This article appeared in The Wall Street Journey on May 19th and was written by Daniel Grant.
Art, we are told again and again, is a business. But teaching art is also a business. For a growing number of artists, professional training is taking place at for-profit art schools, rather than at nonprofit colleges, and the number of these schools has been increasing to meet the demand.
You may have heard of some of these degree-granting schools without knowing they are “proprietary,” or for-profit—for instance, New York’s School of Visual Arts (which counts among its alumni Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt and Sarah Sze) has about 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Smaller ones include Art Center Design College in Tucson, Ariz., Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn., and the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design in Denver. The largest art school in the country, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, is a for-profit, too; its enrollment of more than 17,000 students is more than double that of the largest nonprofit art college (Savannah College of Art & Design, 8,200 total students)—dwarfing those of such prestigious nonprofits as the Rhode Island School of Design, 2,400 students; California Institute of the Arts, 1,460; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 3,100; and Maryland Institute College of Art, 1,930.
John Erwin, chairman of the fine-arts and photography department at the Art Center Design College, who had received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of the South and an Master of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, claims that “the experience here is extremely similar to both the university and independent art college I attended in terms of the quality of teaching and depth of study.” Similarly, Jaime Levy Russell, who teaches a course on website development at the for-profit Art Institute of California-Hollywood (part of a network of 45 Art Institute schools around the country) and earned an undergraduate degree from California State University at San Francisco and a master’s from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, says that “all the teachers I’ve met here are very sincere about offering the best classes they could.”
“The customers generally are quite happy,” says Richard K. Vedder, director of the Washington-based Center for College Affordability & Productivity and also an economics professor at Ohio University in Athens. “These schools, and the number of them, wouldn’t be growing if people were dissatisfield.”
Students as “customers”? Perhaps the only notable thing setting instructors at for-profit art schools apart is their use of business terms. “Our college is centered on a performance-based curriculum,” Mr. Erwin said, and Robert Zappalordi, chairman of Paier College’s fine-art department, noted that “we are very career-oriented.” Try getting those words out of the mouth of a fine-arts instructor or administrator at Cooper Union or CalArts.
The difference between the non- and for-profit art colleges may not be the quality of the education but the nature of the student. Those taking classes at for-profits schools tend to be older than 18 to 22; the average age of an Art Institute student, for example, is 25. The students are more racially and ethnically diverse and less affluent than those at nonprofits. “A very large percentage of our students are first-generation college students,” says Steven Goldman, president of the Art Institute of Portland, Ore., “which may be more significant than race or national origin.” In addition, many of his students are deficient in basic reading and math skills, which led him to establish “an ambitious tutoring project to get them to appropriate college-level skills.”
The Academy of Art University has a “no barriers to admission policy”—anyone with a high-school diploma or equivalent may enroll. Not even a portfolio is required. “We’re a very, very democratic school,” says Elisa Stephens, president of the university and granddaughter of its founder. She notes that there are “not many good art programs in high schools, especially in California,” so judging a student by a portfolio may not be a good barometer of talent.
A lower academic profile affects the for-profit schools’ graduation rates. The percentage of students who obtain a baccalaureate degree within a period of six years is 34% at the Academy of Art University and 38% at the Art Institute of Portland. That compares to 63% for schools that are members of the San Francisco-based Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design, a consortium of mostly nonprofit art schools.
Standing out among the for-profits is the Pittsburgh-based Art Institutes Inc., a subsidiary of Education Management Corp. The chain is the largest of its kind and, since 2005, the number of Art Institutes has jumped more than 50%. Its schools now teach 83,800 students nationwide. “Opening new locations in high-demand markets and expanding our online education capabilities are an important part of The Art Institutes’ mission,” says John Pufahl, vice president of academic affairs for The Art Institutes.
Unlike the School of Visual Arts, Paier, Art Center Design and the Academy of Arts University, the “art” in the Art Institute schools refers not to traditional fine arts but to design fields (advertising, fashion, graphic, industrial, interior), culinary arts, media (animation, film production, game design, interactive media and Web design) and photography.
Much that goes on at these schools is determined in Pittsburgh. Tuition rates are largely identical, as are the curricula and the websites. Representatives of the different schools get together and vote on the models they want to use. Standardization ensures that students at all of these art institutes are trained at the same level and that picking a particular school to attend is only a matter of location.
“I had some skepticism about the for-profit model initially,” says Craig Stockwell, a painter who teaches drawing at Keene State College in New Hampshire and has lectured at the Boston-based New England Institute of Art. “I worried that the school was just there to crank out students, but what I saw made a favorable impression on me. They had good students; it seemed very academic; the facilities seemed good. In the graphic-arts area, they seemed to do a good job in delivering a product.”
Mr. Grant isthe author of “The Business of Being an Artist” (Allworth).The Business of Being an Artist — In the fourthedition of this essential artists’ reference, art world insider Daniel Grant offers a comprehensive guide to making a living through art. This new edition has been updated to include sections on how to market and sell art in a weak economy and how to succeed in the business of marketing online, including tips on creating a successful Web site and blog.