Art Schools Work to Erase Image of Graduates as ‘Starving Artists’

Art Schools Work to Erase Image of Graduates as ‘Starving Artists’

September 22, 2014
The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Scott Carlson

Not all parents would display the restraint Russell Benamy did when his daughter Erica declared her intention to go to art school. Sure, he was dismayed: “$200,000 to play with crayons?” the management consultant, who was a chemical-engineering major, recalls thinking. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” But he didn’t share that with Erica. “This is my daughter’s passion,” he says. “I am going to tell her she can’t go?” So she came here to the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Higher education can’t escape the debate about a degree’s return on investment. Increasingly, colleges of all types feel pressure to show that four years of tuition payments will lead to decent salaries and viable careers. While classics and philosophy present a challenge, ceramics and painting are another altogether, one that art schools must meet to remain vital.

Art-and-design colleges face age-old perceptions about slim job prospects for “starving artists.” Yet they need a steady stream of students. Even some of the sector’s elite institutions are highly tuition-dependent. Given emerging ratings of colleges’ worth, art school administrators have reason to worry: Standard measurements of the payback on a college degree might not fairly capture artists, who have anything but a predictable path.

Conveying the value of an art-school education was the prime topic of conversation at a national conference in April for nonprofit art colleges. It happened to coincide with the release of the “College ROI Report” by the salary-information company PayScale, ranking 1,312 institutions on students’ earnings. Places with strong science and technology programs tend to do well. This year colleges like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia; and the Ringling College of Art and Design landed in the bottom quarter of the list. The Maryland Institute College of Art, known as MICA, ranked 1,305th.

Students, though, don’t seem to care. MICA, along with other prominent arts institutions, like the Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design, seems to be thriving. In the past 20 years,its enrollment has grown to 2,200, from around 900, and it has expanded across midtown Baltimore, constructing some of the
city’s most architecturally striking new buildings. In a market that includes powerhouse design schools and tiny fine-arts institutions, MICA has found a way to attract a segment of the college-going population.

Art colleges conduct surveys and collect testimonials from students and parents to paint a positive picture of the prospects for art and design majors. Statistics show that graduates make decent salaries and report satisfaction with their careers and lives. And the institutions—which from the beginning prepare students for a kind of entrepreneurial self-employment—have maintained or heightened a vocational approach.

It’s helped that design has gained popular attention for its role in organizations, products (see iPhones), and politics (consider the presence of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign).

Mr. Benamy, for one, has come around to believing that his daughter made a good choice. “Sending her four years to fuel her love of learning, have her master a field or craft, learning about design and design thinking, that was really the crux about how I got myself comfortable,” he says. Now he shares that message, along with other parents, in a video featured prominently on MICA’s website, promoting the “value of an art education.”

Constraints and Risks
Times are tough for any tuition-dependent college, and like many others out there, private nonprofit art schools tend to be small and underendowed. Art Center College of Design, one of the country’s premier art institutions, with a beautiful hilltop campus in Pasadena, Calif., has an endowment of only $70-million. MICA’s is $80-million, an amount typical for a relatively unknown private college, not an institution prominent in its field. What’s more, many nonprofit art schools are competing for a narrower band of students than are traditional colleges. Their for-profit counterparts, meanwhile, have aggressive marketing
campaigns and deep pockets. (The Academy of Art University is one of the largest property owners in San Francisco.)

And their small size can make institutions especially fragile. Many members of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design enroll fewer than 100 undergraduates and graduate students, and follow a “classic atelier model” of art education, with artists simply working in a studio with a master, says Deborah Obalil, the group’s executive director.

Some in the sector worry that financial pressures and a limited pool of students will lead to closings. The College of Visual Arts, a 65- year-old institution in St. Paul, had 170 students when it shut down last year, citing rising costs and dwindling enrollment. An alumni group tried but failed to raise $3-million to save it. Some of the smallest art schools are looking to survive by merging with larger institutions, with a number of negotiations under way, says Ms. Obalil. In May, George Washington University reached a deal to take over the Corcoran College of Art and Design, affiliated with the financially troubled Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington. The Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, which had struggled with declining enrollment and accreditation hurdles, had 80 students in July, when the University of New Haven acquired it.

Steven H. Kaplan, the university’s president, sees potential for the arts programs. The university can bring scale to marketing, admissions, financial aid, and other administrative duties, he says. In time, he thinks the arts programs can grow to 250 students, with greater entrepreneurial prospects.”I can picture some of our computer-science and software engineers sitting on a rooftop garden on our campus in Tuscany with a couple of these artists,” he says, “creating the next Facebook.”

Return on Investment
Successful art colleges have increasingly highlighted the role of art and design in innovation and start-up culture. And they have combined those descriptions with data to show prospective and current students, as well as graduates, how alumni have led long and fruitful careers making art.

Photo of Samuel Hoi, President of the Maryland Institute College of Art
Photo Credit: Matt Roth for the Chronicle

Samuel Hoi, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, helped originate a survey that shows high job satisfaction among arts alumni well after graduation. As president of the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, Samuel Hoi knew he needed to turn the conversation about the value of art school toward the quantitative. When he arrived at Otis, in 2000, faculty members and administrators talked about students’ success mainly through anecdotes—this or that one getting hired by a prominent design firm, toy company, or animation studio. Mr. Hoi pushed to survey alumni on employment and job satisfaction.

Otis sent out its first survey in 2002 and repeated the process roughly every two years after that. The results were a pleasant surprise, and remained fairly consistent even through the economic downturn, says Mr. Hoi. Two-thirds to three-quarters of graduates got jobs before finishing college, and 90 to 95 percent
were employed a year later. Three-quarters were working in their creative fields even 25 years later, and about 80 percent said they were satisfied with their life choices.

Otis has promoted the figures in marketing materials, and officials there have presented the numbers to faculty and staff members to emphasize the importance of outcomes—and to boost morale. The college also shared the results with donors to demonstrate the returns on their investments.

The Otis survey influenced the creation of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a national survey of 92,000 alumni administered by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. (Mr. Hoi served on the advisory board for that survey.) Results have shown high job satisfaction and involvement in the arts well past graduation.

And while salaries for arts alumni aren’t as high as those in other fields, they’re not poverty wages. Arts educators, designers, and photographers have median incomes of $45,000. Craft artists make substantially less ($25,000), but film and video artists make more ($55,000). The figures are consistent with those published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which shows a median salary of $47,000 for bachelor’s-degree holders in the arts versus $59,000 for college graduates over all.

While the association of art schools doesn’t keep data on average student-loan debt, Ms. Obalil estimates that art students’ debt levels aren’t all that different from those of others. At the Maryland Institute College of Art, where 95 percent of students get some form of financial aid, average debt is about $34,000, compared with $29,400 nationally. Thirty percent of graduates leave with no debt at all, about the same as the national rate.

Now president of MICA, Mr. Hoi says he notices students’ vocational savvy. Relative to students who wind up majoring in communications or psychology, art students form a “tribe,” he says, who make an intentional choice. “They know that there is probably not a direct line to a job in the industry. To persist in the fine arts, they need to be creative and open to all sorts of life strategies.” (He should know: In an “early life crisis,” Mr. Hoi says, he gave up a legal career after graduating from Columbia Law School and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design to study illustration.)

MICA’s career-development office recently hired a sixth staff member, dedicated to cultivating relationships with prospective employers like the Smithsonian, UnderArmour, and Oscar de la Renta. Tapping networks of parents is another new strategy. And graduates can return to the career office anytime for help. Lately the office has seen alumni from the 1970s who’ve decided to go back to art after careers in other fields.

Erica Benamy, now a senior graphic-design major, has had internships at Puma, the footwear company, and the public relations firm Fleishman Hillard. Her instructors are all working artists, she says, which promotes a focus on work. “The best advice I have gotten in the past year is to act like your professors are clients,” Ms. Benamy says, because any of them might be the contact that leads to a job. She may go to work as a designer for an established product, but she dreams of using design to advance social causes—for example, redesigning the packaging and instructions for birth-control pills, she says, to make them easier for women to use.

Skepticism about art school is, in a strange way, liberating, says Ms.Benamy. “There is a different kind of art-school thinking that teaches you to be independent. You are able to talk to and convince people of what you’re doing and why.”

Fields like graphic design and photography have clearer connections than do others to paid work. Students in fine arts, for example, can have a tougher road. But that doesn’t mean they regret their choice.

Louis Abbene-Meagley, who graduated from MICA last year, is making a life as a painter, even if that’s not what pays the bills. He works full time at a craft-beer pub not far from his studio, a converted auto-repair shop in Baltimore’s gentrifying mill district. “This is my other full-time job,” he says, gesturing to the paintings up on the walls, “the one that won’t go away until the day I die.” Thanks to scholarships from MICA and some help from his parents,
Mr. Abbene-Meagley has no debt. While he derives energy from working out his thoughts through painting, relying on it for income at this stage might deplete that energy, he says. Matisse began his working life as a lawyer, he points out, and Magritte worked in a wallpaper factory to make ends meet.

“I don’t think I want to be a server for 40 years, but if I end up like Matisse, I’ll do it,” says the young painter. College connected him with fellow artists and with gallery owners, showing him how the business works. He sold two paintings recently, he says, for $2,800. Then he adds, smiling, “I’m still waiting on that check, actually.”