Is Art School Only for the Wealthy?

The study of art has long been a field for the elites. During the times of the Roman Empire, lessons for the crafts of sculpture, painting, and drawing were held exclusively for members of the highest classes. Most families were too poor to sustain themselves if a member were to dedicate time to producing art rather than earning profit with labor work. The opportunity to learn artistic skills was then a privilege, and remains as such today–but for some different reasons.

As most are aware, numerous factors in a person’s life are determined by access to money: travel, housing, recreation, and even study. Oftentimes, in order to even be considered for a salary-centric job, it’s almost certain that candidates will need a degree in higher education. But, we all know college doesn’t come cheap. The mean price tag for one year at a private institution in America comes in at about $31,231, leaving the average American family (that as of 2013 makes $52,250) allotting over half of their year-to-date income on the education of one child.

The logic behind spending such an exorbitant amount of money on a student’s education lies in its potential payback. With a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering, a graduate’s starting salary can be, on average, over $60,000. The top five highest paying jobs in the US are all within the medical field, so while the cost for such education can seem extreme, the payback on degree investment is arguably worthwhile.

With the arts, however, not so much. It’s estimated that the average yearly income of graduates from fine arts programs is $37,819–an unsteady return on an immense investment in education.

Art degrees, essentially then, are usually only applicable to those who have a disposable income, or have the energy to work multiple jobs in order to sustain a living–either or. Nonetheless, the ambiguous, looming question that many art students question remains: “Am I going to profit off of my degree?”

The answer isn’t all that clear; the term “starving artist,” didn’t come out of nowhere, after all.

Personally, I’m a little too familiar with the not-so-funny euphemism. As a third-year student at Purchase College–a public New York State school recognized as one of the nation’s premier arts schools–I’m constantly surrounded by gaunt kids hoping to make it somewhere big with a paintbrush. The majority of my peers aren’t of the wealthy variety, and often resonate to Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals”–like, yeah, let me live that fantasy, mom and dad. But, sadly, most students end up ripped of their dreams, unwillingly withdrawn from their schooling because of the financial demands that come with enrolling in art school.

Those matriculated into art programs face payments that students in other subject areas may never encounter. In addition to art-history textbooks, the culmination of a student’s studio space, supplies, and storage costs ultimately creates an additional tuition bill that many are unable to pay. Material costs for artistic practices will rack up, whether it is film and photo paper for the photography student or quality canvases and oil paints for the painter–or, both combined for the cross-disciplinary creative.

For reasons such as these, institutes like New York City’s Cooper Union have held a firm stance on educating artists in highly competitive, four-year programs free of charge–at least up until Fall of 2014. Students now receive half-tuition scholarships of $20,400 per year, rather than the full $40,800 the school used to grant.

Photo courtesy of Dean Hochman.

Cooper Union is not the only administration cutting down its funding and scholarship offerings for its art-centric programs. The pattern is a nationwide crisis in academia. The concern that art school is only accessible to those who can afford it is best proven by the stifling tuition costs of many of the nation’s top institutes. Look at the $55,356 MFA students at Columbia University School of the Arts pay yearly, or even the $49,464 those over at the University of Southern California (USC) are subject to.

This past May at USC, it was that time of year for the graduating class to celebrate the end of their academic phase in life and transition on to the daunting world of adulthood. But, many of the grad students’ seats remained empty throughout the procession as the school’s graduating MFA students boycotted the ceremony. They stood in solidarity with their first-year classmates who announced they would be dropping out in response to a withdrawal of funding and curricular changes to their program.

Olivia Farigold, an Animation and Graphic Design duel major at Parsons School of Design, is fortunate enough to have been awarded a partial scholarship to aid her in her feat towards a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to go to art school,” Farigold tells BTR. “My parents haven’t always been supportive of my art, [nor did] they want me to go to college for it. They would’ve been happier if I studied economics, or something that brings in bank.”

Farigold goes on to tell me that although she was granted a large sum of money to attend the school of her dreams, she is still succumbing to the hands of mega loan giants like Sallie Mae. For this upcoming academic year, Farigold filed for a loan of almost $32,000 to satisfy the remainder of her bill and potential costs that’ll arise from her coursework.

“My biggest fear is that immediately after I graduate, I’ll be stuck without a job and an unmarketable degree,” Farigold divulges. “The last thing I want to deal with is the ‘I told you so(s)’ from all those who’ve told me art isn’t a viable career path.”

Farigold’s fears are legitimate. It’s expected that many people go through life purposefully avoiding a terrifying, uneasy routine wherein they aren’t drenched in student debt with little prospect of a prosperous life thereafter. When you’re an artist, this risk is almost unavoidable.

“We want more funding,” Farigold adds. “Art is the most beautiful thing on this planet and everyone should have the right to celebrate in its beauty–even if you’re dirt ass poor.”

Featured image courtesy of Sarah.

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