Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
I’m an artist in my mid-twenties who has absolutely no formal education. So far I’ve managed to be fairly happy with small but very meaningful visibility, knowing that art making is about process and that it takes time to find one’s self. But I’m starting to hit a wall when it comes to the growth of my practice, and I’m worried that my lack of “training” might be my problem, so I’m slowly starting to consider going to an art school, with great fear, mainly because I haven’t been in an educational institution for a long time. So my question is: how important do you think education (art school) is in order for someone to be or to become a professional artist? Do you see it as absolutely necessary, or do you think that one can do without?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you could toil your whole life and make profound work and still remain nearly invisible, so let’s separate the notions of visibility and making. Visibility—that is to say, participating in group exhibitions, exhibiting your work in solo shows, receiving press, and all the ancillary duties that come with and reinforce it (such as giving artist lectures)—has shockingly little to do with art making. Instead, visibility is often correlated with how much money you’re born with, who you know, where you went to school, where you work, and other social factors, but in the long run it is not directly related to the quality or process of your work. This is why Josh Smith is a famous painter.
We also need to set aside the notion of how you become a “professional” artist. There’s a wide range of what can be considered professional, so figure out what it means to you. Does it mean that you make enough sales to support yourself (and possibly a family)? Does it mean that a gallery represents you? Or is it enough to be able to scrawl artist on your tax forms and write off your studio rent and materials? If you can find a copy of Frieze Magazine, Issue 121 from March 2009, read Dan Fox’s beautiful essay A Serious Business: What does it mean to be a professional artist? and explore your assumptions about what makes one a “professional.”
Now let’s consider growth. You’re right that school is a great place to push past your current boundaries. Your professors, advisors, and peers alike will challenge you, and you can learn a tremendous amount in a short time if you really immerse yourself in that environment. However, you might want to weigh the cost: according to this website, unless you receive a full tuition scholarship, you’ll pay an average of $28,000 per year for a BFA degree (for an MFA you might pay as much as $40,000 per year). Assuming that you could get a scholarship for half of that, you’d pay $14,000 per year, or a total of $56,000 for four years. And that’s not including other fees, housing, food, transportation, books and supplies, or art materials. On July 1, 2013, the federal student loan interest rates go up to 6.8 percent, so if you took out a loan for $60,000 and paid it back over thirty years, you’d end up paying a total of $140,815.84. Did I mention that this doesn’t include your bus fare or sketchbooks?
I don’t want to discourage you from exploring school as an option; it can be a truly wonderful place to grow if you do your research and find a school that’s right for you. But I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to consider the financial burden you’d likely take on as a result. There are approximately 846 MFA fine arts programs in the United States, and the MFA degree is no longer a rarity, meaning that employers have their pick of each year’s crop. This means you can’t count on a high or medium compensation job after you graduate and you’d likely be repaying your loans on roughly the same salary or wage you’re making now.
Luckily, if you’re self-motivated and don’t care about an actual degree, you have other options for getting an education and having a dialogue around your studio practice. You need three basic components in order to replicate the work of an MFA: looking at art, reading about art, and talking about art. The first of these is accomplished by going to museums and galleries regularly, by looking at institutional, gallery, and artist websites, and by looking at books, especially exhibition catalogues and artist monographs. The second component is also fairly easy: if you have a good public library in your area, you can start there; if there’s an art school nearby, you can also ask if it provides public accounts (if not, you can still look at the books and magazines, just not check them out). There are tons of online resources, like this list of art history websites and the archives of contemporary art magazines. Many professors put their course syllabi online, so by going to art school websites and looking at the class offerings, you can follow links to the materials that professors are using in their seminars.
The last component is the most difficult to obtain, but it’s still possible with some hard work and persistence. Write to artists and curators in your area and ask them for studio visits. They might not respond, or they might turn you down, but it’s worth trying. You probably know other artists in your city, so think about starting an informal critique group that meets once or twice a month (you could also start an art-theory book club and wrestle with the big ideas of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries over wine). If you want to grow, you need to be talking to people about your work and ideas and be getting feedback and advice. As you acknowledged in your query, making art is a process, and the best way to speed up your growth is to find out what other people think about your work and the work of others. A good studio visit isn’t about selling or future exhibitions, it’s about starting a dialogue that will help you make your artwork better and better.
I want to close by saying that this list of options isn’t comprehensive. I encourage you to talk your ideas and plans through with some trusted colleagues and ask studio visitors what they think of art school and education. In the end, your best resource is the community right outside your studio. Good luck!
 Author’s update: When this column was originally published, the link to Fox’s essay was live at https://frieze.com/article/a_serious_business/. Unfortunately, Frieze has since taken the article down, so interested readers might try to locate a print copy of the magazine (Issue 121, March 2009). We regret no longer being able to provide direct access to the article.