Is a formal art education worth it?
For as long as art has been practiced there have always been arguments for and against formal art training. In recent years, however, this debate has intensified after steadily increasing costs have pushed tuition fees to as much as US$100,000 and even twice that amount in some cases. Now more than ever, persons are questioning the value of pursuing a BFA and/or MFA, particularly at a time when the creative field is saturated with thousands of talented and eager graduates year after year. Many are left wondering if the massive debt they’re saddled with so early in their career is even worth it.
Regardless of the cost, whether US$100,000 or US$10,000, the general consensus among most graduates is that even after completing their respective programmes, they still feel ill-equipped for the professional art world. Some have even expressed utter regret in opting for formal training, insisting they could’ve learned those things on their own time and avoided the crippling debt altogether. While others have agreed that the programmes could’ve done more to prepare them, they posited that the benefits of the programmes outweighed the shortcomings. So where does this leave someone who is considering formal art training? This is the point where a serious kind of self-interrogation must happen.
Why do you want to pursue art? What is it you’re hoping to achieve in the long run? What kind of learner are you? How do you function in high-pressure situations? How strict are you with deadlines? How do you respond to critiques? How much are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want? How far do you want your work to go? These are just a few of the questions you should be asking yourself at this point. Of course, these answers could (and most likely will) change as time goes by but they’re a good way to help figure out which option could work in your best interest. Give yourself enough room to change your mind with the understanding that situations change, people change and your vision for your life or work might also change. Have a plan but also be willing to throw that plan out the window when the time is right. Otherwise, you run the risk of putting yourself in an uncomfortable and unhappy situation.
So yes, there are quite a number of things to consider and since no two situations are the same it ultimately comes down to thoroughly assessing your own situation. Luckily for us here in Guyana, a decent art education costs but a mere fraction of what our overseas peers would pay so there is no cause to worry about paying astronomical tuition fees. However, at this point, some might be tempted to say, “You get what you pay for.” While in most cases this would ring true, it would be an unfair comparison to pit any local art institution against any art institution further afield. Of course, we don’t have the same access to information, materials, equipment and markets as our international contemporaries, but the training you do receive at the E.R. Burrowes School of Art is enough to give you a solid start. Having completed the Diploma programme myself (10 years ago) I would always encourage interested persons to enroll because the reality is that you pay pennies for the wealth of knowledge and experience gained while studying there.
For those who would’ve completed the school’s programme and are wondering if pursuing a BFA is worth it, I would encourage you to think about the direction you’d like your work to take. If you only wish to develop/master a particular skill then perhaps enrolling in a full-time four-year art programme might not be the best option, especially if there’s a hefty price tag attached. Instead, consider part-time specialised courses, workshops or apprenticeship opportunities that get straight to the topics you’re interested in. On the other hand, if your end game is to teach art at an institution, then a thorough art education is unavoidable. If you’re not quite sure which side of the road you’d like to be on but you have access to funding then I’d say go for it, get that degree! One of the major advantages of opting for a more institutionalised form of art training is that you get instant access to a community of creative individuals, critics, curators, potential collectors etc. In a way, your decision to study art formally automatically gives you one foot in the door.
Now let’s say you already have your BFA and you’re now considering if an MFA is the right choice for you, then this is where things get a little trickier. Most MFA holders, when asked, would tell you the same thing “Only get it if you want to teach.” While this is a must for any art teacher (particularly overseas where the requirements are much stricter), there are benefits to pursuing an MFA for those who wish only to be full-time practicing artists. Perhaps foremost on the list would be the time you get to focus on developing your own style/signature/aesthetic, under the guidance of a few reputable artists/professors. Some artists thrive in that kind of up-close and intense environment. Another reason some artists opt for an MFA is that they recognise that galleries/collectors tend to pay more attention to their portfolio if they notice the name of a reputable grad school on their CV. On the other hand, there are artists who have accomplished a lot simply with a BFA, and others without even that.
In the end, my advice to anyone would be this: spend time researching grad schools and their faculty members to find the right fit for you, but spend more time researching scholarships and grants. Grad schools are notoriously overpriced and borderline exploitative in some cases. I would never encourage anyone to go into massive debt for any kind of certification, especially when there are ways to circumvent said debt. There are also thousands of free resources online that are designed to help creative practitioners in their respective fields, find them and take advantage of them. Find ways to supplement the knowledge you already have, regardless if it was gained at an art institution or on your own. But keep in mind that while you can find almost anything on the Internet today free of cost, choosing a self-directed creative path won’t give you one crucial thing that a formal education would and that is access to the right audience. You will have to work twice as hard and twice as long to open half the doors if you choose to go at it on your own from start to finish.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on October 29, 2017. Click on the link to be redirected to their website: