Let’s assume that you’ve made the decision to attend art school. It is expensive and unless you are specializing in an applied art, like graphic design or commercial photography, after graduation, for most students it will be challenging to sustain oneself in one's chosen field. For talented artists, there will always be opportunities. There just won't be as many opportunities for artists as there are for engineers, or many other professions, relative to the annual pool of graduates of each discipline. However, our society does need artists, in the same way that we need continuing generations of geneticists, doctors, carpenters and so forth. Someone needs to take the plunge.
If you are that person, or if you know someone who is, I highly recommend Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era by William V. Dunning. It should be required reading in all 4-year B.F.A. programs, and ideally assigned in the first or second years. Don’t get thrown by the word “Postmodern” in the title. This book is about how to be a good student in art school and how to get the most from your time there. Like many fields, art is competitive, and students will want to leave school prepared.
As an aside, one might wonder if attending art school is even necessary to become an artist. In theory, I would say no, as there have been other models of study and apprenticeship in the past. However, as a practical matter, as I look at work showing at major galleries here in New York City, I don’t remember seeing a resume of an exhibiting artist under 50 without some form of formal art education listed. I’m sure there must be some, but it is rare. In fact most artists have an M.F.A. in addition to an undergraduate degree.
What makes graduate school so important? From the perspective of one’s career: networking. Most schools have a lecture series that brings in prominent artists, gallerists, and curators, perhaps 5 – 10 each semester. Typically, the lecturer will make a presentation to both the entire student body and afterwards meet individually with the graduate students. These meetings can result in studio assistant positions after graduation, recommendations, introductions, and other opportunities to those who are ready. The faculty of the school itself can be a great resource to the M.F.A. students after graduation. And finally, the relationships formed among classmates will provide the initial source of group support and feedback for the student after school has ended. These connections tend to be deeper at the graduate level.
For aspiring artists who have degrees in other fields, graduate school provides a way to catch up to their B.F.A. peers, Sometimes a year or two of preparation is all that is needed to put together a successful application. For these potential students, graduate school also offers something they probably haven’t experienced before: the time to focus one’s attention on art making free of distraction. This will likely be as significant a benefit of graduate school as the networking possibilities.
Two related issues that I hope to comment on at some point in the future: (1) the debate on whether art itself can be taught; and (2) how to keep going after the support system that school provides has faded into the past.