Ask the experts: do I have to go to fine art school to become a successful artist?

Education is not cheap. The increasing professionalization of the art world means that obtaining a degree is an increasingly desirable path for many young artists, but the debt levels that accompany the pursuit of knowledge do not make this option viable. that for some. The question is: can you become a successful artist without a degree from Yale or the Royal College of Art?

There are some very good examples of successful contemporary artists who have avoided the academic route. Carsten Höller and Yoko Ono didn’t go to art school, Jeremy Deller studied art history rather than fine art, and Tosh Basco – aka boychild – started out in the underground club scene. before working with their partner Wu Tsang and friend Korakrit Arunaanondchai. All these artists have succeeded in fitting into the networks of the art world. They exhibited. They spoke the language.

Belgian-American artist Cecile B. Evans trained as a methodical actor before entering the art world, and their unique perspective contributed to this change, explains their gallery owner, Emanuel Layr. “Cécile was impatient to understand the place of an artist,” he explains. “It’s exciting to see them go from one medium to another, sometimes as a filmmaker.”

Nonetheless, Layr is a proponent of arts education, if you have the right teachers. “I think it can be really great if there’s a strong bond with a mentor or someone who actually gives you advice at the start,” he says. “But how many artists really have such a great situation with a teacher?” And in many countries art school is expensive. Carrying out $ 50,000 in debt with no job security at the end of it can be a terrifying prospect. As Layr points out, embarking on a career in the arts “is always a matter of class.”

Students hang a banner below the historic Cooper Union clock tower in New York City during an occupation in 2012 to protest the implementation of tuition fees at the historically free school. Photo courtesy of Free Cooper Union, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The high cost of art schools became even more pronounced during the pandemic, when many art schools were unable to offer the usual elements of a curriculum, such as group reviews, over time. studio or access to common amenities, not to mention social interaction. “The students were very helpless and disenfranchised because of the lockdown and, naturally, very upset,” says Peter Davies, a painter who exhibits with The Approach and teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. “They were aware that they were consumers and that they had paid very high fees, but that they did not have the experience they expected. During the lockdown, fine arts classes weren’t even able to provide studio space with all activities online. It was extremely problematic.

Arguably, student frustrations are a sign of a generational shift around the idea of ​​arts education itself, with arts education seen as a paid service rather than an investment in future success that could does not pay off quickly. “The cost of living, and the current cost of a university education, means that many potential students who are also potentially incredible artists are turned off to study fine art because it will not lead to reasonable paid employment, at the same time. way of other university courses. strength.”

Despite this, Davies stresses the importance of education as a way to prepare young artists for the rest of the world. And some recent Slade BFA graduates, such as Zeinab Saleh and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, already have a strong institutional and gallery presence, although they don’t have an advanced degree, he says. In fact, many are forgoing postgraduate programs. Artists without MFA degrees, like Rhea Dillon, who studied Fashion Communication for her BA at Central Saint Martins School of Art in London, and Phoebe Collings-James, have all been successful. notable.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of art school could be the connections students make there. Sebastian Lloyd Rees went to Goldsmiths for his BA, where he met Ali Eisa and formed Lloyd Corporation, an ongoing collaborative practice of installation creation and performance art. Rees also works independently as a painter, which he started after graduating. “Knowledge is one of the main factors of development and progression. But will going to art school make you an artist when you graduate? Unfortunately no. I really don’t think so, ”he says. “If I look at Goldsmiths, as an institution, what it really did for me was to start a collaboration. ”

Residents in the Skowhegan studio space. Image courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Rees also offers some important questions that those considering going to an art school should ask themselves before applying to a specific school: How many people are taking the course? How much time do you actually have to talk to your tutor?

As the popularity of arts programs has grown over the past decade, a wave of alternative art schools has emerged, demonstrating a strong desire for affordable arts education outside of established institutional structures. The Bruce High Quality Foundation notably ran a free school in New York for a few years, with open lectures and workshops. The Open School East in the UK was established in 2013 as an ‘independent free art school’ focused on ’emerging practitioners of different generations, with or without a BA, MA or formal qualification’, according to the application website. Alumni include artists Lucy Beech and Paul Maheke Ngamaha.

Another interesting alternative project is the University of the Underground, established in 2017 and based between nightclubs in Amsterdam and London. Its founder, artist Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian, describes the nonprofit as an advocacy network for free arts and transnational education, where students work with established institutions from Deliveroo to the United Nations on a list. collective performances, activist events and installation projects. . “The central idea of ​​the University of the Underground is the event or experience as a starting point for a conversation between the creators of nightlife and public institutions,” she says.


The student body is made up of nightlife artists, sex workers, poets, and other art school graduates. “We try to invest as much as possible in young people, like the 21-year-olds,” she says. “They come from all walks of life – usually I would say from under-represented backgrounds, people who don’t fit the regular academic bill.”

Hayoun-Stépanian, who holds a doctorate in human geography and political philosophy, is nevertheless aware of the importance of CV training. But she argues that for institutions like the education system to be decolonized, experimental approaches are needed. “For mainstream education to evolve, a radical new model has to take place,” she says.

The fundamental question which arises is to know what an artistic education is for. If you are looking for a significant return on your investment in the form of a guaranteed successful career, then School of the Arts is likely to disappoint you. Art schools could also be seen as a training ground where artists learn how to produce the most attractive and salable products for the market or the institutional system, which is dominated by private interests and cultural norms. Yet, you can also consider art schools as some of the last spaces where intellectual stimulation persists and other forms of thought may emerge.

Thus, the art school is either the last bastion of cultural resistance against capitalist power, or a means of assimilating dissent into an easily consumable whole. Either way, you can be successful without it.

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Kayleen C. Rice