Is a fine art degree really worth it?

Is a fine art degree really worth it?

We live in an age of self-taught artists and DIY culture. Is investing time and money in art school still a wise move?

By Kay Lynn Chua

In a profession coloured by bold creativity and unique mediums of expression, the paths to becoming a successful artist are equally varied. For some, art is a serious discipline, just like studying economics, law, or medicine – there are skills one must practice, learn, and communicate in order to master one’s field.  For others, art can be explored independently without the need for formal training.

For a mentally and labour-intensive course like fine art, studying at a university can be extremely beneficial. Attending a good art school helps students hone in on both real world and technical skills, fosters connections, and opens doors to a wide variety of resources and facilities.

Technical skills and conceptual thinking

Samsudin Wahab is a modern & contemporary painter and was the 2009 winner of the Malaysia Emerging Artist (MEA) award. He is well known as a multidisciplinary artist who is part of the printmaking collective Chetak 12.

Mother by Samsudin Wahab

As an artist who took the path of attending art school, he believes that studying fine art has helped propel his career forward. “I’m a kampung boy from Perak,” Samsudin reflects on his humble beginnings, “back then I only knew one thing – it is that I loved art but I didn’t know how to go about it [being an artist].” Studying fine art at UiTM gave him a strong foundation in art technique and taught him how to manoeuvre the art world as a working artist.

At UiTM, Samsudin did not only learn how to operate an etching press or produce silk screens but was also educated on how to conceptualise his work. In arts, there must be a balance between content and aesthetics. Many of those who skip art school miss out on the training of how to give meaning to their work. A creative institution helps put into place a practice of carrying out research before producing work and engaging in critique classes. This structured manner of working, coupled with the guidance of qualified educators equips students with the necessary skills to talk about their work beyond aesthetics.

One foot in the door

Ricardo Chaves Tovar is the Head of Fine Arts at Equator Art College. He is a professional who studied art in USA, Canada, and China and has many skills under his belt including printmaking, ceramics and sculpture. Ricardo believes that a degree in fine art is not as narrow as it sounds and that it equips graduates with unique skills for several options of careers.

A painter may be trained in impasto oil painting while a sculptor’s forte could be glass blowing or welding. Although these skills serve an artist well, it can be applied in other professions as well. “When you study art, you learn skills that few possess. You can use these skills to find a job, however, the first objective is to become an artist,” Ricardo urges. Many of Ricardo’s recent graduates are employed in different fields, with some going on to become teachers and others working as muralists for a well-known theme park. Some of these positions would not have been easily secured without an art degree qualification.

Self-taught artist Syahbandi Samat made his big break in the art scene by winning the Malaysia Emerging Artist (MEA) award in 2011. He is most well-known for his skillful use of the ballpoint pen in creating all his works.

House: Keeping Sanity l by Syahbandi Samat

After finishing high school, Syahbandi made a bold decision to become a full-time artist without pursuing a degree in the arts. When applying to competitions, galleries, or residencies, Syahbandi remembers being judged for not having studied at a university. Although he still keeps a positive attitude about this and believes that one should not be hampered by what other people think, this was nonetheless an obstacle to him.

In a way, a fine art degree shows potential employers, funders or partners that you have the basic foundations of art and that you are heavily invested in the field. In situations where a piece of paper is the first and maybe only impression one gets to make, an arts degree can act as an extra boost.

A ready network to plug into

Creating connections at art school is one of the smart career-building moves a young student can make. Building relationships with peers and lecturers is a golden opportunity those enrolled in art school can take advantage of. 

A good school that attracts the right talent is a great place to build a strong network. A close-knit group of peers practicing their art and figuring out creative solutions together will form bonds that may go on to benefit the growth of an art career as university mates turn into collaborators, colleagues, or even studio mates after graduation.

An institution that hires lecturers who are artists, creatives and researchers themselves creates a highly valuable learning environment for its students. With their real-world insights, helpful resources and connections, lecturers are mentors that can support young artists as they find their footing.

Liu Ching Hwa, head of Fine Art at Malaysia Institute of Art (MIA), is himself a mentee of renowned Malaysian installation artist Zulkifli Yusof. As many students pass through the doors of MIA, Liu makes a constant effort to retain student-lecturer relationships. “As a lecturer, even though my students graduate, I still keep in touch with them. I trace their success and follow up on whether they are still producing art,” states Liu.

Having exhibited his work in Mauritius, Indonesia, and Vienna, Liu uses his years of experience and connections to look out for opportunities for deserving ex-students. He makes an effort to inform young artists of suitable opportunities and even recommends recent graduates to galleries when they seek out new contacts.

A few considerations

Selecting the right art school is almost as important as deciding whether or not to join one. It can be argued that some academies in Malaysia train students to paint from a photo-realistic perspective while others lean towards a more conceptual approach. If the programme does not encourage the development of individual artistic styles, students from the same institution run the risk of thinking and making cookie cutter art.

Spending 2.5 to 3 years paying for a fine art degree might not be something that everyone can afford. Although, having one may allow better pay negotiations when applying for a job that calls for such qualifications.

Weighing it out

An art programme’s rigorous curriculum allows students to have a strong foundation in the arts. The educational environment of an arts academy provides students with a safe space to cultivate their own artistic voice and also increases their networking prospects. Whether or not an individual works well within this structure should be considered when contemplating this option.

Being a successful artist is ultimately based on hard work, commitment, and making the most of all opportunities that come one’s way.

Kay Lynn studied fine arts at the California Institute of the Arts. In addition to writing, she is also the Business Development Executive at A.P. Art Gallery KL. As an artist, her work is a candid and constant exploration focusing on the emotions that are triggered by the constant changes in the modern day that affect the social nature of our daily lives.