by Mal Goss, associate director of college counseling
I can still recall my mother’s face (raised eyebrow, pursed lips) as I announced to her, at the ripe old age of seventeen, that not only did I want to be a screenwriter, but I was going to attend University of the Arts, a Philadelphia institution that focuses solely on producing graduates in design, fine arts, media arts, crafts, music, dance, theater, and writing. I couldn’t understand her skepticism about me dedicating four years to sharpening my storytelling skills and learning the structures of writing for film and television.
As I’ve gotten older, I can better see why she was worried and why many parents and guardians of high school students are uneasy about the prospect of their child earning a bachelor of fine arts degree.
What skills does an art school really provide?
Doesn’t art school produce a very narrow set of skills and knowledge?
What if you fail, or change your mind — what kind of job can you get?
All of these concerns are practical, logical, and valid.
Attending an art school was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
As the University of Michigan's Career Center page notes, many of the skills learned in fine arts study are not only transferable to the professional world, but are exceedingly valuable in all areas of life. Lakeside is currently focused on re-envisioning the educational program to provide students with what they will need to find success in the 21st century. When I look at the list of competencies the school hopes to impart to students, I know from experience and from my work in college counseling that art school provides strong skills and experience in many of them.
Cognitive flexibility: Almost every form of artmaking requires understanding how things fit together in cross-disciplinary ways. For example, industrial design demands understanding not only how to make a product aesthetically pleasing but an understanding of geometry, physics, manufacturing, graphic design, and entrepreneurship. And making art of any kind requires the ability to know when you need to let go of something and start over, which is a quality more business leaders are seeking.
Collaboration and leadership: The arts are often a collaborative endeavor. Putting on a musical theater production involves the collaboration of actors, choreographers, directors, musicians, costume designers, writers, and many more. It requires each person holding themselves and their peers accountable for producing the best product possible and necessitates active listening, meaningful feedback, and productive conflict resolution.
Communication and listening: No matter what career a person chooses, they will need to be able to communicate clearly, using analytical, creative, and personal forms of expression. Whether writing an artist statement, delivering a monologue, or articulating multiple perspectives while delivering feedback in a workshop, studying the arts provides numerous opportunities to become an excellent communicator and active listener.
Resilience: The life of an artist is often framed in rejection. Writers will not be published in the majority of magazines to which they submit their work; actors and musicians will not be hired for many of the parts for which they audition; and fine artists will often struggle to find a buyer for their work. While this might sound bleak, this path of disappointment builds a deep well of resilience. Artists quickly learn from their mistakes; they know how to “fail faster, fail often,” and have enough grit to keep moving forward.
Since I’m writing this article, it’s probably clear that I didn’t continue down the path of writing for film and television, though I did write an episode of a daytime television show when I was in college! I still write, and have even published several short stories, though writing is not what pays my bills. But the skills I gained in my four years of art school have allowed me to find success in my chosen career path of education. It gave me the skills to solve unstructured problems, make deadlines, consider ideas from multiple perspectives, write creatively, and connect with students using empathy.
So, parents and guardians, should your student come to you, at the ripe old age of seventeen, saying that they want to study the arts, know that they can gain plenty of necessary skills that are transferable to many other industries.
Mal Goss is associate director of college counseling. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.