Thursday, May 01, 2014

Equal Access to an Arts Education

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that "Over a long period of time, the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills." In other words, education is the cornerstone of ensuring equal access to opportunity and equal access to wealth [with hard work and perhaps a bit of luck] for all citizens in a democracy. And, therefore, equal access to education becomes the first priority in society's responsibility to ensure equal access to opportunity. 

Quite astonishingly to me, there are people for whom today's widening income inequality is not a problem. I don't mean billionaires who feel that the rest of us can eat cake now that they've got theirs, either, but middle-class people with what one would assume is no personal reason to see income inequality as anything but a bad thing for them. They have a main ideological reason (or to be more objective here, what they view as a rational reason) to dismiss the importance of income inequality, but to address it upfront here would distract too much from my main point (so I address it in a footnote below*).

Before Piketty's book had placed, as one writer called it, "an unexploded bomb within mainstream, classical economics," though, another economist, Joseph Stiglitz, made a thorough case for why we should indeed care about gross income inequality in his book "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." In the book, he addressed the main reason the growing inequality bothers me so much: how it impacts access to education and what that means for access to opportunity. Stiglitz wrote:
Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, we are not using one of our most valuable assets--our people--in the most productive way possible. 

Questions about the degree to which we're losing "equality of opportunity" are also debatable. One high-profile study found that economic mobility has not declined, but simply plateaued over the past 50 years, but there are other indications since that report came out that in the arts, in particular, the impact of income inequality stands to truly affect not only opportunity for artists to get a higher education, but the type of art our generation may collectively have as our legacy because of it. 

Indeed, the realities of rising tuition costs tell us somethings about true access to education, particularly in the visual arts, that are inescapable. Consider these findings in a must-read report by Charlotte Burns and Pac Pobric in the May issue of The Art Newspaper, titled "Art School: Beyond the Reach of the 99%?" (it's behind the firewall, but you really should support the Art Newspaper with a supports a large number of the brightest and hardest working arts journalist in the world [Full disclosure: I talked with Charlotte on this topic and am quoted in the article, but I get no kick-backs from encouraging you to subscribe.]):
It is more expensive to go to art school in America than an Ivy League college, leading to calls for structural reforms. According to figures from the US Department of Education, an undergraduate degree from a private art institution can cost as much as $250,000. Five of the most expensive colleges in the country, after taking into account the average scholarship and grant aid awarded, are visual art schools.

Many fear that the costs of education will act as a barrier to all but the very wealthy and could lead to art produced for the market. "A high-quality education is increasingly unattainable for people who are not members of the privileged class," says Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic directory of the non-profit ogranisation Creative Time. "This reality is clearly destructive to our democracy, to our society, and to our culture," she says. [...]
The price of a four-year undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design is $253,000 for tuition and expenses. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago expects its students to spend around $205,000, and at the San Francisco Art Institution, tuition alone costs $157,000.

$250,000 for a BFA. More than a business degree from some Ivy League schools costs. Who but the most wealthy of families can afford to make the decision to support a budding artist's dream to attend a top art school? Well, middle class families willing to take on what's likely to be a very risky degree of debt, perhaps:
Although some artists go on to build multi-million-dollar careers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that craft and fine artists earned an average wage of $44,000 in 2012, and that the sector will grow a mere 3% over the next eight years.
It's not just arts education that's skyrocketting, obviously, but something quite out of whack is indeed happening here. The report notes that "American university tuition has been rising around 2% to 3% faster than the rate of inflation since the 1980s...[while] government funding...has remained flat."

Art schools in particular, though, are seeing expenses rise because, as Larry Thompson, the president of Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, notes, "they're inefficient."

"You can't put 200 students in a room and teach them art," [Thompson says]. Ringling's student to staff ration is 12 to one, and at CalArts, there are around seven students per teacher.
Whenever you bring up lack of access to opportunity or education, someone is likely to bring up the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, as if the exceptions nullify the norm. Even in the Art Newspaper report, someone brings up Basquiat:
"I don't buy that there is a crisis," says one New York-based collector, however [note the anonymous quote]. "Not every artist needs to be trained formally, and tough times sometimes produce better art. Basquiat could never afford canvas, and it made him a more interesting artist."
One possible, unintended (I'm sure) take-away from that notion, however, is that students from wealthy families who can afford pricey degrees won't become as interesting artists as those who don't go to school, but looking at it that way reveals the foolishness of the sentiment in both directions. The fact remains that (taking the one-in-a-million-type geniuses out of the equation), for the average citizen, getting a degree in a top art school has significant advantages well beyond the type of art it may lead one to make. Connections with other artists, curators, possibly dealers, etc.; insights into the market from people who work in it; access to equipment and ongoing, professional feedback; these things give graduates wishing to sell their art a leg up over artists who never get all that. In other words, a degree gives them more access to opportunity, and so not being able to afford a degree automatically makes access to longer-term opportunity more difficult, all else being equal.

Moreover, because an art degree is so bloody expensive, there's concern about the frame of mind it creates for artists who leave school saddled with enormous debt. What kind of art will they make, knowing they have to pay their loans back?
Robert Storr, an artist and curator and the dean of the Yale University School of Art, went to the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s "with a few thousand dollars a year from the family, plus two jobs," he says. "I left with no prospects but no real debt. I think that's about ideal."
Flash forward to the present, and the situation is leading today's graduating students to defend "selling out" as a response to student loans and being marketed to their entire life:
For young people education has become as commercialized as anything else in modern life. Over the course of a single generation, education has been transformed from a relatively affordable public good into a social necessity priced as though it were a luxury item. [...]

The rising price of education changes us at an existential level, forcing young people and their parents to apply a cost-benefit analysis to learning. The prospect of a lifetime of student loan remittances will turn anyone into homo economicus looking for a return on investment.

You might have a passion for philosophy or dream of being an investigative journalist. But computer science or public relations are more likely to pay the bills, so you change your major – indeed, your whole life – accordingly.
Is that selling out or just trying to survive?
The "selling out" article (which really opened my eyes to the situation of students, and in particular art students, today) concludes "Let the price of higher education rise every year, and there will be fewer artists and activists – and more folks aiming for middle management."  

But even among those who still choose to become artists, how can graduating with a crushing degree of debt not affect one's decision-making in the studio? Forget the decision on which supplies you can afford (knowing each canvas, for example, is less you're paying back on your loans), the pressure to make what one can see is popular in the market must weigh seriously on such artists, even if it's not what they would make left to their own devices. Taken to it logical conclusion, then, our collectively legacy becomes slanted by economics significantly overweighing individual visions.

Robert Storr suggests reorienting philanthropy away from museum projects and toward education is part of the solution here:

"Ideally, we would full fund all tuition, as is done at the Yale School of Music thanks to the generous gift of a single patron and his wife." Donations would help to offset the costs of college, "so that whatever debt students have will not be crushing, and will not encourage them to make bad decisions about their work."
Part of the solution as well would seem to me to be for schools to sort through their priorities. The fact that tuition outpaces inflation by 2 to 3% is a clear indication that questions can and should be raised about where the money is going. New technology is certainly one explanation for the rising costs of art schools, but when we can see certain schools continually swallowing up extremely pricey real estate, it becomes clear new technology is not the only factor at play here. 

Given the advantages that an art degree can grant an artist interested in trying to live off of sales of their work, particularly with the all important networking that often takes place there, the quality of our cultural legacy requires we ensure as many talented artists as possible have access to a degree and the freedom afterward to make the art they need to make. Not only those from the privileged classes.    

*Addressing one main argument against caring about income inequality.  

The argument generally offered by pundits who don't give "two hoots" about income inequality in the US (or elsewhere) is that the extreme level of disparity in wealth we're seeing in many developed countries now is only a symptom of larger root problems we have. The main problem, they claim (or at least the one they focus most on), is the existence/practices of central banks (or here in the US, the Federal Reserve) in general, but in particular their practice of "quantitative easing" (or QE), an unconventional policy in which a central bank "purchases government securities or other securities from the market in order to lower interest rates and increase the money supply." The political logic behind permitting this practice is that by flooding financial institutions with capital, they can more easily loan money out, thereby sparking an otherwise stubbornly sluggish economy. QE's detractors argue that it saves the banks from failing when, because of risky business practices, perhaps they should have failed. The bankers are also among the only professionals currently seeing big increases in their incomes, it must be noted, so the notion that the burgeoning inequality is only a symptom of a larger problem is, in that respect, a logical conclusion. But that argument doesn't address the skyrocketing salaries of CEOs across most industries (far beyond banking) in the US or the wealth accumulated (and still accumulating) before the Great Recession by families who leave it to their de facto oligarchical children, which are even more responsible for the impact of inequality in access to opportunity in the US.

In my opinion, those who would have let the banks fail in 2008 (potentially leading to dramatic runs on them, drastic drops in consumer confidence, even wider unemployment, and extended economic recovery time) are willing to risk such misery because of a firmly held but entirely unverifiable belief in "the Invisible Hand of the Market," the Adam Smith metaphor for the theory that, left to it's own devices, capitalism will always, always auto-correct. Granted, just because we've never politically permitted a truly free-market where the Invisible Hand of the Market theory could be tested over a significant period of time doesn't mean it's not true. But since the 1980's, we've come much closer to that free-market ideal (through capital gains and other tax cuts and a steady rise in deregulation, privatization, and a weakening of labor's bargaining powers), and yet the only change we've seen is even more income inequality. It would appear the effectiveness of the Invisible Hand of the Market is an all-or-nothing proposition or that the auto-correcting takes more than a lifetime, either of which are rather convenient for its supporters but no one else.

Personally, even if such advocates are correct, I feel a focus on the extremely academic argument that we have to stop QE and possibly even dismantle the Fed (how? via revolution? via Ron Paul? and how much misery along the way will justify it?) and let the Invisible Hand of the Market work its magic is blocking them from seeing that income inequality in the US has evolved past being merely a symptom of a larger problem into being a new and potentially self-perpetuating problem in and of itself. And it's not only an economic problem. It's becoming a cultural one as well, as the rest of the post above tries to explain. 


Blogger lee kaloidis said...

" The fact remains that (taking the one-in-a-million-type geniuses out of the equation ..."

Really, Ed?

I think if you examine art and culture over the last 100 years, in all media, especially in the States, you will find that the vast majority of the most powerful, influential, inventive, and enduring art has come from people who had either no official academic training, or very little, or who were only able to "survive" academia because they entered already pretty much fully formed and developed and were stubborn enough to remain untouched by the structured programming or re-programming.

Community is extraordinarily important in the development of an artist. But to spend $250,000 over a four-year period on networking in a university, and then another $100,000 on an MFA?

For a "career" in a "profession" that doesn't pay?

Better to spend that money on 20-30 years of housing in the city and supplies (including beer) ... and maybe annual membership to the museums.

More painting, more woodshedding ... less panel discussions and wasted time writing in blogs, IMO.

5/02/2014 09:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't we talk about the Art Industrial Complex Caste System !!!

5/02/2014 10:55:00 AM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

You could (should) generate a whole other post and discussion around this point:

Connections with other artists, curators, possibly dealers, etc.; insights into the market from people who work in it; access to equipment and ongoing, professional feedback; these things give graduates wishing to sell their art a leg up over artists who never get all that.

If by "a leg" you mean "an entire body", then yeah.

5/02/2014 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Rico said...

Many good points raised here, thank you. As always, very thought-provoking.

I'm one of the multitude who couldn't afford art school. My parents didn't even know how to look for art schools, and I ended up frustrated and lost in a big public university. My journey as an artist has been about self-education and commitment to life-long learning, not to mention my insatiable curiosity and tenacity, but those things I was fortunate enough to be naturally inclined toward. And to speak to some of the other comments, I've created my own networking opportunities though social media, but more importantly in person by making regular trips to NYC and getting out into the scene and meeting people. I'm managing to boot strap, but there's no doubt that I would be on another level had I had access at the undergraduate level. At this point, I don't think my work or career have suffered from lack of an MFA, but that's really a different discussion for another time.

There's no doubt that going to the right art school will give an advantage to those students fortunate enough to do so. I'm sure you've seen Pat Lipsky's lecture at the League by now online. She frames it a bit differently, essentially suggesting that for $100K you can buy an art career (i.e.: MFA from top-shelf school), but the point is similar.

Something that came to mind when I read this was the state of the European art academies in the late 19th century. You (perhaps intentionally, perhaps unknowingly) alluded to it:

"A high-quality education is increasingly unattainable for people who are not members of the privileged class,"

So while I recognize and even agree with many of your points, I also can't help but wonder if the solidification of an art/art education status quo is perhaps the best climate for true revolutionary art? One can never be a true artist without the ability to overcome resistance and process rejection.

Other thoughts: the crisis of arts education/exposure for elementary, secondary and high school children is fueling a culture largely incapable of appreciating or even seeing art. When we talk about addressing the crisis of the arts in this country, that discussion should start with primary education. Also, the rightly-alluded to condition of higher education as a luxury service industry is clearly a problem that needs serious and sustained public discourse.

You've written quite a few times on the need for artists to change the Art World. I think that's coming. More artists are seemingly looking at each other's work on their own. We're finding each other and we're forming cells, which are no longer limited by location. We're curating online or in pop-up project spaces and surprisingly, people are coming and they are even buying. We're reaching out directly to museums, many of whom are feeling just as excluded as the artists from the whole auction/fair feast. For all that's wrong, there's hope.

5/03/2014 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Excellent post Ed, I agree with everything you’ve said.

5/11/2014 12:46:00 AM  

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