Even though I discovered my passion for photography early on, I didn’t start college pursuing a studio art degree. I liked the idea of going to school for art, but there were a few things holding me back.
First of all, I lacked the self-confidence in my work to think that I could be accepted into a competitive program. Secondly, I had reservations about pursuing photography because I couldn’t envision what a career would look like after I graduated.
So, thanks to my own insecurities and uncertainties about my future, I started at Arizona State University as a Digital Culture major.
My Digital Culture Adventure
The program was as vague as it’s title implies.
And it didn’t take long for photography to find it’s way back into my life; by the start of my sophomore year, I began pursuing it as a second major.
But long story short, Digital Culture was better in theory. Halfway through my junior year, I felt like I’d gotten all that I could out of the program so I decided to call it quits.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad!
I met some really intelligent, creative students. The faculty members were beyond brilliant. But as I reached the upper-division classes, I didn’t feel challenged or motivated to continue.
Fortunately, many of the lessons learned in Digital Culture pop up now and then because the program was so forward-thinking. There were also lots of nuances I learned that I now carry with me everywhere I go, like this golden nugget:
“The job you’ll end up with 10 years from now doesn’t exist in the world today.”
I mean, as an art graduate that often wonders what in the world I’m doing…I’ll gladly take it.
In fact, that little piece of advice is what made me feel confident in my decision to ditch Digital Culture for good and study photography full-time.
I realized that it didn’t really matter what I went to school for; what mattered was developing a drive to succeed and the ability to teach myself whatever I needed to know to pursue my dreams. And at the time, I felt that a studio art program would do a better job at that than something that sounded more practical, like Digital Culture.
Even now, I still believe I made the right choice, but I will admit that an art degree (like most degrees) isn’t perfect.
The Real Problem With Art School
On Friday, I shared a video defending art degrees, but I want to make sure I’m not misleading you. While I’m 100% behind anyone getting an education in the arts, figuring out what comes next isn’t always easy.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that one of the reasons why I didn’t initially begin college as an art student was because I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing for income after school.
Well, I still didn’t have that answer by the time I got my diploma.
When you study art, you’re setting yourself up for a variety of possibilities in your future…but no one really explains that while you’re in school. If anything, the only concrete path that a BFA seems to lead to is pursuing an MFA, and then teaching. But teaching jobs are scarce, especially if you’re hoping to land a job in higher education.
It’s no secret that becoming a full-time artist is extremely difficult, and going to art school (or any school for that matter) is expensive. So what are students supposed to do after graduating? Are arts programs doing enough to help them get there? If not, where does art school fall short?
ART PROGRAMS AREN’T BEING COMPLETELY REALISTIC
By now, you might know that the whole reason for me beginning aftrART is because I felt really lost after graduating, despite plenty of success and experience accumulated during school.
Up until June 2016, I was stuck in a miserable, part-time retail job and I couldn’t afford to continue making art.
My problem was that it took about a year for me to see the marketable job skills I had developed in school, because no one really pointed them out to me. Throughout my education, the only conversations we had about what happens after graduation centered around the idea of pursuing the arts.
Yes, I think art students should be consistently encouraged to keep making art after graduating — that should take priority. But we also need to be realistic: you can’t make art if you can’t afford to support yourself.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to have your family’s financial support following graduation or built a list of clients/collectors while you were studying, you’ll have to find a way to make a living. And unfortunately for many of us, that has to come before making art.
Personally, I wish I was taught how to translate some of the skills I developed into those that employers were looking for. It would have made this whole transition into the “real world” much less stressful.
I’m going to be honest: in that first year following graduation, I felt scared. For the first time, I questioned my decision to quit Digital Culture and pursue photography. And from many conversations with peers, I knew my doubt wasn’t unusual.
But because I spent some time in a different program, it gave me the perspective I needed to see what kind of advantages a studio art curriculum gave me over other degree holders. It just took me some time to fully grasp and communicate it well enough to land a good job.
Art students need to have a better understanding what their future holds, not just in relation to art. If they can’t find success later on, then an art degree beings to feel like a burden and the art school cynics have more fuel for their fire.
PROFESSIONAL PRACTICES & BUSINESS CONCEPTS AREN’T INTRODUCED IN SCHOOL EARLY ENOUGH (IF AT ALL)
I don’t believe that a one-semester senior portfolio class is enough to prepare students for reality, especially if it’s the curriculum is mostly focused on becoming an artist. That’s all I was required to take, and I know for a fact that not all art programs offer similar classes in the first place.
Although that 1 credit portfolio class was an awesome start, I think it would have been helpful to have some kind of 100-level class that broke down the basics, so I could start filling in the gaps as I refined my creative practice.
Later in my education, I sought out opportunities to learn basic art business skills, but I have a nagging feeling that I’d be a little more prepared if I found the same information about 3 years earlier.
As much as we hate to admit it, art is a commodity. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sold, but it still helps to understand things like market trends, business models, and branding. If those concepts are lingering in the back of an artist’s head, there’s a better chance that they can start to make work that can eventually support themselves, or at least use it to grow a wider audience.
The truth is, we can’t all become art educators and receive institutional support. So we need to stop acting like that’s the best path for arts graduates to take. Either we show them different ways to make their art profitable, or we show them how to apply their creative skills to other careers.
I’m not saying that art education needs to be overhauled to make business a primary part of the curriculum. In my experience, art faculty are much better at teaching theory and technique; those subjects are much more difficult to understand than business, and I’d rather have to learn marketing or finances on my own than spend any less time developing critical thinking skills while I was in school.
But even if someone were to simply tell art students, “hey — the job you’ll end up with 10 years from now doesn’t exist in the world today,” like I was told in Digital Culture, perhaps post-grad life would feel a lot less frustrating to the vast majority of us who don’t know what their future career will look like.
I spend most of my free time working on aftrART because I’m trying to find answers to the questions I’ve had since graduating.
I’ve noticed these flaws in the system, and I want to do my best to improve them. By doing so, I hope I can create resources that early-career artists like myself can learn from.
Beginning on Thursday, we’re finally getting to some of the concrete information that I’ve been wanting to explore. No more theory and introductions.
I’ll be kicking off December with some of the information I know best because I do it every single day: writing and communication.
So be sure to check back soon, and sign up for the email newsletter to stay up-to-date with everything aftrART! And if you’d like to share any of your own experiences as an art student or recent grad, I’d love to hear ’em!