The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is ranked third in America’s top art schools according to US News and World Report. Neighboring art school, Columbia College, is the largest private arts college in the nation. I talked to representatives and students from both schools about the worth of an art degree in such a dire job market.
Kate Schutta, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Career Services at SAIC, remains optimistic about the value of an art degree. “SAIC graduates are not just gaining marketable skills, but they have the potential to shape and create the market.” She says, “Student work often takes the form of self-initiated projects that are challenging and complex, and allow students to develop their research, communication, administrative, and technical skills.” Both schools sum up the year with thesis exhibitions and publications of their graduate class’s work, which attracts art professionals from Chicago and beyond. The entire art school experience draws towards this accomplishment. While pursuing the degree, the school may provide the resources, but gaining professional experience outside of the thesis exhibition is mostly dependent on the effort of the student to seek out opportunities such as internships organized by Career Services. When it comes to the school’s curriculum teaching tactics are far from a traditional college education.
“Some of my instructors actually encouraged me to fail,” says Aaron Zarychta, recent graduate from SAIC’s Fashion, Body, and Garment Program. “At first that seems counter intuitive, but you can’t be afraid of failure either. It’s about taking chances and learning from failure and also having a critical soundboard.” This may prepare students for the harsh criticisms of the public, but many students said teachers were encouraging their students to use their time at the school for personal growth and reflection as artists and not to worry about the implications of their experience in the real world. “I change my mind about this school almost everyday,” Zarychta admits. “There are things about the school that are of value, but ultimately, if I had to choose to go to school all over again I would have to reevaluate what I want out of my experience and whether that is worth the money.”
Recent graduates from Columbia who went through similar programs, but at about half the cost, also felt the ups and downs of their art school experience. “You have to be really driven and focused to get through it,” recalls Kelli Cousins who received her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media at Columbia. “When I decided to come back to school I wanted to be in an arts environment. There are probably other ways I could have done that without spending a lot of money. What’s nice is that you have a group of dedicated people working towards a common goal.” Steven Mancione, also a recent MFA grad from Columbia, uses his art as a platform for his mixed feelings towards art school.
He creates satirical illustrations that capture the anxieties of life as an artist on re-used and cheap construction materials such as installation boards and plywood in attempt to bridge the gap between the working class and the art world. His work tackles the disparity between his working-class background and his experience of pursuing an art career where he questions the artist’s role in society. “You are entering a murky world professionally when you choose to be an artist,” he says. “There is no easy step-by-step plan when you graduate.” Despite the uncertainty of his future he believes that any debt accumulation from art school is something the student should consider before enrolling. “You need to take the responsibility on yourself. You need to decided if you are going to be dedicated enough to make the degree worth it.” Mancione believes an artist must have strong work ethic with an everyday practice like any tradesman in order to have a chance at being successful.
A recent Columbia College alumni survey shows 55 percent of their graduates consider their current employment highly or moderately related to their program of study. This is significantly above the national average of 17 percent for Arts and Humanities graduates. Yet this does not guarantee that students will be able to pay back their student loans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average mean salary for fine artists was $44,160 in 2009. The lowest 10th percentile earned about $19,680 and about $86,650 in the 90th percentile. Artists took an especially hard hit from the recession and the National Endowment for the Arts claims that approximately 29,000 artists across all disciplines left their fields between 2008 and 2009.
SAIC did not provide any statistical information concerning their graduates, but offered plenty of advice in avoiding financial troubles once students graduate. Schutta recommends planning ahead. “Accurately assess your financial situation going in, communicate your concerns to the admissions staff or program head, and make sure you are exploring all your options. Partner with your financial aid counselor. If you are taking out loans, make sure they offer the best possible terms; for example, see if you qualify for income-based repayment.” Although the market is tough, more and more business are looking to visual artists to communicate ideas in an image-driven society. “Graduates need to be entrepreneurial when seeking out opportunities for themselves and look for ways to create their own jobs. They should also understand their competitive advantage in the job market. There are employers who are looking for bright, skilled, recent graduates who they can hire and train at a lower rate than employees with 10-15 years of experience.” Schutta also suggests gaining professional experience while in school. Taking advantage of opportunities to exhibit, publish, and administrate activities will help graduates be more prepared to take on industry jobs. Looking into programs that are more focused on employment after graduation is wise but make sure to read Part 3 about for-profit schools before investing.