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Perhaps you think you could do better than the latest Turner Prize winner, or you yearn for a creative career, rather than an academic one. Maybe you just fancy ogling nudes in the classroom as well as exploring your personal creative horizons and having some sort of mind-expanding adventure. Will attending art school enable you to fulfil these ambitions or leave you uninspired and on the dole?
Art School History
Students of art have historically learnt their craft in the studios of professional artists. The 19th Century saw the establishment of many art schools in Britain, offering full or part-time courses both as further education for school leavers and as adult education. Diplomas were awarded to recognise the period of study. Art students were generally viewed as being bohemian and enjoying a liberated lifestyle.
During the 20th Century many art schools merged with technical colleges to form polytechnics with courses gradually acquiring degree status. All remaining polytechnics gained university status in 1992 and are now able to award degrees. A few art schools remain independent with degrees validated by an associated university. Older established higher ranking universities may contain a Faculty of Art although most of these offer Art History rather than practical art courses. The prestigious art colleges in London now comprise the University of the Arts London1.
Art study today encompasses a vast range of styles and media including painting, sculpture, digital techniques, conceptual work, installations, photography, textiles as well as all the performing arts.
Preparation for Art School (University)
These days entry to art school depends on more than enthusiasm to explore the potential of the visual world or artistic talent, although these are both paramount. Institutions vary in their entry requirements, but you should at the very least acquire four GCSE passes at grade C or above, including English Language. The next step is usually A levels or a BTEC National Diploma in an Art subject. Unless already specialising in a specific area such as photography, you will need to practice drawing skills including life drawing (yes, this means nudes). If you haven't yet done so, learn to use image manipulation software.
It is possible to apply for a degree course directly after A levels if you anticipate gaining sufficient UCAS points and have decided on a particular area of study. Generally it is beneficial to defer university application in favour of a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design. This is a one year course available from a variety of further education colleges and universities. Apart from an A level in an art subject (or equivalent), assessment of a portfolio of your work is the major criteria for acceptance. Fees will normally be paid by your LEA and student loans are not available for this course. However, some universities do offer the Foundation Diploma as year zero of a four year degree course. The diploma provides opportunities to try a variety of techniques using different tools and media as well as consolidating basic skills2.
Applying to University
The UCAS System
Entry to art courses comes under UCAS but with a rather complex system of route A or B. Route A, selecting up to five courses with a deadline for application in January is the same procedure as applying for other subjects. Route B has a later deadline of March, allowing more time to prepare a suitable portfolio and determine your preferred area of study. You may apply for up to three courses, in order of preference. Your application is only forwarded to your second choice if your first choice turns you down or you decline their offer. You may apply using both route A and route B combining up to five courses.
UCAS currently lists 2154 art courses (including History of Art) spread among nearly two hundred institutions. There are many specialist courses eg, illustration, animation, graphic design, textiles, photography or other media as well as various combinations.
Do plenty of research; view graduate work (often available on university websites), visit open days and study the course details to discover which courses appeal to you. Is it all conceptual, more traditional, and mostly practical, or lots of theory? Yes, you will have to do some writing! Are there lots of modules to choose from, or is there a set programme of study? Is there an opportunity to gain work experience (generally considered useful) or travel abroad? Fine Art courses usually have a common first year then the option to concentrate on painting, sculpture or printmaking. You might wish to combine art with another (more academic) subject. A course that includes modules on business studies and marketing could be very useful.
Art can be expensive to study - purchasing materials, getting work printed and so on. Check what is included and what you will have to buy yourself.
Before getting carried away with aspirations of Oxford's lofty spires3, check the entry requirements. Whilst many institutions are more concerned with your portfolio than academic achievements, many still expect a certain level of attainment.
As for any subject, there are various aspects to consider. Would you feel more at home in a self-contained countryside campus or in the centre of a bustling town? How would you cope in a huge multi-faceted university or a small college? How far away from home are you keen to go - or perhaps more to the point, how far is your family prepared to transport you? Bear in mind that you will probably have to travel for interview, carrying a portfolio. What sort of accommodation is available and what percentage of first years are guaranteed university accommodation? Are there bursaries for which you are eligible to apply? Look at university rankings with profiles for staff/pupil ratio, spend per student and so on such as The Sunday Times University Guide and The Guardian University Guide. (There are also Internet guides with an alternative viewpoint including feedback provided by students4 or giving more detailed reports on teaching standards5).
Applicants to art school often have an additional consideration. Do you wish to attend a dedicated art college where you will only meet other art students? Check the location of an Art department within a university - it may be geographically equally isolated from other faculties, although accommodation may facilitate mixing with other students. Does the department have its own social centre or is there a students' union within easy reach?
There’s no sitting back waiting to be called for an interview - now you must put the final touches to your portfolio. Some institutions tell you what they expect to see in your portfolio, or specify a number of pieces of artwork. Your teachers will certainly be able to give advice. Perfectly finished work is not as important as showing development of ideas with annotations to indicate your thoughts and the range of your skills.
Interviews are heavily centred around Springtime. Institutions that receive a very large number of applications may ask you to send a sample of work so that they can select a shortlist of candidates to interview. Some will ask all candidates to come on the same day, bringing their portfolio to be left for viewing - only the short list to be individually interviewed. The personal interview can be a pleasant chat about your work and you in general or it may be a thorough grilling with searching questions.
You can expect to receive the decision within a few days, particularly with route B applications. If doing the Foundation diploma, offers will likely be conditional on simply passing the course. In this case there is no need to have a firm and reserve choice; as soon as you receive an offer that you are happy to accept, you can choose to withdraw your application from other institutions.
At Art School
A good course is going to enable you to develop your talents and learn new skills under expert tuition. What else you experience will depend on the style of the course, the character of the institution and the other students!
I went to art school. I went to three art schools in fact. You get to meet a lot of highly eccentric people and see what thoroughly weird things interest them. You also get to do thoroughly weird things yourself and receive some form of recognised qualification for them. I got to spend eight hours a day for a month in sensory deprivation at art school. I worked with someone who made life size models of medieval warriors, a la Sun Tze, out of gingerbread. I don't think experiences like this are readily available anywhere other than an art school.
Following an art based course is not just about giving free rein to your imagination and producing pieces of work. Hopefully you will also become adept at researching appropriately, working to a brief, self-appraisal and presenting your work to a variety of audiences. Studying art can be tough - you must be prepared to accept criticism in order to develop your potential. There will be lectures and seminars but much of the time you will have to be self-motivated, doing research and completing set projects.
After Art School
So, you've spent three years being engaged in an exciting, stimulating and challenging world of images, objects and ideas, not to mention all the other typical student activities. What next? Not a high salary, certainly. The Universities UK February 2007 report put arts graduates at the bottom of a scale of expected graduate salaries, also least difference between graduate and non-graduate salaries6.
An Artist at Last?
Carving out a career purely as an artist or perhaps as a freelance designer or illustrator is hard and rarely leads to a high income. It requires self promotion, tendering for projects, entering competitions and finding an outlet for your work. If you have the necessary financial support you can consider going for it full-time. Otherwise you may have to find employment and reserve your spare time for developing a reputation. But generally only a tiny proportion of art students become successful artists. Like most industries, the art world is focused on marketability and popularity. You may be required to produce work to a deadline, to satisfy clients or fulfil a brief, any of which may be contrary to your creative inclinations.
Another way of Being an Artist?
There are many areas of work related to the arts within which there are jobs involving some sort of creativity: publishing, advertising, the media, theatre management, video and computer games, education, museums, auction houses and galleries, interior design, product design. Surveys have determined that 80% of art and design graduates end up in an occupation relevant to art and design. According to a 2007 Work Foundation report, the creative sector accounts for 7.3% of the economy and employs 1.8m people. Designers (interiors, products and industrial) command the highest salaries in the arts field.
Fancy a Change of Direction?
Whatever type of art course you have taken, you should have acquired and developed a range of transferable skills desired by employers: imagination, analytical ability, time management, presentation and communication skills, flexibility and adaptability. Graduates are welcome in many fields, not just in the creative sphere; gaining a first or upper second is more important than the subject taken.
Those who hope to be a practicing artist or those who wish to take their study further might well be advised to go on to do a Masters degree. There are benefits to this, the most obvious being the pyramid effect - the further up the academic ladder you go the less people there are on your level and therefore the competition is less. Also a lot of galleries and curators tend to want to show your work more if you have the letters MA after your name.
Success Without Study?
Viewing abstract daubs with a high price tag attached, many people are inclined to make comparisons with the output of children. When a glass of water on a shelf is a prized exhibit in a gallery, one might wonder if it is really necessary to have a degree to be a successful artist. Certainly, there are plenty of keen amateur artists making modest sales, with no more training than art classes at school or perhaps adult education.
Many amateur artists submit their work to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. All sorts of doors get flung open for the lucky few who have their work accepted.
The rise of the Internet and home computing has brought the opportunity for visual creativity into the lives of nearly everyone. Those who have a talent for visual design can show their talents to a worldwide market. Getting a toehold in the industry by having work accepted by a company may well set you on a career path without needing to obtain qualifications. The field of video gaming or web design can be a good opening for entrepreneurial youngsters.
There is tremendous satisfaction to be gained from being creative, even if the financial rewards are small. You never know, one day you might be one of the elite - you'll know you've made it when you can put RA after your name!