Art school and the 'real world': strong link needed
Of all professions, "artist" may be the most precarious and certainly the least likely to generate income. The Census Bureau claims that the median income for visual artists under 29 years of age is $4,700. At 30 and over, that median is $8,600 -- and even that is income from all sources, not just from the sale of artworks.Skip to next paragraph
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But like business management, journalism, and librarianship, art has become a specialization, complete with degree- granting schools and a sense of professionalism. Young artists once had gone off to Paris, when that was where the action was, to "be" with major artists, or had attended life drawing classes to develop or keep us their skills. Now almost every aspiring young artist goes to art school. The reasons are partly the increase in population, partly society's general awareness of and interest in the arts, and partly the heightened activity in the market for artworks -- more young people are looking for careers as artists and expecting to succeed.
Thousands of students graduate from art schools every year, but many are unprepared for the outside world they are entering. How do you approach a gallery? How do you put together a portfolio? How do you set up a studio? Should I look for a job related to my skills or not? Instead, art or art's sake lives at many of the nation's art schools.
Certainly, art schools are far from deserving condemnation. They handle a larger number of aspiring artists than ever existed in the history of the world, and they do it in a way that attempts to replicate the traditional studio training as best they can. But in so doing, they have tended to isolate students from real-world concerns and thus have in many cases fostered unrealistic expectations by many artists for their postgraduate years.
"It took me several years to get over art school and relate it to the real world," said Jim Sullivan, a painter and 1961 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. "I had no sense of what to do when I graduated. The teachers were not connected to the world of contemporary art -- they didn't even discuss Polllock or de Kooning -- and as role models they were too remote."
Robin Rose, a Washington, D.C., painter and 1970 graduate of art of Florida State in Tallahassee, also recalled a period of difficult adjustment after his graduation.
He noted that the work one does in art school "has little basis to your life. Everyone is approving this and disapproving that, relating to each other in a perfect atmosphere. They don't tell you how things are and how to deal with it. They don't teach you how to deal in business, and you find yourself dealing with businessmen. Art dealers are businessmen."
He added that the only "real" thing one has to hold on to in art school is the art magazines and that students have a tendency to try to imitate the work they see there: "It's something real to base your illusions on."
Some schools recognize this deficiency on the part of their graduates and have established "survival courses" designed to teach real-world skills, everything from protecting copyright and making up consignment agreements for galleries to how to find and keep a loft.