Thursday, July 3, 2014

Brutally Honest Art School Survey Results

Almost one year ago I graduated from the Academy of Art University. This upcoming anniversary made me wonder: how are my fellow grads doing? How do they feel about art school now that they've had a year or two out in the real world?

So I put together this survey based around the question: has art school been beneficial for your career? How are people doing emotionally as well as financially?

First a disclaimer - this was not a professional or scientific survey. This is just something I did to satisfy my own curiosity and provide some interesting material for my blog readers. Since I'm not a statistician, I wanted to keep this survey simple. In one week I received over 200 responses, from grads from many different art schools.

PART 1: The Multiple Choice Questions

About 55% of my respondents graduated from art school 4 years ago or more. In future surveys I think I would require participants to have graduated less than 10 years ago, since the world of illustration and art schools has probably changed significantly in the last 10 years.

74% of respondents define themselves as having an art-related job - although this question does not specify whether that job is employment or freelance. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, that number drops to 66%.

About 62% of participants reported working in jobs that are related or somewhat related to the field of illustration they studied for. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, that number drops to 59%.

76% of participants reported doing freelance work, although the majority of them described it as "a few sporadic commissions here and there." 21% are full-time freelancers. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, 71% are doing freelance work, with 48% describing it as "sporadic" and 14% doing full-time freelance.

Ok, so, although 74% of respondents said that they work in an art-related job, 42% reported making less than $10k per year from their art. Obviously, this is not a livable wage. Either participants had different interpretations of the question, or their income is being supplemented elsewhere, which I should have asked about. Either way, my question was not clear enough to give us an accurate idea of whether people are making a living off of their artwork. (I added the "including art-related employment, freelancing, etc" after I began noticing this trend in the responses.) I'm retracting it in order to prevent spreading misinformation online, but I think we can all agree that art schools aren't creating millionaires.

Among all respondents: 39% of respondents said they had no unpaid student debt from art school. The second largest group, 24%, had between $1-$30k in debt. 16% had between $30k-$60k, 10% had between $60k-$90k, and 11% had more than $90k.

For those who have been out of art school for 1 year or less, $1-$30,000 becomes the majority category at 29%. Meanwhile, 25% reported no unpaid student debt from art school.

As you can see, the responses were pretty spread out here, but 33% of respondents described themselves as "mostly happy" with their careers. Only 5% chose "very unhappy." "Very happy" and "mostly unhappy" were tied at exactly 16.58%.

Generally these responses leaned towards the positive. The largest response here was "somewhat helpful, somewhat unhelpful" at 32%, with "mostly helpful" close behind at 30%.

PART 2: The Open Comment Box

In the last question of the survey, I had a text box where I invited people to share their thoughts about art school. People had a lot to say! Responses ranged from very positive to very bitter, but four statements kept emerging in both positive and negative comments:

1. There is a lack of business skills taught in art schools.

"The Academy does a very poor job preparing students for careers. I was told to 'make a website and send out a few postcards.' That's it. How pathetic is that? That's not what it takes AT ALL and that attitude combined with my own lack of self-confidence meant that it took years for me to be able to make any money at all from art." 
"I do wish they had taken a much more serious approach when it came to teaching Business of Art, or how to promote yourself as an artist. The most we got was an introduction to accounting." 
"I am glad that I attended, but I wish I would have done some things differently. My school could have had more/better classes for the business/marketing side of fine art. I would say to prospective students that they should take classes not in their selected major. As a Fine arts student I mostly focused on studio arts and not photo, digital design and media, video/audio, and other commercial type avenues of art and design. I think it is very important to be proficient in your chosen major/medium, but have the knowledge and ability to work in other skill sets." 
"I don't think I was prepared enough for the business side of things. I think the grad students got a lot more (understandably) but undergraduate only had 1 class regarding portfolio, not the everyday life of running your own business." 
"Pretty good training on skills, pretty poor training on the business and career side of things. In particular, the faculty seem (in hindsight) pretty clueless about how you go about getting work these days, and the school did a haphazard job setting up its graduating students to make a living (way too much emphasis on that fabled Spring Show rather than encouraging students to publish and promote themselves). Advice to prospective students would be to start building their careers right away rather than waiting for the teachers to tell them to, because they never will."

2. Getting to meet people was one of the biggest benefits of art school.
"Art School helped me meet like-minded people, and make life-long friends. If I hadn't attended art school, I wouldn't have met two of my best friends who I eventually moved to New York City with and have continued to push each other artistically ever since. So I don't think I could trade that for anything." 
"In the end being good at art is still largely down to you doing the necessary work on your own, though school may provide the structure you need to do so (I have heard of schools that actually do this well) and it will also provide you with an environment of peers, which may help build your confidence should you lack it." 
"I am very glad that I attended art school. I think what helped most about being at an art school versus a traditional institution is that you are surrounded by people that will be better than you, and being around that type of talent will make you so much better if you allow it to." 
"The only redeeming factor of art school was meeting my classmates and the friendships that developed. Otherwise a total waste of money." 
"While I had a great experience and wouldn't trade the friends and connections I made for the world, I have to admit that much of what I paid to learn is actually out there for free, and if you are a motivated self starter then you could get way more mileage for your dollar than what traditional art colleges charge." 
"I definitely thought my education was worth it. It strengthened my skills and taught me so much in such a short amount of time. Faculties and instructors mostly try their best to help or give advice even outside of the class that I took with them. Met a great group of artist, and having that support from my artist community means a lot, especially since freelance can be such an isolating career."

3. Regret and stress over the amount of student loans.
"Loved the school but it was way too expensive. Not worth the excessively expensive cost honestly, as wonderful as it was." 
"Right now, I've got a job as a barista at Starbucks and I draw between breaks. I have a huge student debt and I'm thinking about borrowing money from the bank to help pay it off. I kinda wish I could have foreseen the debt before attending, and I should have listened to my parents when they initially refused to pay my way through art school. I feel like the poster-child for the coffee-brewing, burger flipping art school graduate." 
"The likelihood of an artist seeing a return investment from going to art school is low. If you want to be an artist, get a business degree. I regret going into $90,000 of debt for a struggling career. If I could do it again, I would not go into crippling debt to go to art school." 
"I'm glad I went for the experience and education, but regret it because I really couldn't afford the price tag to attend and am paying way too much now for it. I would suggest not going to any school that you can't afford and think it's just as likely to learn how to be a great artist now with the endless amount of resources that doesn't include paying a ton of money to learn at an institution." 
"My husband and I both attended art school. I majored in illustration, he in photography. I still feel that my education was beneficial, he does not. I do wish the outstanding student loan debt was not so crippling and I so wish I had made better loan choices. What I would say to future students is go part time so you can work and not take on unnecessary debt. Oh, and watch those interest rates!" 
"I want to suicide because of debt."
4. Art school is what you make of it.

This was by far the most common response, in both positive and negative comments.
"You get out what you put in. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard; success doesn't just get handed over on a silver platter." 
"It's far too easy to blame art school for a lack of traction after graduation. Anyone can pass through art school with good grades and learn not too much. The superstars have laser focus, monk-like work habits and use art school as a jumping-off point." 
"I wish I was harder on my teachers - I was an inquisitive student and I asked lots of questions, but I never felt confident enough to speak up when class instruction was unsatisfactory. My art school experience would have been much better if I had taken more initiative in general." 
"Straight A's do not in themselves guarantee a job or even suggest sufficient skill, as harsh as that may sound. It's not all doom and gloom, it's just a reminder to stay honest with yourself and never get complacent! There is always more to learn." 
"Push yourself, do the best that your talent will allow, and try to do better and never ever give up.What you love to do needs to be in your blood and the air you breathe. I've known students that went to art school and crapped out their first semester because they didn't have the love for art that they thought they did. All in all art school can be one of the best times you will ever have in your life. P.S don't party too much."
Thank you to everyone who participated! I hope you found this interesting. In a year or so I'd like to do this survey again, with more thorough and in-depth questions. If you have any suggestions, feedback or ideas, please leave a comment.


  1. Oh dear, number 3 is my sound right now! Thanks Kelley for this survey.

  2. Thanks for opening up this discussion! :)

  3. Yes, I also wish more business skills had been taught, being an art major myself. I hope the person who mentioned suicide is ok...that is an alarming statement...

  4. The debt issue is not unique to art school. Debt is debt, regardless of how one acquires it. The key is to make a realistic cost/benefit analysis of the debt prior to assuming it. This is a business skill that should be taught by parents and high schools, so that potential debtors can make informed, rational decisions.


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