Why take a BA in art (and how hard can it be, anyway)?
I am asked a lot why I am bothering to take a BA in art. After moving house last year, coping with the fallout from my father-in-law’s death, followed quickly by my father’s, supporting a relative with Alzheimer’s, plus having a new studio built, promoting other artists via Ginger Cactus Art, promoting my own work, and taking part in exhibitions, I have already over stretched myself. So why not just give up the BA to focus on the rest?
Just like the last time I answered this question in print, the short answer is simple: because I want to. Here is the longer version. I grew up believing that I was not talented enough to be a “proper” artist. With both parents being artists (and extremely good ones, too), I was never going to shape up so I chose a career in which neither of them could compete with me. I chose to become an accountant. I can’t say it was an enjoyable career, but I was good at it, and I learnt a ton of skills along the way which meant that when I decided to become a fulltime, self-employed accountant, I had a good understanding of what would be required in order to record my finances accurately for the tax man.
So, what happened to make me rethink this? Back in 2005, my husband’s job took him to the USA and naturally we followed. With all that distance between me and my parents, I felt safe enough to try art away from any of their criticism. In the USA, I was able to produce artwork which was judged by other artists and teachers who actually really encouraged me to develop my artistic abilities further.
When we returned to the UK, continuing to study felt like the only thing to do and I took a foundation course which allowed me to progress to the BA course at a bricks-and-mortar university, but it really wasn’t for me. Paying £9,000 a year to share a tiny space (smaller than the studio at my previous home) with three other people, along with some pretty unpleasant and unprofessional behaviour from tutors and childish arrogance from some fellow students, I decided to opt for a distance-learning BA instead. On paper this is perfect. I get to work on my own art business whilst studying for the BA and I get twelve years, that’s right, twelve years to complete it.
But still why, when I am selling my art successfully, would I want to continue with a BA? For me, learning about different artists, different processes, the whole discovery side of art education is brilliant. People have said I could find that out for myself, but would I? Possibly, but probably not.
It is very easy to settle into a routine of producing the same thing day in, day out.
Even more so when you are selling your work, as so many people want you to stick to making the same art repeatedly, because it makes them feel safe. If you have been following my blogs you will know by now that being safe is something I never want to, or hopefully ever will, embrace.
I want my work to be exciting to me. I love that I can try different ways of producing work to make it fun. And yes, the making of the work is all about me. My life, my work my journey and my enjoyment. Without that, and I truly believe an artist’s commitment to and enjoyment of making their work shows through in the finished piece, it has to be all about the artist, at the making stage.
So how easy is it to get a BA in the arts? Far harder than you might imagine. If you are reading this and thinking about leaving school and doing any kind of arts degree, be warned, it is tough. The amount of work you had to prepare for your GCSEs and A levels gives you some understanding of what’s required but it is the tip of the iceberg so far as a BA is concerned. If you have any doubts, go and do something else. Seriously. It is not an easy option. You can’t afford to be weak; you will have to toughen up to survive. There is nowhere to hide.
You don’t get multiple choice questions which give you a fair chance of winging your way through. You will be questioned to your core about why you want to continue down this path. You will scream, cry, laugh and probably get drunk in an effort to get through it all. Some lecturers seem to gain enormous pleasure from reducing you to tears at least once a week. Very few students graduate. The year I started at university, 76 people started the course but only eight full-time and five part-time students graduated three years later. How many of them are working as artists full-time? I don’t have the figures, but I suspect not many.
Why not? Because at the end of the day, if you have managed to drag yourself through a course which will make you question your very own existence, you then must find your way, a future path, along with millions of other hopeful artists. You will be told to approach galleries (who will take anything up to 60% of a sale) but getting through that door is not as easy as it sounds. You will be told to be persistent, and you will get there; someone will discover you. No, they won’t.
The only way you are going to compete is by understanding the art market, advertising, marketing, learning about how to run a business, profit-and-loss accounts, balance sheets, cash flow and having some cash in the bank to finance taking part in as many shows as that bank account allows. And you must grow a really thick skin. You might get lucky, you might be discovered, but in reality, it is all down to hard graft and most people give up.
These days there are a plethora of online and in person courses you can take to improve your art. There are also community groups you can join, at a price, which will give you all the marketing and advertising tools you need though, as wonderful as that all is, you will spend 80% of your time on the business side of making art and at most 20% actually doing it. It is a tough world to compete in and it feels like the people giving away the most, the poor sods at the bottom of the payout heap, are the artists.
Having said all that, once on that path, all the years of pain start to feel worth it, most of the time, not all of the time. Now I get to make art I love, I get to stretch my knowledge and understanding by taking the BA and I get to have fun. I still need to grow my email list, I still need to get better at advertising (I’m currently taking a Facebook advertising course, which should help) the administration side is often shaky and gets left to the last minute, but I have the privilege of being able to do with my life something which makes me happy. Something which makes me feel alive and which also gives me an income, albeit small. I expect there will be tears down the line, I know that I have to keep digging even deeper, but I love what I do and that is priceless.
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