to make things and to think critically. The many roles artists play in society are vital and needed. The entire country can’t just be made up of soldiers, cops, farmers, CEOs and bankers, can it? Art is about imagination and possibility and if anything, art schools should be free. I am not trying to bring anyone down but I think there are a lot of ways to be an artist that don’t involve taking on such crushing debt. The first step though, is to talk about it.
There probably are no real solutions but look on the bright side – in another 15 years when a BFA costs $500,000, people will look back at 2011 and say what a bargain $129,696 was!