There are many personal factors that must be carefully considered by anybody, working in any artistic discipline, who is grappling with this question. While I have no way of knowing your personal capacities, I can certainly give you my general opinion…and you know I love doing that.
There are three primary reasons to go to art school:
The Fundamentals: Even if you have inherent disdain for long-standing artistic traditions and imagine yourself skipping through your career breaking every rule there is, it would behoove you to learn what the rules are before you trash them. Knowing the fundamental methodologies of your artistic discipline will allow you to break rules in a deliberate manner and with utter confidence. There is a big difference between a mistake and intentional disregard for traditionally held creative rules; and your audience can tell the difference. Believe me, even the most novice arts consumer will notice the lack of awareness surrounding a digression unless you approach it deliberately and with confidence.
In addition, learning the history of your art form will provide a larger context for your own personal exploration.
Vocabulary: The development of a creative vocabulary will help you confidently communicate with other artists and the public about your work. In general it can be difficult to discuss the creative process and even more difficult to talk about the artistic product, so spending time in an educational environment where you are collaborating with artistic peers and professors will help you develop your own creative vocabulary and learn existing language that can serve as a launch pad for more personalized communication.
Connections: Let’s face it sometimes it’s not about you; it’s about who you know. Relationships are important to artists and it’s never too soon to start developing them. Often it is in art school that an artist develops critical relationships that have an on-going impact on his or her work and career. Professors, particularly those still working in the field, can provide links to other artists, arts organizations, and possible mentors. Professors themselves can become life-long trusted advisers. Other students can provide opportunities for collaborations now, and in the future.
Now there are many ways to peel a potato. While you can certainly learn these lessons, develop these skills and make these connections in a formal university setting, it may also be possible to acquire them outside of a traditional setting. With the rise in popularity of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) you can learn many of the basics online, on your own timeline and at your own pace. Coursera is a good place to begin looking. Many of these courses are taught by leading experts who teach at major universities.
Community colleges and community centers offer a variety of classes. Do not pooh-pooh this idea! I know plenty of uber-talented people who teach in these types of venues. Here you can begin to develop those critical relationships. In addition, do not discount the value of a mentor.
Between us, I seldom run into artists — and I’m talking about performing artists and writers, as well as visual artists — who built their career on a college degree. If you have the chops, know the basics, work hard, and develop strategic relationships you can be as successful any university graduate.
PS. If you hope to be a teaching artist, disregard all of the above and go to school; the best one you can afford.
January 21, 2015