Choosing an Art School or a College for Artists

I quit teaching at a community college in 2016 to become a full-time artist. (I was a tenured professor with 17 years at the college.) Since then, it’s been a pretty good experience and I’ve actually been making a very good living doing it and sometimes I wonder how I got here. One of the things that I keep doing now that I’m in my late 50s is thinking about decisions I made when I was a young person and what things I did right and what things I did wrong and what I wish that I could go back in time and tell my 18-year-old self. This is the advice that I would give myself when I was choosing to start as a college student.


Should Art Students Go to a School Entirely Devoted to Art Practice? (I don’t think so.)

My advice to my past 18-year-old self would be to avoid going to art school and instead go to a liberal arts college and major in art history or another liberal arts discipline such as history or even economics and study painting and drawing at a private atelier, such as those given by artists, or schools such as the Art Students League in New York or schools that teach painting techniques that I would want to learn.

 Although I spent a year and a half at the University of Cincinnati as an art major, I found that I really didn’t get very much from either of the two programs devoted to studio arts that I attended as an undergrad. Here’s why I think this is the case.

Why Should You Avoid Art Schools?

Debt and expense. Art schools are a bad investment. They are super expensive and often the outcome isn’t better for creating successful artists that other schools. 

The focus for most fine and performing art programs that I’ve attended and taught in is the creation of more academic (teachers and professors) rather than artists.

They are unfocussed and designed to give you a breadth of experiences rather than a focus on a particular style or technique. 

The undergraduate experience for studying studio art at most colleges is very flawed, is designed with a one size fits all kind of philosophy, and in general doesn’t focus enough on one particular technique or ideology for most students because undergraduates who art majors are expected to study with a wide variety of professors with a wide variety of approaches to making art. However, if you look at the careers of these professors as artists, I think that most of them couldn’t make a living as an artist and rely on a tenured teaching position in order to continue to be able to make art. Also, if you look at the exhibition records of most of these professors who are at our colleges and art schools, it may put some doubt in your mind about how successful they are as an artist. (I think this may be true even for creative writing programs and performing arts.)

But I still want to got to an Art School.  How do I choose?

You have to do real research and not depend on the catalogs and information the school send you.

If you do want to go to college and go to an art focused institution such as the Rhode Island school of Design or, the School of Visual Arts in New York, the Pratt Institute or Savannah College of Art and design etc. there’s probably a better criterion for picking a school rather than the school’s overall reputation and/or the location of the school. The measure or criterium that I would suggest is to specifically research the professors who teach in the programs are interested in and find out if you are aligned with the kind of art they make, and their level of success in the art world rather than in the academic world.

Can you find students who attribute their success to a particular instructor?

What do the professors do his art professionals outside of school?

Do these professors make good art?

I’m suggesting that art students look at the people they are going to go study with and see if that teacher is worth the extra tuition of going to that particular institution. You have to decide if you like that professor’s artwork if that professor is respected in the art world and you should also read reviews of the professors teaching and contact some of those professors’ former students to see if those professors have helped those students in any significant way.

Another way of researching or deciding what would be a good college for you to attend is to look at who graduated from that college and where they are now in terms of their professional arts career. For example, some of the more successful painters such as Kehinde Wiley, David Hockney, John Curran, Jordan Casteel, all went to really good art colleges and made the most out of the experience especially socially. They connected with the right people and also with the right professors and art professionals and made the most out of the experience of going to art school especially at a prestigious institution. If you were to look into an artist that you think is very successful and check out their resume you may find clues as to how you could follow in those artists’ footsteps.

Anecdotal Evidence Based on My Career

Here some anecdotal information about myself in my experience as an undergrad and my experiences going to colleges.

Probably the most significant art education and training that I got as a young person was my experience going to the High School of Art and Design.  In high school I had an excellent painting instructor named Irwin Greenberg.  Greenberg ran an early morning painting class that was voluntary in which he showed us oil and watercolor techniques and allowed us studio time to work from live models. He also ran some illustration classes during the school day where he taught the same techniques. My career most closely mirrors his career. 

Greenberg taught during the day and had studio sales and sometimes gallery shows of his art and made a good income by being a teacher and supplementing that income by having a private studio and painting as much as he possibly could in the hours work, he wasn’t teaching. Greenberg was born teacher and so he continued to teach at the school of visual arts in New York and I think he might’ve also given private lessons but through all of that time he painted as much as he possibly could and sold semiprivate leaf through studio sales and occasionally through galleries. A close associate of his who is also a teacher at Art and Design High School was Max Ginsberg who left teaching in the early 80s to pursue painting full-time and has had a robust in full career doing that since then.

My college experiences were not as good. I went to the University of Cincinnati as a studio arts major.  I studied there for about a year and a half and most of the teachers I had were graduate students going for their MFA there. 

I had a couple of full-time professors who exhibited in frequently and didn’t have much of a reputation nor career as a professional artist. Interestingly enough, the two most influential teachers I had Joe Norman and Daniel Ludwig both went on to become professors at other colleges and have robust careers as artists as well. However, I feel like I really learned the most in my basic drawing class and the rest of my experiences at the University of Cincinnati really didn’t train me very well to become a painter but, the art history courses and general and courses I took were so mind expanding that when I transferred to go to the City University of New York, Lehman College, in the Bronx I changed my major to Art History with a minor in the Honors Program.  I took an occasional studio class but found them almost useless. Instead, I have a lot more success learning how to paint and draw by getting books out of the library that were how-to books as well as watching art videos and studying art history. Throughout my undergrad experience I continued to paint independently in a realist style basing my technique in the techniques that I had learned from Irwin Greenberg in high school.

Throughout my entire undergrad experience, I had only one studio teacher (Joe Norman) train me significantly in drawing and painting.  Almost none of my studio instructors take a significant interest in my development as an artist nor did any of them do me any favors by introducing me to art professionals that they knew.  Teachers and professors simply did not want to help and were often strangely destructive.

 In fact, a friend overheard one of my instructor’s advice a judge to not give me an award because he felt I didn’t work hard enough and I hadn’t worked hard enough on the art that I was going to be awarded best in show for. The judge ignored the advice and I won. 

This is a theme that seems to be pretty consistent with many of the professors and teachers that I’ve encountered throughout the years both as a student and a teacher. The jealousy and the behind-the-scenes backstabbing are incredible.  I had similar experience in graduate school.  Professional jealousy, apathy, and self-interest interfered with most professors’ help to most of the students and I heard hundreds of horror stories in which professors refuse to help or literally sabotaged their protégés.

This essay is the expression of someone who is a bit of a malcontent and is certainly bitter after looking back at 35 years of an academic’s career. You should do your own research because there are stories about successful artists who had great experiences both in undergrad and graduate schools.

You will find that many of that attribute their success to a key educator who introduce them to a gallery or two and impresario or gallerist who helped make their career. If you look at the careers of David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and others you will see that there are two kinds of stories and experiences in which either an artist, a colleague, or a teacher did something that literally made that artists career. It’s just that this is the exception to the rule and not the rule itself. So, if you’re planning on going to a four-year undergraduate experience, specifically at an art college which will be very expensive, do your research. Find out as much as you can about the professors who teach there.  Find out as much as you can about success stories and students who have come out and made a name for themselves and see who they studied with and try to reproduce their experiences.

My thesis, or main idea, is probably one that most people reject out of hand which is, I don’t think that it will really help your career to go to a specifically art-oriented college to become an artist. What I would suggest instead for most people who want to become an artist after they leave college is for them to go to a liberal arts college and major in subjects such as art history, history, humanities, business in general the liberal arts and for the same students to minor in studio art. If you’re really interested in becoming an artist and getting trained probably the best experiences you will have would be to study with an individual artist or at a supplemental art atelier.

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