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Art School Confidential: 20 Secrets About College Art Degrees

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Some of you know me as an art professor. I teach at a small public college. Many of our students are totally together, smart, talented artists who learn by leaps and bounds, creating strong artworks and gaining both technical and conceptual skills.

But I also still see a lot of common misconceptions about art degrees. Here’s my top list of 20 items that people often misunderstand and don’t tell art students — secrets that everyone seeking a college art degree should know. I wish more professors said these:

1 In most colleges they don’t teach you how to run an arts business. Topics such as How to Network with Galleries, Curators, Museums. Or how to license your illustrations. Alternative ways to build an art career. (thankfully, where I teach we’ve got an arts management degree to offer alongside the art degree… a great combination!)

2 The degree doesn’t matter: the artwork does! In the world outside of college nobody gives an aerobatic rodent’s heinie if you have a degree or not — it’s about the art. Is it Provocative? Fun or Meaningful? Artful? Dextrous? High quality? Reliable? Poetic? Beautiful? Interesting? People are going to look at the art. That is their focus. (Okay this isn’t 100% true, in some cases degrees do matter, like in trying to become an art professor or high school art teacher. But for art shows, it really is the art that matters.)

3 No, you don’t have to know how to draw from observation to succeed as an artist… you could still succeed in the arts without that skill. Lots of photographers do. The arts are strange. Of course if you want to be informed, then you will constantly practice working in visual ways, training your eyes and hands and brains. One way to do that is working from real life to make drawings. It’s not because you have to be a realist. It’s because it’s fast and effective training for your visual acuity. That much said, if your teachers provide a lot of drawing or painting from life, then benefit from it or don’t take their classes. Meanwhile, just what are the basics? I’ve argued for many years that the basics are the human imagination in concert with art media, communicating through the media. Not a specific style or tradition, but the root of all traditions: our visual imaginations.

4 The degree doesn’t amount to much money — in fact no college degree guarantees you a job. But some majors are better at jobs… and when they (the recruiters, the promoters, the … ) tell you that a degree increases lifelong career earnings, they aren’t really counting the artists. Sure, you can use a degree for any purpose that you want — you could get the art degree and become a realtor, librarian, paralegal — there’s many non-art possibilities. But I’d bet that other majors would be even better for that. Meanwhile, the better question for the self-employed artist is “What in the world would I want a job for anyway? How can I survive and make more art?”

5 Student loans are stupid. For the art degree anyway. I suggest avoiding all financial debts as much as possible. It’s much better financially, as an artist, to have no or low debt than to have to work extra hours to payoff high debts. It’s better to pay for college by working your way through college and end up with little or no debt, even if it takes an extra year or two to do so, then it is to rush through and end up with a lot of debt.

6 Some experimental work is important creatively, but doesn’t pay the bills. If you made highly experimental performance/installation art, your potential audiences are a very small group of curators and maybe a few other performance/installation artists — good luck with earning a living.

7 Almost nobody wins the individual artist grants. Do not count on grant writing for your main sources of income.

8 Do your research ahead of time and don’t go to just any art school. Not every school is right for every style of art. What your professors value may have little or nothing to do with how you should earn a living and what your potential clients will need and want from you. Please don’t think you’re going to get training to become the Greatest Anime Artist on the Planet if none of your teachers do graphic novels, cartoons, anime/manga. If they aren’t experts in it, they can’t teach it to you.

9 Mad computer skills can be big money. If you really want college to give you a career, then learn to code. Everything for websites… HTML5, PHP, Flash, CSS, etc. And learn all the Adobe programs at least. And Java.

10 Basic health, physical fitness and eating right matters more than just about anything for guiding your career. Taking care of yourself helps your brain. If problems arise (and they will), seek serious medical help.

11 Science literacy: a reasonable, questioning skepticism is a lot more important than you think it is. Don’t be an anti-science artist, and know the difference between good science and dumb headlines that show up all over the Internet. When you’re in college, learn good critical thinking. Remember the artist Goya’s words “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts, the origin of their marvels.”

12 If you hope to sell artworks using online venues, then you should be building your online platforms while you’re in school. Not after. But when you’re online, quit being a teenager and start being a pro… learn the difference between using social networks as a business compared to for fun, as a person.

13 Grade inflation is real. Almost everybody gets A’s and B’s in most courses. Grading in studio art is often the least of the student’s and professor’s worries. Making art is the focus. If you’re thinking about your grade too much then you’re missing the point: its about the art and art making, not the grade. Focus on your craft, not on the grades.

14 C’s get degrees. Okay so although (13) is true, some students do get bad grades in college. In high school, this is a real issue because good grades can help you qualify to win acceptance at the better colleges. But unless you’re bound for graduate school, don’t worry about it unless your averaging below a C . If you got all C’s, at most colleges you’d still finish the degree. What does this mean for you? You can probably study less. Which means you have a lot more time for making more and better art. So make the art, right now. Do it. And, in art school if you’re really invested in making art, I bet your grades improve by default.

15 Every artist goes through rough spots in their lives and careers. Sometimes we go for years with no critical or market success at all. Lack of market success is really annoying and depressing. We all find ways to get through the inevitable rejections. For more on this topic see this link: Experienced Pro Responds: How Do You Handle Rejection?

16 Being in a major museum show is like winning the PowerBall Lottery: extremely rare and unlikely. Most artists earn livings far outside of these big-name arenas.

17 Going Indie is a real option– that is, creating your own online shops, self-built galleries, self-publishing, and so on can all be great options today. They are real and legitimate sources of income for many artists, writers, and musicians. But they are not less work. Their beauty is in how you get to keep and maintain control of your art.

18 Being Good at Something doesn’t mean you’ll be recognized for it. It has its own rewards, of course, but building audiences and clients is about marketing, promotion, connecting with people, publicity and advertising. Similarly, having an incredible work ethic doesn’t mean your art will or should sell. Sometimes doing a lot less work gets better results and more sales.

19 You are an adult. College professors, advisors, staff and peers will treat you as such. Make your own mistakes and own them. Make them frequently and learn as much as you can from them. Take charge of your learning. No one’s going to do it for you, few will kick you in the ass when you’re not performing, or police you. You have to be self-motivated.

20 Every artist has fears. Fears about the quality of his/her art, fears about people understanding the art, etc. For the most part, people don’t notice your fears.

Gregory Scheckler

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