5 Things I Wish I Had Learned in Art School

Art school. Some people defend it with their lives while others think that it’s a waste of time and money. For myself, I went to art school. I received a BFA in Studio Art from the University of Central Arkansas. I’m glad I went to college to study art. It was a great experience that taught me more than I think I’d ever learn on my own time but as always there’s some things I wish I would have learned. Art school comes with a stigma and its because of this stigma that there's some things you don't learn. I had great professors who no doubt were doing their best to provide an education but the art world is changing and the world I had in my mind when I graduated was very different than the world I was stepping into. In this post I go over five things that I wish I had learned in art school. I’m not an expert or professional educator, these are only my observations as a recent graduate. 
1. It’s Okay To Have A Day Job
I moved to Denver right after finishing my courses on campus to complete an internship. It was a great feeling to be able to a work on art full time. Of course I wasn’t being paid for my internship but I was working in the art field. When my internship ended, I found myself out on my own really for the first time. It was up to me to make things happen. I applied to many art related jobs but eventually received none of them. This led to me feeling like a failure and defeated. I had even heard professors say that they were afraid that if you didn’t devote yourself to your art full time that you might not make it as a successful artist. Everyone needs money but I thought that if I wasn’t a full time artist then I couldn't be a successful artist. But the fact is many artists have day jobs that aren’t in the art field. Jeff Koons worked as a commodity broker and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny. It doesn’t make you a failure; no one would call these two artists a failure. In a world where the cost of living is continually rising having a day job is a way to ensure a comfortable life for yourself while you get your creative career off the ground. My problem with finding a job in the art field was my portfolio. If you’re anything like me then you only really began building your portfolio in the last couple years of art school. That’s not a long time. The art field is competitive and there will always be someone out there with a stronger portfolio. It takes time to build not only your portfolio but a reputation for yourself and this is the time when a day job might be necessary. 


Jeff Koons. https://www.fashionwindows.net/2014/07/hm-celebration-of-the-opening-of-jeff-koons-a-retrospective/


Vivian Maier. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/vivian-maier-vivian-maier-street-photographer-revelation


2. Your portfolio matters more than your education history 

As I stated in my last point, your portfolio matters. In fact, it matters more than your education history. There are going to be many people applying to the same job, exhibition, gallery or grant as you that all have an art degree. The thing that is going to set you apart from them is your work. The people choosing the candidates for these positions are looking at your present or past work to decide, not your degree. Of course I had this idea that a degree would put me ahead of the competition but in reality it’s not all that important in the art world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went to art school but that degree isn’t what’s going to make me a successful artist. Think of all of the successful artists who didn’t go to a formal art school and earn a degree. Art school is a great way to learn the techniques but after you graduate it’s up to you to build a portfolio that puts you ahead of everyone else. 

3. As an artist you are a business owner
Being an artist means that you are a business owner. You and your art are the business. To become successful it takes a strong portfolio but it also takes successful business tactics like marketing yourself, networking and building a plan. In school, we had a course that went over a little bit of the ways to build your creative career but it only scratched the surface. After I graduated, I found that the art world looks a lot different than what I had pictured in my head. I thought that I’ll apply to some exhibitions, some galleries, and some grants and everything will work out. Well that’s not what happened. The art world is a business world. The successful artists are the ones that market themselves and make connections. You might be able to be successful as a reclusive artist but you’d have to get lucky. In reality, you have to think of your art as a business and take clues from other businesses. You have to market yourself and the most effective tool for marketing in today’s world is the internet. Make a website and start social media accounts for your art, but you can’t sit behind a keyboard either. Get out and make connections in your local art community. Go to gallery openings, visit and volunteer at non-profits, network. Maybe you won't get into a certain gallerie or receive a grant. This is when thinking like a business owner is really important. How are you going to make money? Well you’re a creative. This should be something that is fun not a daunting task that seems out of your league. Start an online store, sell at art fairs, or start freelancing. The point is that you have to make up your mind that you are going to make your business work even if a few opportunities fall through. 

4. It’s okay to break the rules (There’s no right or wrong way to be an artist)

In art school we spend four years learning the rules of the art world: here’s the right way to draw, here’s the important artists and styles and established galleries, exhibitions and museums are the only respectable way to show your work. That may have been true in the past but we live in a different world now and the people who break the rules are the ones who stand out. I bet that Duchamp’s Fountain would probably receive a failing grade at an art school but it changed the entire history of art. Breaking the rules applies not only to the actual you art you make but also to how you undertake working as an artist. We live in a digital world. You might not make it into an exhibition or gallery but you have more tools at your disposal than any time in history to showcase your work and build an audience. The internet is one of the best tools for artists to showcase their work. There’s nothing wrong with using it to gain a following and you can bet that if you build up your own audience then the curators at those galleries will start to listen. 


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573

5. Graduating is only the beginning


When exhibiting at my senior exhibition and then later graduating I thought to myself; this is it, I’m an artist now. Wrong. I was college graduate with a long road ahead of me. Graduating from art school can feel like a closing but it’s only the beginning. Now you get to actually be an artist. You get to go out there to get your hands dirty and scrap to make a career for yourself. Just because you graduated doesn’t mean you are instantly a successful artist, you’ll find that’s far from the truth. You put in a lot of hard work to get there so be proud of yourself but understand that school was the easy part. 

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