Thursday, January 24, 2013

So Your Kid Wants to be an Artist

One of the things I hear frequently from enthusiastic parents goes something like this:

My son/daughter loves to draw (He/she draws all the time… always has a pencil in her/his hand… can just look at something in a magazine and draw it… doodles on everything… draws so well, it looks just like they took a picture with a camera… has turned our refrigerator into an art gallery, etc.).

Then comes the inevitable question, the one that makes me wince:

“What Art School should my child attend?”

First of all, let me say that these parents are already doing perhaps the most important thing they can do to assure success for their aspiring creative. They’re allowing their children to be creative, and, beyond that, to actually consider a career in the arts. Parents like these are rare.

Why should they even consider Art as an educational option?

There are a few reasons worth mentioning. Well-trained artists exhibit a level of discipline that rivals that seen in any other trade or learned profession – and they do it largely without external motivation. Few of us are in this business for the money.

Creative people solve problems. We do it every day. We look at the world differently, recognize roadblocks early, and generate solutions to issues that the average person will never encounter in a lifetime. Problem-solving skills are not limited to the drawing board or the dance floor. They are just as easily adapted to the boardroom and factory floor.

Supporting a child in their desire to be a trained artist validates that student’s choices in life, and will make everybody a lot happier than automatically insisting on “Getting a ‘Real Degree’, for a ‘Real Job’, just in case things don't work out.”

Those who are able to make a living from their creative energies, even for a short while, will experience a level of fulfillment that is difficult to achieve in the employ of someone else. And when we emerge from our studios, working artists also enjoy the company of a stimulating mix of talented people, of a stripe and color that seldom thrives in a corporate environment, who by their very nature represent a wider sample of cultural thought and human experience.

Art schools are not often in the business 
of creating productive artists.

 Why should these parents be wary of an arts education?

Ironically, a degree from an art school seldom provides the tools an artist will need to make a living in their chosen field.

Art schools are not often in the business of creating productive artists. If they were, they would produce more graduates that actually make a living creating art. My unofficial sources tell me that as many as 95% of students with a degree in art wind up doing something else with their lives. (That’s a lot. It seems likely that if this were happening in medical schools or law schools, some kind of official investigation would already be underway.)

I’ll let the statisticians argue over the actual numbers, but it is not out of bounds to say that most, in fact nearly all, of the people with a degree in art wind up doing something else professionally. Many will find that their professional options are quite limited, since an art degree rarely prepares a person for anything other than making art. Making art, it turns out, is not a widely marketable skill.

It’s also worth mentioning that artists seldom get the respect they deserve, a phenomenon discussed in a little more detail in a previous post.

With such a long-wended introduction, it should come as no surprise to learn that my usual answer to the question ‘What art school should I send my child to?’ is, ‘Why send them to art school at all?’ At least as a first resort.

I want my child to have the tools needed 
to be a self-sufficient, professional 
artist when she/he is forty.

I know – it sounds so reasonable, so logical: My kid wants to be an artist. I want him/her to have an education. Ergo: I need to send my kid to art school.

Not so fast, Mom & Dad. What you really meant to say is perhaps something like this: My kid wants to be an artist. I want him/her to have the tools needed to be a self-sufficient, professional artist when she/he is forty.

Ergo: My kid needs a real education, before heading off to art school.

Look, parents, if your children have the art bug, there is nothing you can do to prevent them from making art. It’s what we do. We will create our music, write our stories and poems, draw and paint our pictures whether you help or not. If you are able to help, we will certainly do more work and better work, since art improves with practice.

Unfortunately, a pure art curriculum will not provide us with the knowledge and skills we need to take our talents into the workforce or the marketplace.

C students can manage a ledger. 
Art students have never seen one.

Looking back on more than thirty years as a practicing artist, I can easily state that I was not the best art student in my class, nor am I at all the best draw-er in the business today. Why is it then that I am one of a select few of my classmates who are still creating art, and getting paid for it? Simple. Every one of my successful contemporaries has acquired, somewhere along the line, a functional understanding of business.

Business before pleasure, that’s the key. For me, that knowledge began with an elective course in Business Law (the only business course that I could shoehorn in to a busy premedical class schedule), where I learned to understand legal contracts. That one powerful tool has, more than any other, allowed me to prosper as an artist.

What other courses help artists to become, and grow as professionals? Accounting, of course. English. Algebra. Biology (anatomy in particular). History. Psychology. Any discipline that will train a young artist to think critically, communicate clearly, and place their ideas in a meaningful context. These are the skills that one is supposed to acquire with a college education from any legitimate institution of higher learning. Even if one majors in art.

I can already see college-bound artists (and their parents) grow pale and wide-eyed. ‘I’m good at art, not academics!’ they say. Fine. Take the courses to learn the material, not to become a business major. C students can manage a ledger. Art students have never seen one.

So, back to the question: “What school should my child go to?”

My answer: The best college you can find, that both student and parents can afford. (That last part exposes a little bit of bias on my part. I think that a student values education more when they have some skin in the game. It also encourages a student to learn how to make money early on – good practice for anyone who plans to build a career on the stuff of their own dreams.)

Then, if it still fits into your child’s business plan, by all means send them on to art school. By that time, they’ll be older and wiser, with a better idea of what they want, and what they need to succeed in their chosen career.


  1. So true. As a High School art teacher, whenever my students ask my advice about attending college and "becoming an artist," I always tell them- Do yourself a favor, and get a business degree, take all the art electives you want or minor in it. If you are talented and people like your work, that will take care of itself- but you've got to know how to make a living FIRST, and making art is not going to pay the bills- selling it is.

  2. Excellent post! I grew up in a family FULL of teachers who placed a high value on my education. Unfortunately, they pressured me to get a "real" job/degree because as they put it, "I would never be able to make a living as an artist". Turns out, they were wrong. I have been making my living with my art in one form or another for 26 years now. However, without the emphasis on education in general from my parents and family, I would have never had the tools needed to be a successful artist!