Diary of a Crazy Artist: Is Art School a Scam?

September 26, 2012  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

Samuel F. B. Morse “Gallery of the Louvre” 1831-33, a 19th century view of the Salon Carre of the Musee du Louvre.

Hey, I’m only saying out loud what a lot of people are thinking, so don’t shoot the messenger, o.k.?

It’s been painful to see Art consistently ranking among the lowest paid and least marketable degrees in articles like this one on CNBC, this one on CBSthis one on the Huffingtonpost or this one on the job site Monster.com. So either these rankings are an elaborate conspiracy – or they must be true, right?

Seeing these made me think of a friend of mine that used to ramble on about how he thought art school was just a pyramid scheme – where a few people benefit and the rest pay but didn’t benefit much. I would usually laugh it off, telling him, “Dude, you need to stop drinking so much.” But he always insisted that people should “follow the money” and see where it led.

My personal view is that it isn’t so simple because art schools are among the only institutions that actually teach their students to make things in our society which is dominated by service industries. At their best they even provide a sort of refuge from corporate consumer culture.

But then I started thinking. When I was getting my undergraduate degree, my admissions counselor gleefully suggested I take an unpaid internship class to work at a downtown gallery. That class, as it so happens, would have cost me $2,700 and required I show up to work at least two days a week, plus work at the openings. The tuition, which was actually student loan money, wasn’t even mine, so borrowing money to do an unpaid internship just didn’t make sense. In fact, I thought it was a serious rip-off and so I didn’t do it – but I knew people who did.

And who knows, maybe for the right person it was a great deal? Getting access to gallerists and being in the scene and all that hard to quantify stuff might have been worth it for someone. But then there were other classes like English 101, basic math, beginning ceramics, and so on, which at community college would only cost like $100 or $200. At art school they were charging ten times that amount for the same knowledge. Those classes seemed like a real rip-off too. I always wondered why basic classes weren’t any cheaper.

Perhaps the biggest gripe I have heard from my artsy friends is that most art schools offer almost zero job placement help. That’s both during school and after graduation. Sure there might be a place where job listings are thumb tacked to a wall or a something, but that’s not very helpful. What’s really needed is a dedicated mini-art employment agency in art schools. If someone is paying $30,000 a year in tuition it seems fair to expect some kind of advocacy, right?

Yet even if one decides to start teaching, it’s important to know that most art teachers are not unionized and are hired semester to semester. That makes it almost impossible to rely on the job as a way to make a living. Art schools have no incentive to allow collective bargaining or even guarantee work – largely because there are a huge number of graduates each year but few jobs. It’s a vicious cycle because where else but art schools are artists going to look for work?

In this day and age there’s no reason why artists should be still be starving, especially with all the technology and resources available to schools. So I think that if art schools are taking in all that money in tuition and yet don’t help much with job placement or ensuring students leave with marketable skills, why haven’t they made it a priority? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Sure, one could argue that it’s ultimately up to a student to be responsible and acquire job skills and seek out employment on their own – but isn’t that why they are at school in the first place – to figure that out? Can we really blame the students at for-profit schools when they pay $125,000 for a degree and then can’t get a job?

The end result  is that a whole lot of people in the arts (artists, art history majors, writers, young curators) – probably millions in the U.S. -  give up art to do something else that pays the rent. Is that a good thing?

There’s clearly something wrong with the system, but is it a scam? I don’t know. If it is, it’s a very, very elaborate scam and it’s unclear who’s really in control.

However, I’m sure fewer people would feel burned if schools put more effort into job placement and career counseling. There’s nothing quite as nice as the feeling that you went to art school and you can pay your rent. Then when people say to you “Hey get a job” you can say – “Hey, I got one.”

9 Comments

  1. Brenda Says:

    All artists enter the work force as Self Employed individuals. So, you need to learn about that and have enough confidence in your work to make a commitment of that magnitude. Would you rather try it with or without art school? Its up to you and you alone. You don’t get a work placement or job when you want to be a professional artist, you get to be in business for yourself. Likewise, with a degree in English Lit, you don’t necessarily get a job, you focus on what you’ve learned through your degree program and apply yourself to something related including teaching English or becoming a writer or working in PR, etc. If you want certainty, then you should consider becoming a nurse or police officer and there will likely always be job openings someplace. Students don’t generally understand why they are in University or how it works. We’re not forcing you to learn something by stuffing it down your throat. You have a chance to learn something from the process before you go out into the world.

  2. Steven Barich Says:

    There are no guarantees in life.

    Think about what you most often study in art school: the successful artists, the ones that “made it,” the art work in museums…while listening to lectures by artists being paid to speak to you.

    It seems all very plausible that the program you are in—the pathway to art world success—is the way to do it.

    But the reality is, there are far too many artists coming out of art school to even remotely give space and time to exhibit work, nor support financially, even when you combine every opportunity, from pop-up gallery to museum level to art fair.

    It’s a good thing that people—like you Chris—periodically bring this question up, because tuitions keep going up while opportunities seem to stay the same or diminish. Whenever I mentor undergrads, I calmly tell them that, beyond what good things they are learning in their studies, they really must find a commitment to their role as an artist, because it’s a tough world outside the academic walls, and there might not be anyone out there after you graduate to help you, but yourself.

  3. chris cobb Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Steven. You reminded me of when I was an undergraduate and I saw Renny Pritikin do a talk. He was then the Chief Curator of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Something he said stuck with me – that after graduating the problem isn’t so much that people are against you or are trying to stop you form doing things – it’s that people just don’t care. The problem is getting people to care at all about what you do because there is just so much indifference out there. I think that’s still true.

    But you brought up another enormous issue – what is the role of an artist these days? To make shiny things? To be subversive? To become a hustler to survive? Or to simply make art quietly, content with never making a living with art, happy to just get by?

  4. Steven Barich Says:

    Hello Chris,
    Indifference is out there, I think, because there is just too much to take in, in the visual arts. And, it’s ever growing.

    Art school graduates are, unfortunately, joining a glutted profession!

    You wrote: “what is the role of an artist these days?” That is the $64,000 question. If that ever gets answered, we might all be very, very disappointed….

    Furthermore, there is a large gap between promise and reality, when considering the pathway from art school to artist professional. That gap contains A LOT of money. And, that money is NOT in the pockets of the artists.

    Just look at Eleanor’s recent post…and follow up on her links. Even basic survival for the full-time artist professional is an ever elusive dream….

  5. allegra gibson Says:

    I am happy to come upon this post, albeit accidentally. I am an artist with an MFA and BFA from prestigious institutions. If I knew what I knew 15 years ago as I was sending out my undergrad applications, would I have gone to art school? Probably not, if I was looking for a direct return on my investment in the age of capitalism.

    There were work opportunities, like at the career counseling center. However the job pickings were slim to none: outdated listings or unpaid internships or something that wasn’t in my field. There were those paid internships but they had fierce competition

    Years later I am rebooting my art career. I have sold my artwork, had shows at places that weren’t art spaces or galleries, but at least I am getting my work out there. Like any creative peddler, you just have to keep doing that nonstop. You are trying to get found, social media, causal conversation, applying for residencies and keep doing artwork.

    My advice for any art student would be use your mentors to figure out how to effectively talk about your work in order to market yourself effectively. I would have used my mentors as a resource on how to better do this, instead of seeing them as just someone who offers constructive criticism of my artwork

    I do think art school was extremely valuable for opening my eyes to how the role of an artist really can define a positive change to uphold a new paradigm because we are the creators of that.

  6. chris cobb Says:

    Hello Steven & Allegra, I would encourage both of you to check out an entire page of links to artist resources, grants, jobs in the arts that I posted earlier in June. It’s here and might be of some use:

    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2012/06/diary-of-a-crazy-artist-advice-for-poor-and-unknown/

  7. Steven Barich Says:

    That is one hell of list, Chris. Thanks. I missed that post of yours.

    However, one still needs to be able to first afford to be able to leave the current job/life and attend many of those options listed, that is, if they can get in based on the “quality” of their artwork/art practice.

    Art schooling imposes upon the student you can make it in the art world if you work hard and have skills, and the 100k dollar tuition is an educational investment towards that “making it.” Considering the reality that only something like 1% of visual artists are full-time and live well enough to have a home, family, car AND pay off their loans…it is, kinda, a scam. ;-)

    Still, don’t get me wrong: I learned much more in art school when it comes to craft-based skills than I ever could have learned on my own. My teachers gave me the knowledge that I craved, and for that, I thank them in my heart to this day. And, I knew very well that life outside the art school bubble would be grueling hard, which is why I’ve worked so very many avenues in my art practice in order to attempt to establish some sort of foot hold, some sort of stability.

    I’m still working on it! And if it wasn’t for those in my artists network/community that have supported my efforts all these years, it would have never, ever been possible, with an art education alone. If I could chose, I’d rather have shared 100,000 dollars with my colleagues and peers, as trade for all they’ve given me of their time, energy and support.

    Just my 2 cents on the subject. Thanks.

  8. allegra gibson Says:

    Thanks for the wealth of info, really appreciate it.I will check your link out.

  9. Suzanne Says:

    I agree that it is problematic that Art schools and college programs never address how you are going to make a living or pay back your massive debt from attending their classes. I think it also doesn’t help that talking about making money from your art is considered tacky and just wrong to many artists. I have spoken to many artists who consider the idea of trading currency for their art to be absurd. I consider the idea that we are expected to give our talents and skills away for free while doctors and l lawyers, who often aren’t at all talented, get paid handsomely for their lives work, to be insane and downright insulting.

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