Art school and the 'real world': strong link needed

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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.

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.

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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.

That view rubs many art schools the wrong way. They view their role as fostering self-expression with their students and not as teaching them how to get by.

"If that is the real world -- dealing with galleries, getting a loft -- then than is not the world we are preparing the. We are rather snooty here. We are preparing them for the world of art," stated Paul Resika, chairman of the Master of Fine Arts Department of Parsons School of Design in New York. "If you want to connect up to galleries, do it after you graduate. The outside world has always been something of a secret society to art students."

A student of Hans Hofmann, the great abstract expressionist who developed his own private life drawing school in the 1940s and '50s, Resika noted that the important thing for artists to know is "Do they have anything they want to do and express? An artist is someone who wants to do something whether he is paid or not."

historically, art schools in their current form are quite recent. When the artists of the abstract expressionist period attended life drawing and painting classes, they might receive certificates of attendance, if they stayed with one school long enough. Philip Pavia, a sculptor, remembered going to one school during the day and another in the evening, depending upon how much he could afford.

The GI enabled thousands of people to enroll in colleges after World War II, and this spurred a dramatic growth in the number of art schools and in those people who were now able to afford to pursue their interest in art. Society pressures for a degree, felt most strongly in the past 20 years, have also aided art school enrollment, although the art market has never grown as fast to be able to support this ever-increasing number of degreed artists. Many artists found that the only jobs open for people of their talents were as art teachers and instructors, and students now look for a degree from one institution so as to teach at another.

When Mr. Pavia was hopping from class to class, there were very few successful American artists on whom to model one's career. There was less chance of making a living by selling works and, he noted, "I think we were more dedicated as a group of being artists than students today because it was harder going. Now you stay a few years and if you can't make a go at it, you go into something else."

Chuck Close, a painter and 1964 master's graduate of the Yale University art department, pointed out that students today have higher expectations than when he was in school.

"I didn't expect a lot of things to happen for me," he pointed out. "I always knew that I would have to find a way of supporting myself and my art. When I was in school, the Frank Stellas, the Andy Warhols, were making it, but it was not clear to what extent they were going to make it. We've since seen more and more people have more and more success at a younger age, and this has raised expectations among students. They now believe that you can make a living from art. What was a surprise for me became expected by the nex t generation of artists."

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