Dear John: So Your Kid Wants To Go To Art School

Parents are rightly concerned about their children's future, but with preparation, an art student can excel in life.

In honor of Fathers' Day week (Can I declare a week for all dads?), I share this query from John G. from my Facebook page. He wrote:

I have 19-year-old daughter who is passionate about art and is pursuing her dream at college. As a father . . . and as the person paying her entire tuition . . . I'm naturally concerned about how she will turn her passion for art into a career.

I've done some research and found an interview you gave, so thought I'd reach out as a caring father to seek some much wiser advice on the topic. . . .

My advice to her has been to find a mentor or sponsor that will open the door to real-world experience as it relates to pursuing an art career, but how to go about finding such a mentor or whether it's the right approach at this point in time…well, quite frankly it's out of my realm of experience.

What thoughts and advice to you have for daughter and me?

Perhaps some of my thoughts might help other parents of would-be artists.

Dear John . . .

John, your daughter is very lucky to have such a caring father and I hope she realizes that. So many artists are without people in their lives to support and understand them.

I would encourage her to stay focused on developing her art. Give her space to be a student – to experiment and to make mistakes.

Too many people start marketing before the work is mature. She needs to build confidence in her abilities.

She will learn a number of things in art school that will serve her well: discipline, accepting criticism, art history, contemporary context, etc. Let her soak in these lessons.

But, as you surmised, school probably won't teach her how to make a business from her art. Then again, doctors and lawyers never learn how to open their offices while in school.

The cool thing about kids these days is that they are savvier about business and marketing than any previous generation. And they are open to creating new business models for their art without being tied to traditional “rules” of how things should be done properly.

All parents should encourage their kids to break the rules! That's what the most successful artists do. They find their own paths.

William R. Struby Art
My dad helped me get my career off the ground and now he visits galleries and museums with me. He's looking at William R. Struby's art here.

John, I have another idea that might make it easier for you to sleep at night. It's not too different from your idea of a mentor.

Whenever your daughter is on a school break (summer, holiday breaks) give her real-world assignments.

Help her write letters or emails to set up appointments with people in your community who work in the art arena: curators, working artists, arts writers, arts council personnel, arts festival organizers, and anyone else you can think of.

People in the arts are generous. Have your daughter ask for 30 minutes of their time to talk with her about what they do and how they got to be in their current position. She will learn a lot about how an arts community functions and how she envisions future self.

She will also learn how to ask for what she wants through this process!

We can thank my dad for this idea.

When I was living at home and finishing up my graduate-school thesis, my dad worried for my future. I worried, too! I thought I was going to grad school to get a Ph.D. and teach, but I left with an M.A. I had no idea what I was going to do after the diploma came in the mail.

My dad helped me connect with arts leaders in the community. Though it's probably something I should have figured out before I ever went to grad school, I wasn't confident or outgoing enough to do this on my own. I was grateful he nudged me.

And I'm not sure I've ever said that. So, Thanks, Dad!

And thanks to all of the parents out there like you, John.

How about you? Do you have any advice for John or his daughter?

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34 thoughts on “Dear John: So Your Kid Wants To Go To Art School”

  1. My recommendations are biased based on my position as a visual arts professor in a Liberal Arts Institution, but I always recommend an education that includes writing, critical thinking, synthesis and expansion. So I would encourage John and his daughter to look at programs in institutions with a strong core curriculum that will help her become a balanced well educated person with skills that apply if she does become a studio artist or if life takes her elsewhere which so often it does! As Alyson’s posting suggests artist’s need to be good writers, public speakers and more and more entrepreneurs.
    As for the studio art part, there are so many artists who make wonderful work that is inspired by other disciplines so this is another plus of the liberal arts protocol! Also my institution has a wealth of internships for students which is also a great way to build experience and network, so it is something to consider as well. Also programs where the faculty are producing artists and are willing to develop relationships with the students. How to find this out? Have a conversation with current students in the program and ask how accessible the faculty are.
    Good luck!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Thank you for sharing your advice based on your role as an educator, Jennifer.

  2. I guess it depends on what you really want to do. When I went to Art School I painted and drew 8 hours a day. Period. No art history, no gym classes, no history of literature, etc. I learned my skills to be an artist
    I’ve made my living with my art for 30 years with these skills.I DO(!) recommend that some basic business classes are also taken in addition to your Art. But go to an art school to learn art skills and a weekend workshop to learn book keeping.
    I’m always reminded of this every time I get an email that says “I just graduated with a MFA. Can you teach me to paint?”. And I get those emails a lot!

  3. The first paragraph…yes. Support her, take her education seriously, keep any doubts you might have about her ability to make money to yourself. She doesn’t have to learn the business side in the summers; like any other student she will need a break and she will need a summer job. That’s plenty. Though you might like to continue the support in her final year, or the year after, to help her develop the business skills.
    As far as helping her choose an art school — learning how to paint is not enough. Artists, like everyone else, are part of the human race. All of us benefit from a grounding in the humanities. Yes, we need to learn to use our tools, but we also need to learn to use our heads. Skills yes, but understanding too.

  4. Yes, I do! Having been an academic advisor at a couple of higher ed institutions for more than 16 years, I’ve advised students to pursue the degree that they are passionate about-which often goes against what their parents want. It is the passion that gets you there-the rest falls in to place. Which really is about finding your own path. The other piece of advice that I used to give is that they believe wholeheartedly in themselves-in every fiber of their body. This belief and the passion is what it takes.

  5. Such wonderful commentary! I particularly identify with and agree with Paula (I wish you’d been my advisor 25 years ago!) I was one of those children who wanted to pursue an art degree, but was discouraged because of the uncertainty as to whether I could support myself with it. Instead I earned a degree in Interior Design, the closest I felt I could come and still be able to use my creativity. A well rounded education is wonderful, but Allison’s advice to find a mentor/mentors as well as interviews and internships are critical in my opinion to setting up a path for yourself. I wish I had been encouraged to break the rules! It took me until I was in my mid-thirties to make my artist dreams come true, but I did and am still working to fine-tune my marketing skills. Thank you Allison for your wonderful advice! John G., you sound like a wonderful dad!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Shelly: When you were setting up your ID biz, did you conduct any interviews or find mentors?

  6. My mum was the daughter of a sports photographer & a pianist…Her sister became a soprano (opera singer)…But my mum had experienced the lack of business acumen in her skillset, so ended up graduating with a business degree from Northwestern University…From there she turned her creative nature & her new business skills into the ability to be an entrepreneur…The combination turned out to be powerful-imagination plus how to run a business proved to be a solid path…

  7. Katheryn OldShield

    I am someone bereft of art school training, my training coming from occasional workshops as I can afford them, but have not needed anyone to teach me “how to paint”, just to push me to try new processes,materials. My elementary school teachers were foundational in pressing skills into me and that was 5+ decades ago when I learned perspective, composition, color theory, even art history, and it was a “professional” instructor toward the end of that period absolutely turned me off of art as a career, or even a passion–it was a play thing at best for decades, and my creativity was applied much more broadly.
    Well, life has a way of coming full circle, and here I am having raised three kids to be “creatives” with professional labels of their own (landscape architect, film set designer, and the youngest is still working to refining his defining label–it varies from chef to photographer to entrepreneur to…not sure what, currently, but he’s in college yet) and I am painting to support myself, and taking advantage of what I have taught myself of marketing after closing a brick & mortar business I conceptualized, built out, managed.
    Things I am having to learn as a working artist now are studio skills, just staying on task consistently, something my artist friends who went to school learned well in their early 20’s…some better than others…some are honest about their party habits at the time, too, a temptation to all students, but less an issue when they have had to work their way through, which is NOT a bad thing at all–time management, money management, dealing with people in other roles of their lives–these all play to build skill sets that will be applied over a life time.
    Your daughter at 19 is actually of majority age, so I hope you’ve already built into her life some of those areas of awareness and discipline. One of my kids had already completed her 4 year degree, while working, with honors, in 2.5 years, graduating before 20 and then taking a couple of years to travel, teaching English abroad, before returning stateside to grad school where they finally slowed her down with the studio disciplines required, and yeah, she worked her way through that program, too, with outside jobs. I do highly recommend where possible part-time and internship positions related to the work if possible because they meet people in the field of interest, and also learn what it takes, and figure out if that is really what they want to do.
    My kids may sometimes wish we parents would have helped more financially, & it would have been nice if we could have, but it didn’t hurt me, or them, to exercise self-discipline to achieve the objective, and there is no shame in that. My dad was disappointed with the career choice I made, which was more in applied sciences, and maybe not really my bent, so it may have been countering some ready success, but 40 years later, I might regret I didn’t know about a larger definition of “art” and related art careers–take industrial design, graphic arts, interior design, architecture, etc–I had a very narrow definition of “art” and “artist” and THAT maybe I regret,yet the breadth of my experience brings a freshness to my work.
    My dad was wise, and he already knew that it is completing the degree, and then taking on work, sometimes in one’s major, sometimes not, and that, over a lifetime most folks will change jobs, shift career focus, so he was interested that once I took on the degree, that I complete it in a timely fashion as demonstration of self-discipline and teach-ability. Skills that serve me well, continually. Encourage your daughter to stretch a bit, as Alyson recommends. It will be your daughter who has to own her passion and the disciplines it requires. Encourage and guide while you have the influence. And enjoy your daughter.

  8. Be businesslike from the beginning. It’s never too early to keep a record of paintings produced, contacts made or build a social media following. Good business habits will last a lifetime and set her apart from her less organised peers. A database of contacts may start with just friends and family but will soon grow, and supporters will love having been part of the journey from the outset. Being businesslike will help her to feel that she’s making progress in her career, even while she’s still in college.

  9. My advice would be to encourage your child to seek out artist organizations that have student level memberships. There are some out there, and they can be a big boon to a young artist learning the ropes. Plus, your child will get exhibition experience out of it as well, and already be building that resume before graduating. They can learn from the members who are professional and exhibiting artists.
    The other thing I’d say is this: if your child is wanting to be an exhibiting artist, help them see that maybe they don’t have to wait until graduation to exhibit. Alyson points out that you need to have a maturity to your work – you do – before you start serious marketing, but when you are in school you have a very powerful tool working for you: the word student. Communities love to support their universities or colleges. Encourage your child to be proactive about showing their work. Get them to get friends together and try and put on group shows in the community. Many businesses would love to help out a group of students and give them a place to hang a show. Talk to the alumni association for leads of people who might support this. This not only allows the students to start seeing how people react to their work, but it gives them experience in framing, hanging, writing about their work, talking about their work, marketing, networking, time management, and many other skills they will need later. All without the pressure of having to have the show be a financial success.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      It’s never too early to start exhibiting! Confidence will grow with each exhibit and it’s nice to pick up those lessons while in school.

  10. John G, you can either be the wind beneath the wings of your daughter by supporting her ambition to be an Artist or a deterrent that would only delay her growth and progress as an Artist. The World is HER Oyster. If she indeed has talent and aptitude to be an Artist, let her pursue her dream. Twenty-one years and learning five languages later – I am doing what I should have done years ago. Take her to Art Museums, Galleries, and studios of Local Artists. Let her develop her style and find her unique niche. She will succeed regardless – whether you believe in her or not if she has the WILL TO POWER. There are NO guarantees in ANY professions. Doctors can loose their medical licenses for malpractice, and Lawyers can be debarred. Dime a dozen Engineers out there. Better she finds something she is good at and love than something that may bring her outward success and inward contempt.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Roopa: I have a strong feeling that John is the wind beneath her wings. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have cared a lick and wouldn’t have reached out for answers.

  11. Something parents do not do a lot these days, but they used to back in “my day,” was to include their young adult children in their social circles. I’m not sure why parents do not do this much anymore, but my parents and especially grandparents (even more than my parents) took a strong interest in involving their young family members in meeting “people of importance” in the community, be it in the church, clubs they belonged to, higher education, etc.
    This is completely unrelated to art, but has very much to do with forging connections for your daughter with real people who know other people. I think it is a mistake to rely on schooling and internet to do these things. So John, if you have these social connections, use them.

  12. Its really inspiring. It will help others to create a business with art. Earning is essential for everyone, so for an artist. So learning art is not everything, Learning how to earn also in important.

  13. I didn’t go to art school but some of my useful classes (which were requirements for all students at the time) were Econ 101, Psychology 101, a communications class (written and oral), and a class on the sociology of sport and games. Yes, the latter sounds squiffy but it taught a lot about group/team culture and dynamics! To this day there are concepts I learned in those classes that serve me well in any job.
    I’d advice any 18-19 year old to pursue something they enjoy but also make sure they take a well-rounded set of other coursework. At the end of they day an undergraduate degree is a set of basic skills and is a starter qualification. In fact many technical/professional companies now hire excelling students from any major, and train them.
    My parents told me unequivocally “no” when I asked to go to art school before ‘proper’ university. They don’t even remember this discussion now, I have never forgotten it. 🙂 Whatever you do, speak openly and honestly but keep the communication open.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Tina: “Well-rounded” is excellent advice. The most influential art throughout history has been deeply informed by the world around the artists.

  14. Christine Sauer

    Such a wonderful post and so many great responses! This young lady is lucky to have a parent who is so engaged in her well being. As an artist and arts educator, the advice that I would add is that a basic personal financial education, particularly for someone starting in a field where high earning potential is not always part of the equation, is super important. It will maybe help her avoid many pitfalls that I have seen so many artists fall into over the years. There are many artists I know, and others too, who put their heads in the sand when it comes to money and finances. One of those pitfalls is not saving $$ for retirement and putting every dollar back into their art business. I have learned a lot from Suze Orman over the years so that is one place to look for approaches(books and website). She has transformed how I think about money. I feel that better financial education is necessary in general for all of us in this country
    Another idea that I have been thinking about for the last few years for art college grads, is that a bridge fund is set up that would help students transition from college to setting up a studio practice. Having a cushion could help young artists get up and running and give them a leg up on what can be a super stressful time. A VERY HIGH percentage of students quit making art within a few years of graduation because of the many difficulties encountered. The fund could have stipulations such as goal setting, learning business skills and would give young artists a structure to follow. This type of fund could be set up on an institutional level and be offered competitively to graduates, or be set up by the grads family a few years ahead of graduating, allowing the funds to accrue over time.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Christine: Excellent! I’m going to be contacting you to write a guest post for me. 😉

  15. While I’ve never had children, I always thought that if my son or daughter wanted to be an artist (or screenwriter, musician, etc.) I would tell them to pursue it totally and wholeheartedly, not with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. The gas & brake method is a great way to stall out artistically and emotionally. Even if I couldn’t support them well financially in this endeavor, I would help them figure out ways to do so. Having gone to both state universities and a professional art school (where I graduated with my BFA), I would lean very strongly towards the art school. Studio classes ran from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Starting in the junior year (or 3rd year since this was a five year school) we were strongly encouraged to return to the school studio to work at night and weekends. This was great preparation for the discipline and time required to pursue a career in the arts. The writing courses that I took were the toughest anywhere. As an alumna I’ve kept up with the school, and they now have mandatory curriculum in business and professional practices. All majors offer a semester of internship in which a student, through career services, is able to get a much better taste of the artist’s life/livelihood with another artist or organization. I might add that as a private art college, there was more financial assistance in the form of scholarships available than would be at a public institution. Our fees weren’t supporting football teams. Rather, we went on trips to nationally and internationally known art museums. So, shop and compare and do in depth research, looking at the curriculum and coursework and how well they prepare students for life after school. What is the mindset of the school? Are they focused on truly preparing students to succeed after graduating? How many students are working in their field? They should be able to tell you that. Also watch out for ‘for profit’ schools. Their profit line is often the most important goal.
    Alternatively, you and your daughter can go to quality art fairs where she can talk to artists and learn about how/what they do. Go with her to galleries and museums. Is there an art league or center in town? I began in enameling and silversmithing, which led to a career as a goldsmith as a designer and in jewelry stores. Now I’m pursuing painting and it’s been a different path with looking at magazines–not just instructional ones, but also for collectors. I’ve lived in rural areas that didn’t have any of the above, so magazines were the way to go. Often there are articles about artists and the path they took to get to where they are now. In the collectors’ magazines, I would dog ear the page of artists whose work I liked and then look them up online to see if they teach workshops. Most artists teach classes from beginners to advanced. Many excellent painters took that route. Here, it is about creating connections with artists without the official school experience.

  16. Fantastic advice! I am making a check-list to make sure I am doing all these recommendations. I’m not a wildly successful artist that can look back and tell you what it took to get me here – yet. I can tell you that my dad has encouraged me to follow my dreams since I was little. When he saw my interest for art he bought me my first “real” sketch book at 8. I think as a father if you tell her “how” to do it you might come across as controlling or like you don’t trust she can figure it out on her own. It’s wonderful that you’ve asked for this advice and I hope she follows up on these suggestions. There’s some really ambitious ideas. As long as you’re there as her number one cheerleader she won’t fail. I feel the hardest part of being an artist is to stick to my dreams and not “settle” and it’s always my dad that I think about when I start wavering. I can’t let him down by doing something I don’t love. I hope that makes sense. I hope that helps.
    It’s just a matter of time for her to find her creativity and then apply it in an entrepreneurial manner. It’s an exciting journey. Enjoy the ride.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Rachael: Oh, I can really relate to this: “I can’t let him down by doing something I don’t love.”

  17. It is better to add the art at the beginning of the career thing and fail as there is still time for another career. The alternative is you spend your career span wondering just how great an artist would I have become. there is little time in retirement to start out on art and the eye-hand co-ordination is not as good!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Phil: Not sure I like looking at it this way – about looking for another career. That seems to set you up for failure.

  18. Thanks to everyone for being so generous with your advice and sharing of life experiences. It just so happens that on Father’s day I took my daughter and son with me to a local café that supports local artists (painting, sculpting, poetry and musicians).
    My daughter was able to make a contact at the café and established a potential opportunity for her to create and display a bust of the Greek philosopher Epicurus(
    I often wonder and hope I’m doing all I can to support my daughter without being overly involved and smothering.
    It’s comforting that I’m actually doing some things right based on advice: Support and encourage her to pursue her passion; Recommending that she balance the pursuit of art with an understanding of accounting, finance and marketing; Support her pursuit of a well rounded liberal arts education as well as other wonderful advice contained within the postings.
    While all the posting provide many excellent perspectives and advice, excerpts that resonate most for me are:
    – “It will be your daughter who has to own her passion and the disciplines it requires”
    My commentary: I’ll always love and support her, but I agree she has to own it and I believe she has demonstrated her ability to achieve anything she sets her mind. Over the years she has heard me speak of the importance of time management and she is awesome at being independent, yet responsible which is reflected in her grades from high school thru her first year at college. From my perspective, it’s fairly easy to determine what is important to any individual as priorities are a direct reflection of how one spends their time. So I believe structured and deliberate time management discipline is a critical component of achieving any goal in life.
    – “My advice would be to encourage your child to seek out artist organizations that have student level memberships. Talk to the alumni association for leads of people who might support this. This not only allows the students to start seeing how people react to their work, but it gives them experience in framing, hanging, writing about their work, talking about their work, marketing, networking, time management, and many other skills they will need later. All without the pressure of having to have the show be a financial success.”
    – “Something parents do not do a lot these days, but they used to back in “my day,” was to include their young adult children in their social circles.”
    My commentary: I can probably do a better job with using my network on behalf of my daughter…but it’s a fine line as I don’t want to be “pushy” and anyone who has a teenage son or daughter knows…that’s an easy line to cross. 🙂
    Again, thank you all VERY much for your generosity of advice and sharing of your life experiences.
    And most of all, thank you Alyson for having such a wonderful social media forum that helps so many.
    John G.

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