Is art too expensive to learn?

An alarming fact dropped into my email in box today. The cost of a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University is now $74,250. That’s just for a one year course. Which prompted me to ponder me: Is art now too expensive for most people to learn?

It’s not quite so much in the UK – an MA in Fine Art at Central St Martins costs £6045 or £15.165 for international students. Which rather begs the question whether Americans wouldn’t be better having a year in the UK than paying their own domestic fees.  However to start at undergraduate level and achieve a BA with a Foundation year costs £37,000 at my local university.  

All this of course, is against the backdrop of an energy and inflation crisis and wages which are not rising as fast as the cost of a gallon of petrol. What is affordable depends entirely on individual circumstances and how much one values the education over other purchasing choices. Yet, there is no question that these costs make many unable to join in and others pause and consider very carefully if its good value for money. So, is formal art education becoming unattainable? And does that even matter?

I come at this from the view point of an education junkie, it has to be said. Admittedly I was lucky enough to do a first degree in the age when grants were available and I had parents who scrimped to top up my partial grant. Since then I have done no less than four postgraduate qualifications all of which were paid for privately and only on elf which was strictly necessary for my career.  By no means am I anti-education.  I also understand that courses have costs, that people need to make a living and that education has value that lasts far, far beyond the  days of the class itself.  I am an adult educator myself and have taught at a University. This is not an anti-education post. 

However, when I arrived at a time in life where I had a lump sum available, a stretch of open time and the freedom to follow my education addiction wherever it might lead me, I found myself pausing and rejecting a lot of options that were theoretically open to me.  On the surface, yes there was a bit of sticker shock. But I could have overcome that. What really stopped me was discerning the difference between a need for education and the desire to learn. 

There are some areas of life where the degree certificate is the gateway to a world that is otherwise closed to you. Law, my previous profession is certainly like that. But art isn’t. Anyone can make and sell art, especially now the gatekeeping system of galleries is breaking down thanks to the internet. You can make art with a pencil and a piece of paper on your kitchen table – as many artists with fancy studios learned when they were locked out of those premises by Covid. If you want to be an academic, teaching or researching art at a University level, a degree may be required. But to be an artist? No. 

To be an improving artist you need to learn and that’s not necessarily the same as going to a formal educational establishment.  At heart, learning is about having curiosity and finding out the answers. 

With a degree you are pushed along a formal structure decided by someone else.  Whilst that might have the benefit of taking you to areas of challenge that you may not have known about or that you may otherwise have avoided, it also has the counteracting disadvantage of stopping you following your own curiosity and making your own path. It curtails freedom to follow your joy, to learn what you need at that particular moment in life. It could be said that degree courses are to some extent the antithesis of the very heart of art making which is the freedom of  self expression and the development of uniqueness.  A degree will certainly pull to you towards a standard but if that standard is not one hundred percent aligned with what your soul wants to create, or your brain is interested in, compliance with the standard will not lead to a sense of fulfilment. It will leave you hungry for the learning you still need. 

The alternative option is to become an autodidact and follow learning rather than formal educational qualification. In the writing world the DIY MFA site encourages writers to do just that. It breaks down what an MFA contains and supports followers to recreate the components themselves. Community, making your own work and looking at other people’s work are the artistic equivalents of their credo.  

You can compile the resources you can afford from free internet videos and books though to visiting art exhibitions. Taking more affordable individual classes and workshops* that meet a precise need you identify as you encounter it in your own journey allows you the freedom to learn in pace with your own standards and to follow your joy and curiosity.  Practising and failing and trying again, seeking feedback from other artists in social media groups or in friendships you strike up via membership sites such as Your Art Tribe, Make Big Art Community or Connected Artists Club  is the sort of learning you need to do in any event on a degree course.  When you need the individual attention you may get from a University tutor set up sessions with a creativity coach or a mentor artist. If you need the accountability a structured course brings, buddy up with an other artists and set up accountability emails and calls. 

The advantage of such a self-learning approach is that creative process is at the very heart of it, because you must design and construct it yourself. You will be forced to reflect on your practice to decide what you need and where you resources are best placed – and reflection is one of the foundational skills needed. If money is not boundless you will have to think of creative ways to fund your study programme, or will have to save to take a class or buy a glossy art book,, requiring you to use your creative thinking in a new context, stretching that ‘muscle’ and requiring you to dig deep into what you value most in life.  

You will have the opportunity to choose from a wide range of artistic approaches and philosophies whether you take a workshop from an artist or whether you mine their blog archive for free. If you are able to attend residential or retreats or simply use social media judiciously you can extend your student cohort beyond the handful admitted to an MFA programme. You can learn from artist working in a range of cultural situations. The best thing about learning over formal education though? It never stops! you can (and should!) celebrate small regular wins without having to wait for that all or nothing your final exam or portfolio  assessment result, but there is no graduation. Learning is a way of being that will benefit you all through life not just for one year. If you go to University you will still need to learn to develop the learning habit even after you graduate. 

If you an afford a degree and want to do it. go for it. It is not my intention to suggest you should not. If it’s out of your reach however and you feel that without it you will never be fully equipped, will always be lacking some secret information or some validity in the art world, to you I say, that is simply not the case. Channel your longing into actively searching out what you want to know and own the knowledge and wisdom that you gain as a result.  A cap and gown does not an art artist make!. 

* There are many art courses around but some I can personally recommend are those run by Judy Woods, Sally Hirst, Lisa Call and Art2Life. These still have a significant cost so look out for their free taster courses and the free You Tube videos by artist such as Louise Fletcher, Liz Ackerley, Lewis Nobel  and  Danny Gregory  and many others as well.