I see these posts on Facebook from time to time that my theatre friends share: Why a theatre degree is better than a business degree.  They make excellent points, for sure, and I do feel like my theatre skills have helped me in my regular career a lot (both in my art business and in my various “day jobs” I’ve had throughout the years).

But I don’t have a theatre degree.  My degree was a BFA in illustration.  Is that valuable, too?  You betcha.

Making canvases that double as hurricane barricades: one of the many valuable skills you learn at art school.
 Here’s why I think that people with fine arts degrees are just as prepared for The Real World, whatever that means, as people with business degrees:

1. You learn to make do with what you have.  Remember those assignments you hated in art school, where the teachers would throw a pound of sugar and a ton of styrofoam slabs at you and say, “Build a boat!  But an artistically interesting boat!” (actual assignment from freshman year.  I wish I was kidding.) And then you did it, and you made it look stylish and meaningful, right?

It might have been frustrating at the time, but it was a teaching experience.  You, Art Student, came up with a creative solution using very limited resources.  Now, in your regular job, have you ever had to put together a presentation with a very short lead time and with not much research to go from?  Or had a team of three people with which to launch a whole project?  Or, in your art business, had to put together an art show booth with only one large-ish-sized storage bin full of stuff because that’s all that would fit in your car? (Me, me!  I did!)  Bam.  Creative solution-making.

Decorating with dorm furniture was an exercise in making do with what you have, always…

2. You can work with aaaallllll different types of people.  Art schools, true to the stereotype, attract weirdos.  There are hippies, druggies, overly creative dressers, people who think they’re pirates or furries…you know them.  But you probably also had the rest of the high school gamut: preps (interior design majors!), jocks (those guys who wanted to do sports photography), snooty hipsters (graphic design majors), and everyone else.  You probably had to work with them all on projects, and you probably roomed with, partied with, and befriended most of these types.  You learned that there’s more to people than meets the eye, and that everyone has hidden talents once you get past their outer weirdness.  This probably would make you excellent at interviewing and hiring new people.

Not to mention your teachers.  Each one of them had their own preferences, their own particular art style they liked, their preferred method for finishing and presenting your work, and they probably assigned projects in totally different ways, with varying degrees of vagueness or specificity.  You probably had to figure each one out and play to each of their preferences in order to get good grades.  It’s not easy, but doesn’t it make your complicated bosses later in life easier to fathom?

3. You can take criticism like a champ.  And each of those teachers you had probably also had their own ways of giving advice and critiques, to boot.  Ahh, critiques…I don’t miss those, and there’s really been nothing similar in working life so far.  You put up this assignment that you’ve spent several sleepless nights (or weeks) toiling over, and then everyone (constructively! sometimes) rips it to shreds?  Who would sign up for that?

The illustration building: site of many crushed egos.

Well, art students do, because that’s what helps us learn.  We take their suggestions, pick through them and figure out which ones you should take to heart and which ones were just negative blathering out of jealousy (or that one idiot in critiques who thinks he’s a genius and loves to hear himself talk, usually to point out all the “tangents” in your composition), and then use the advice we got in critiques on our next assignment.  Later on, in your job, this makes it really easy to accept constructive criticism from your boss without taking it personally.

It also helps you learn to give constructive criticism, as well: you know what will be helpful versus what style of criticism will just make a person offended and shut down anything else you might have to say.  Having given and taken critique so often, you get really good at it by senior year. (That’s also why senior year critiques suck less than sophomore ones – you’re all just trying to help at that point and not trying to tear each other down and pump yourself up.)

4. You gain all kinds of random weird skills!  Soldering?  Oh yeah, you taught yourself that to make a wire sculpture for 3D Design class.  You also know basic sewing skills and how to make a barbecue skewer look like a sword, from that time you helped your friend who was a film major make props and costumes for her short film.  You know how to glue any substance to any other substance, and how to protect and seal any work of art, in any media, against the elements.  That’s got to come in handy again someday, right?  And naturally, if you need a professional-grade framing job done for free (complete with fancy cut mat board), you can do that too.  Art school taught us how to do all kinds of weird crap.  Or rather, we taught ourselves.  Going back to the point about being able to do a lot with limited resources: if we needed to learn a skill to make a certain piece of art, then by god we learned it.

We bring this do-it-yourself ethos to the rest of our life too, including our job: if my job required me to learn PowerPoint, grant-writing, certain phrases of Yiddish, or how to conduct a sales meeting, then I went ahead and learned it, and got damned good at it to boot.  After all, per my previous point, it wasn’t good enough to just learn how to do something badly, you had to do it well, or you would get savaged in critiques.  And we taught ourselves some other important things too…

5. Art students have built-in design sense.  Oh, you want photos taken at our corporate retreat?  No problem, I can do that AND I know Photoshop so I can make everyone look beautiful.  You need a new logo, some snazzy business cards, and a matching menu?  Okay.  Need someone to update the company’s blog or website?  Yeah, I taught myself HTML (see #4) to build my art portfolio website, I can totally do that.  Need some pretty-looking charts and graphics in this sales report?  No, no, please don’t use any clip art, I’ll just whip something up in Illustrator right here.

See?!  When you hire someone who went to art school, you’re basically also hiring a graphic designer, photographer, and art director all in one.  Want something to look classy and professional?  Ask the BFA.  Even if we ascend to become the head of the company (and we can do it!), we’ll still want to design our own business cards.

And most importantly…
6. Creativity!  Some companies think they do not want “creative types.”  They think their old ways of doing things that they have done for fifty years are just fine, thank you.  Those companies are wrong.  Any business needs creativity and fresh ideas.  Doesn’t it tell you something that very successful corporations like Pixar and Discovery Channel have free art classes that their employees can attend to get the creative juices flowing?  You, the former art student, will have spent the four years of your higher education trying to think up the best, most original ideas, and that kind of thinking carries over to anything you do thereafter.  Even if you go into a non-art business setting, the gears are still turning, and you’re still thinking, “how do I get my projects to stand out?  How do we make the company stand out over everyone else in this field?  What can we do that’s different – and beneficially so?”  Especially in this age of social media marketing, original content is king, and any time a company can do something new and exciting that will make people notice them, then they win.  Who better to think up these things than the BFA?

So, in conclusion: hiring managers, hire the artists.  Hire the people who have BFAs in weird fields like illustration, fine art, photography, heck, even toy design, even if the job you’re hiring for has nothing to do with these things.  Artists will be amazing workers, they won’t just spend their whole work day doodling and throwing paint everywhere.  They’ll find creative solutions to your problems, they’ll think up new uses for old things, they won’t take criticism personally, and they’ll make everything they deliver look super-stylish.  Hire the artists!  You won’t regret it.

P.S.: However, the one downside of being an art student entering the professional world is that, if you’re anything like me, you will quickly find that most of the stuff you wore at art school is not going to cut it in your office job.  So you will probably have that sad moment where you spend most of your first paycheck on business casual clothes.  This is normal.  But I think you should still be allowed to wear those funky earrings your friend made you in the metal shop out of a couple of pop tabs.  You gotta have some originality…