Once in a while a young creative will corner me in a panic over art school admissions. They realize they will need to submit work to show skill or take an applications test. Do they need to know something about art history or the art world?

Like all schools, there are establishments that will take your money and let anyone in. In the arts, if you are not asked to submit a portfolio or questioned in any way about your art focus, find another school. If your intention is to support yourself off your art, where you train does matter.

Check that the school you are interested in is an accredited member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. It is very important that the school offers Career Development counseling or survival training* for artists. Artists are like airline pilots: we need an end destination and a clear path to get to where we want to be.

If you intend to be a painter, check with the Art Renewal Center (ARC) list of approved Ateliers. ARC stringently vets skill-based training in the arts. In earlier centuries what began as apprenticeships became guilds and eventually small schools under a specific teacher, known as Ateliers. The Ateliers had all but disappeared in the 20th century.

In a way we had entered the dark ages of art training. Many art schools stopped the teaching of drawing, painting, and other foundational courses originally taught through the atelier system. The focus became how to sell your idea (like a start up) and anything and everything was marketed as art. (For more info read: Who Says That’s Art by Michelle Marder Kamhi). For art students that want to ride that boat I’m giving you the heads up now, that ship has sailed. We are in a new renaissance of figurative art.

In art school you will learn to understand why certain art movements took hold. What was going on historically around them contributed to those movements, just as we are in a bardo or transition between modernism and the return of the ateliers.

For example, the 1980’s and 1990’s was a time when artwork became a way for the wealthy to launder money. Art, especially valuable art, could be shipped easily as household items. Valuable household items that could be liquidated quickly or used as collateral in other countries.

The dishonest behavior of galleries, auction houses and museums has led to an ongoing investigation by the FBI. It became common place to create a name for an artist through creating controversy or advertising portrayed as false articles on an artist to raise prices. Museums were offered kickbacks of sales after raising an artist profile prior to a gallery exhibit.

In the meantime, the public became subjected to endless art installations, graffiti artists sold as the “in thing” & art made from materials that would completely disintegrate in a relatively short period of time. Art became a weapon of social intimidation and it eventually kept the public away from museums and from art galleries. People were told they just didn’t understand when the truth was obvious,” the emperor had no clothes.” 

When you apply to a reputable art school, you are going to have to show something that demonstrates your aptitude for fine art. (I am excluding dance or music because I have no personal experience with those areas).

A simple website is good but you want to have some sketches, finished drawings, perhaps even costume or set designs. All will serve you if you feel they represent your best work. Treat your school application like you would a job interview or a client. It reveals how seriously you take your creativity.

Applying to art school with little knowledge of art history is demonstrating a lack of interest in your field. Chances are you will be asked what your favorite style or period of art is, and a good art school will test you to see if you know any artists from that time or if you understand why each of those periods in history are important.

You may say, “but I just want to paint”. The truth is, if you can’t draw, you will be very limited with what you can paint. If you do not know there is an evolution to art, trends in painting, or what was going on historically, your work may appear derivative or trite.

There are fun and interesting ways to learn about art history. Susan Vreeland is an Art History teacher who writes well researched novels about paintings and their creators, set in the time period they lived in. You may be familiar with Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She also wrote Life Studies, a collection of short stories about different impressionist artists. I have it on CD and enjoy listening to them in my car or while painting.

Check out art series like Simon Schama’s the Power of Art or BBC Video’s The Private Life of A Masterpiece. Absolutely anything by Waldemar Januszczak, writer, filmmaker, and art critic for The Sunday Times is brilliant, fun, and educational (Athena Video). He’s an excellent art historian who is married to an artist so he makes it work from both sides.

Check with your librarian or google non fiction books in your field of interest. When I became interested in restoration, I read everything I could about forgery, its nasty younger brother. Thomas Hoving (former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) wrote a great book on art fakes called, False Impressions.

If you’re interested in paper conservation I’d like to recommend The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga about the “mud angels” that came to Florence after a great flood in 1966 to help save thousands of books.

Drawing, painting, clothing design, sculpting, ceramics…you will need to submit samples of your work or it will be a waste of everyone’s time and money. Even if you are great, you will soon learn you are unskilled. With a good art school you will learn discipline, build on your skill set, learn to hit deadlines.

The first two years of art school focus on art history and foundational courses. Learning to draw (graphite, charcoal, pen and ink, washes), technical drawing (perspective and human anatomy), sometimes gallery management. Many prerequisites for art schools are the same as other universities, including math and cultural studies. You will have beginning electives that include sculpture (wood, stone, lost wax bronze casting), jewelry making, paper making, glass making, pottery (ceramics).

In third year you will have to focus on your major; painting, sculpture, or printmaking, etc. All foundational courses must be completed before you can take these. Drawing will often be taken for 4 years if you are a painter. I’m just short of a second degree because I just couldn’t stomach one more math class. I was already earning my living off my art by that time.

*Survival skills for artists include contracts, copyright, record keeping, health hazards and insurance. Some schools offer credit classes (1-6 credits) of mandatory and elected professional business practice courses, others may only offer noncredit workshops or seminars.

Featured Image: Florence Academy of Art Drawing Class 

Uriél Danā on a film shoot with Walter Greenbird

Uriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years specializing in oils, gouache, and bronze, and is a Contemporary Figurative Art Curator.

She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems were  featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.


One response to “Art Schools in the 21st Century & the Return of the Ateliers”

  1. I would add the importance of encountering an artist mentor during your art school experience. If that is the only lasting benefit in your higher education it will be well worth all the effort.
    As a printmaking major from the 1970’s I am mildly shocked and pleased that etching and stone lithography are still taught in colleges and universities. There seems to be a resurgence in interest in printmaking by young artists. This seems to me to support your premise. The camaraderie of the workshop or atelier environment can be so rich that it may provide friendships that last a lifetime.
    I find your observations about the art business to ring true with my experiences: “dishonest behavior”, “laundering money”.
    I also share your interests in restoration and conservation and they also led me to a fascination with the history of art crime.
    Your website design has provided an excellent model for some improvements I plan to make to my own online presence.

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