Art school: beyond the reach of the 99%?
Students can pay up to $250,000, which is more than an Ivy League education
By Charlotte Burns and Pac Pobric. News, Issue 257, May 2014
Published online: 08 May 2014
It is more expensive to go to art school in America than an Ivy League college, leading to calls for structural reforms. According to figures from the US Department of Education, an undergraduate degree from a private art institution can cost as much as $250,000. Five of the ten most expensive colleges in the country, after taking into account the average scholarship and grant aid awarded, are visual art schools.
Many fear that the costs of education will act as a barrier to all but the very wealthy and could lead to art produced for the market. “A high-quality education is increasingly unattainable for people who are not members of the privileged class,” says Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic director of the non-profit organisation Creative Time. “This reality is clearly destructive to our democracy, to our society and to our culture,” she says. The artist Sam Durant, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), says: “We are caught in a larger systemic failure of austerity, privatisation and neo-liberalism. Failure, that is, for the 99%—it has worked wonderfully for the elites.”
The current system “saddles students and their families with debt that is difficult to escape”, says Adrian Ellis, the founder of AEA Consulting. “It squeezes the middle class, whose kids are less eligible for hardship-based scholarships, and crimps the social mobility that higher education affords.”
The cost of an art eduction may affect the kind of work that graduates make, “considering how expensive it is to get to the point where they’re able to make work after college”, says Edward Winkleman, the director of New York’s Winkleman Gallery. “How could it not? That’s the real reason this matters.”
The situation is in marked contrast to the experience of artists only a generation ago. Robert Storr, an artist and curator and the dean of the Yale University School of Art, went to the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s “with a few thousand dollars a year from family, plus two jobs”, he says. “I left with no prospects but no real debt. I think that’s about ideal.”
Although some artists go on to build multi-million-dollar careers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that craft and fine artists earned an average wage of $44,400 in 2012, and that the sector will grow a mere 3% over the next eight years. Storr says: “It’s time we stopped staring into the headlights of artists who make record prices at auction and consider the lives led, and survival skills invented, by artists more concerned with making good work than big money or headlines.”
The price of a four-year undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design is $253,000 for tuition and expenses. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago expects its students to spend around $205,000, and at the San Francisco Art Institute, tuition alone costs $157,000.
Ivy League colleges charge similar fees but give more grants. Harvard University awards 65% of its students an average of $46,000 in scholarships. These colleges can afford to be generous: Harvard had a $30.7bn endowment in 2012. This far outstrips most art colleges; the value of CalArts’s endowment was $113m in the same year. But even richer art colleges are not necessarily giving much aid. Despite its $650m endowment, the Cooper Union in New York will start charging around $20,000 a year this autumn, having been free for the past 155 years.
Why is it happening?
Overall, American university tuition has been rising around 2% to 3% faster than the rate of inflation since the early 1980s, says the economist Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, based in Washington, DC. Government funding, meanwhile, has remained flat over the past 25 or 30 years.
The price rises are unavoidable, administrators say: art schools are expensive to run. “The dilemma is that they’re inefficient,” says Larry Thompson, the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota. “You can’t put 200 students in a room and teach them art.” Ringling’s student-to-staff ratio is 12 to one, and at CalArts, there are around seven students per teacher. Lectures and crits also tend to be longer than the standard college class, says Fred Fehlau, the provost at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Equipment is another big expenditure. Steven Lavine, the president of CalArts, says: “The ante keeps getting upped.” He says: “You don’t have to have state-of-the-art technology, but it needs to be close enough so that students can make the transition from schools to working conditions.” CalArts is building a $500,000 animation laboratory using donations, so the money is not coming out of its tuition budget. “But,” Lavine says, “often that’s not the case.”
“There is a general sense that the model is unsustainable, because the return on investment is so low, given the graduate labour market,” Adrian Ellis says. “College costs are directly related to what the market will bear. They are only tangentially related to the real costs of the services provided. Where does the money go? On scholarships—good; on bloated real-estate portfolios—bad; and on endowments larger than sovereign wealth funds—ugly.”
What are schools doing about it?
As part of their fees, art schools are offering career guidance and advice on topics from tax filing to money management, and even entrepreneurship. “We are recognising that students will choose different paths and we’re trying to provide them with resources for that,” says Deborah Obalil, the executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.
This has led to “a marked increase in the professionalism of young, aspiring artists, but a great decrease in artists capable of taking risks or even knowing what that really means”, says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman. And if artists are too focused on the business, rather than the making, of art, they run the “risk of producing luxury home furnishings [rather] than innovative art”, Edward Winkleman says.
The solution may be to reorient philanthropists away from museum projects and towards education. Robert Storr says: “Ideally, we would fully fund all tuition, as is done at the Yale School of Music thanks to the generous gift of a single patron and his wife.” Donations would help to offset the costs of college, “so that whatever debt students have will not be crushing, and will not encourage them to make bad decisions about their work”.
Artists have a role to play, perhaps in helping to run alternative art schools, such as the one run by the New York-based Bruce High Quality Foundation. “Artists have always been vital to the wellbeing of our societies,” says Sam Durant, who calls the cost of art school an “emergency issue”.
“I don’t buy that there is a crisis,” says one New York-based collector, however. “Not every artist needs to be trained formally, and tough times sometimes produce better art. Basquiat could never afford canvas, and it made him a more interesting artist.”
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