HOW MUCH IS AN ARTS DEGREE WORTH?

20-year-old art school dropout, Celia Ellis, reflects upon her decision to drop out of university, and offers her perspective on the importance of higher education for aspiring creatives.

Arts degrees have long been labelled as ‘useless’ at university. Whilst this is a view I emphatically disagree with, I do believe higher education is too often seen as the ‘correct’ route to take for those wanting to pursue a successful career within the arts industry. Creativity is subjective and, although some artists thrive in that educational environment, some individuals need an alternative environment for that creativity to flourish.

I made the decision to drop out of Leeds Arts University in January, a decision I had grappled with for months. Upon dropping out, I started my own small fashion brand, aptly named ‘art school dropout’. Through ‘art school dropout’, I wanted to reclaim the label ‘dropout’ and exemplify the fact that dropping out is not synonymous with failure. I do not regret my decision and I feel fortunate that I had the self-confidence to know it was not the place for me.

A three-year art degree doesn’t make you a great artist; it supports you in understanding and expressing your creativity, and teaches you skills to assist you in your creative practice. However, in a world full of self-taught and self-proclaimed artists, it goes to show that if the prescriptive nature of a course structure inhibits rather than encourages your creativity, racking up £27,000 in debt is not the only way to get a foot in the art world.

Artists succeed in their craft through studying, experimenting and through “stealing” with the eyes as Picasso once stated; this knowledge can be acquired in a multitude of different ways including, but not limited to, completing a degree.

The prospect of going into the work world straight out of school may seem scary and, perhaps art school gives one time to work out what area of the industry they want to get into through exploring multiple disciplines.

However, if you are set in your passion and confident in what you want to do with your life it could be argued: Why bother spending your time and money getting a degree when you could be spending that time and money on getting real-life, hands-on experience in the industry in which you want to work, learning through trial and error and making useful contacts?

One thing that I struggled to accept in my time studying Fine Art was other artists critiquing my work, and having to adhere to a mark scheme and tick all the boxes to feel I had succeeded. I felt no one should have the right to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong in a subject that is so very personal and subjective. I am now able to create art that I want to make, when I want to make it, and this freedom and control has rekindled my passion for the arts.

I am in no way disregarding the benefits of art school for those who work well with that structure, yet I want to use my experience to make people more open to considering other options before settling on a route you may feel you are expected to take.

On completion of my A-Levels I went on to study for a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at Leeds Arts University. Whilst I did love my year there, although cut short due to COVID-19, looking back on it I believe it was, in fact, the city and the experiences that had made me so happy as opposed to the course. At that time, it seemed to me the obvious next step to take would be to go on to study the BA Fine Art degree, confident I would love the next three years as much as I had the first.

The first couple of months of my degree were a chaotic mix of remote and in-person learning which is, of course, unsettling, and definitely contributed to my decision to withdraw from my course in January. However, whilst they undoubtedly contributed, it was not the obstacles COVID-19 presented me with, but the time it gave me to explore my opportunities that ultimately impacted my decision to drop out. Living through a pandemic has made us all have to think outside of the box and it’s made me see more things as opportunities in my life and realise I did not need an arts degree to be an artist.

With so much more time on my hands and the strong desire I felt to continue to express myself creatively, I discovered a new passion in fashion design through my business designing and selling silk scarves. This is something I would never have discovered had I stuck with my course.

When deciding on one’s own path, confidence is key. Once you have made your decision you need to commit to it fully or you won’t reap the benefits. If you are confident in the choices you make it is a good sign they are the right ones for you.

The main piece of advice I would give to prospective arts students is to do your research. Research courses, traditional universities, specialist art schools but, most importantly, look into what else you could do apart from going down the university route, as there are so many incredible resources and opportunities available to us that you may not even realise are there.

I have come across a multitude of useful platforms that have proved really beneficial to me in the creation and promotion of my business. LinkedIn is an incredible platform; at first I doubted this would ever be a useful resource in relation to the work I’m interested in, but I was surprised by the amount of job opportunities and internships there were, both paid and unpaid, available to those looking to get into fashion or design. Similarly, Internships.com is a great platform for finding internships throughout the UK.

Short courses are also a great way to work out if an art degree is for you. There are so many short courses that look great on your CV, in a wide range of subjects, some even being free. These can be really useful in giving you a taste of the industry or degree you’re looking into. These courses can be completed in a variety of different ways and time frames to suit you and your commitments and can be found abroad in Italy, in the UK or even remotely alongside a job.

You can find online short courses through mooc.org, FutureLearn and The Open University. Further afield, the British Institute of Florence offers courses across multiple disciplines within the arts or, for more specialist training, Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence teaches The Atelier Tradition through their traditional fine art courses.

Utilise your contacts. Talk to friends, family, or teachers within the industry; anything you can do to best inform the decisions you make.

For those wanting to work in the arts industry, it is never one size fits all. Everyone’s needs are different, and, in the art world, it pays off to be different. It is encouraged to stand out from the crowd. Therefore, I find it maddening that so many, including myself, have felt the need to complete a degree in an artistic subject in order to be reputable or employable within the arts industry.

Whilst an art degree is not ‘useless’ by any means, it is not compulsory to succeed within your chosen discipline. University is only ‘useless’ if you’re not getting anything out of it. A degree doesn’t come with a guarantee, you get out what you put into it. However, as long as you are motivated, hard-working, and imaginative you will find your way within the arts industry, degree or no degree. The main thing is to do what you love and make choices that make you happy, rather than anyone else, as unhappiness will hinder your creativity.

For me, the fear of being a ‘dropout’ was very real. The negative associations I assumed with that label often discouraged me from making the decision and going through with it.

I think life in lockdown aided me in building the confidence I needed to drop out and in overcoming that fear of the unknown. The choices I made over the course of the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts; not only on the path my life takes, but also on my outlook on life. I see this to be the silver lining of the pandemic, it has made me question my situation and understand better what it is that makes me happy.

I now try to focus on finding opportunities that make me happy as opposed to sticking with something that I’m not passionate about, in the unlikely event that that may change with time.

To see the work Celia has created since dropping out of Leeds Arts University, visit artschooldropout.online or follow @artschooldropout.1 on Instagram.

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