In Art School, A Lesson On Student Debt
Growing up, Manuel López spent a lot of time doodling. Often, it got him into trouble.
At home, he’d pore through his mother’s Bible, pick out the most striking passages, then draw them in the margins. His mother, a devout Catholic, was not amused.
Once, as a student at Garfield High School in East L.A., he thought he’d pass the time by drawing his math teacher. But when his piece came together, his classmates started to laugh. Annoyed, his teacher walked up to him and snatched the paper from his desk.
“And she’s, like: Manuel, if you spent as much time listening to me as you did drawing, you probably wouldn’t be failing my class,” López recalled, laughing.
For the record, he added: “I passed that class with a C. Or a D.”
This was all years ago. López is now an adult and professional artist. He recently sold out a show at the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown and is getting ready to take his work to New York and abroad. He’s been offered coveted residencies and had his work placed in museums. But success has been a long time coming, and there were times when López wasn’t sure it would — even after going to college to hone his craft.
López was a high school senior when he first set foot in an art museum, but his upbringing was far from artless. He grew up in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, both wellsprings for muralism. And at home, he studied art everywhere he saw it, from drawings on cereal boxes to cartoons on TV.
Still, his class trip to Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum was transformative.
He remembers the trip vividly. After walking past the museum entrance, he came across giant canvases of popes and cardinals. López appreciated the artists’ technical skill. Beyond that, he felt nothing.
“It's small,” said López. “The head is shaped like a kidney bean, and it has little dots for eyes and a line with little crosses insinuating teeth. It’s super simple.”
“I remember laughing at it,” he said. “I was, like, ‘Dude, how is this in a museum?’”
He walked away from the painting, “feeling superior to it.”
A week later, López “forgot everything and everyone at the museum” — except for that Picasso, which kept coming to mind. López laughed it off. “That's so dumb,” he thought.
With time, he realized the painting triggered something in him. Until then, he’d taken painstaking care to get his drawings to mirror real life. The painting he’d mocked compelled him to reconsider art’s purpose, made him think that “art was so much more than a pretty picture.”
He graduated, then enrolled at East Los Angeles College, where he immediately started tackling the coursework needed to transfer to a university. For fun, he snuck a drawing class into his schedule. “And I liked it,” said López. “I really liked it.”
At the time, his only goal was to get better. He took all the drawing courses he could, then he moved on to painting.
He welcomed the challenge, but not the cost. To pay for his materials — paint, canvases, brushes — López held several jobs, including selling auto parts and custodial work. His professors noticed his dedication and asked if he’d considered pursuing art as a career. He hadn’t.
Then, one of his friends was admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design, a private school in Providence. Instead of taking a plane to her new school, she decided to drive across the country. López asked if he could tag along. He also requested a pit stop. His professors and classmates often talked about a place called the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he wanted to check it out.
When he got back to California, López knew what he wanted. He prepared his portfolio and gathered recommendation letters. He applied and was admitted. Then, he enrolled.
He got an apartment in Pilsen, a neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Chicago filled with art and culture he vibed with. And when he saw snow fall for the first time, he looked up at the sky with his mouth open, spinning slowly amid the flurry.
López enjoyed his time in Chicago. But after he graduated and returned to Los Angeles, he felt deflated. For about three years, he didn't paint a thing.
At an artist’s talk earlier this spring, López told his friend and fellow artist, Rafael Cardenas, that much of what he painted in Chicago had felt forced.
“Once you go to an institution to learn, you start to feel like everything’s already been done,” López said.
Searching for a way to get back on track, he thought back to when he first fell in love with art and remembered drawing on college-ruled paper as a child. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was accessible, “like 150 sheets for 75 cents at Target.”
López got a hold of some of this paper. On it, he drew the hills of East Los Angeles, City Terrace and El Sereno, over and over and over. Once he gained confidence, he began to incorporate a bit of color. Then, he started painting again.
Cardenas recalled watching his friend through this process. “I remember I told you, ‘Why are you using this crappy paper?’ . . . But I understand now.”
Once you go to an institution to learn, you start to feel like everything’s already been done.”
Does López regret going to art school? Was it a waste of money and time?
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago “was fertile ground — people making stuff and questioning stuff. It was super intense, and I needed that at the time,” he said.
López didn’t take on much debt to finance his education. He transferred his coursework from East Los Angeles College and was able to enter as an upperclassman. The school also gave him a generous scholarship, which covered about three quarters of his expenses. To make ends meet, López took out a small loan.
Some of his classmates were less fortunate, he said, particularly those who didn’t finish their studies. They also took out loans to pay for school, but because they didn't finish, they’re now tens of thousands of dollars in debt, without a degree to bolster their prospects in the job market.
Today, an undergraduate degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago costs about $70,000 per year. In southern California, comparable art schools can be just as costly.
At CalArts in Santa Clarita, the annual estimated cost of on-campus attendance — including tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, medical expenses and transportation — is $74,308. ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena has a similar price tag. Students at the Otis College of Art and Design in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles also pay about $70,000 per year. When President Charles Hirschhorn told this year’s graduating class that Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel and his wife, model Miranda Kerr, would cover their debt, some students and family members burst into tears. Then, so did he.
“I tried to keep talking, but the students sit right in front of me at commencement, and so many of them were crying and just sort of trying to catch their breath — it just got to me,” he said.
'Can I Afford Art School?'
Ravi Rajan, the president of California Institute of the Arts, signaled that students rarely pay the sticker price, which is “solely indicative of how much it costs to deliver one year of education” at a given institution. At CalArts, he added, about 90% of students receive scholarships, most of which are need-based.
He’s also leery of applying concepts like “return on investment” to higher education.
“You're using the terms of capital — of buying and selling and investing — for education, which is not a salable good,” he said. “And I'm not saying that to distract from this being expensive.”
Of course he wants CalArts alumni to find gainful employment, but education is “not just job training," he said. "I think the reason we started thinking about [higher education] in the United States this way is because the financing is broken,” he added, in reference to those who profit from student debt.
When asked what prospective students should weigh before taking on debt to finance an arts education, Rajan underscored that “there are lots of pathways to becoming an artist.” And “CalArts is one [choice] among many," he added. “Students should take every consideration into play when they're thinking about their pathway.” At 18, not everyone’s ready to devote themselves to the arts.
A student who is artistically inclined but equally interested in dabbling in philosophy or engineering might be better served at an institution where they can fully explore those possibilities, like Cal State Long Beach or UCLA, Rajan said. Another student might opt to start at a community college, then transfer to CalArts to save money — there’s no wrong way.
“‘Can I afford college?’ is the wrong question,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone can afford not to get educated.”
Bolstering Graduates’ Success, Beyond Alumni Magazines And Social Mixers
Prospective students of these schools get a hard sell.
CalArts, which was founded by Walt Disney and his brother Roy in 1961, offers more than 70 degree programs in the visual, performing, media and literary arts. The school emphasizes cross-discipline work, so that a graphic design or character animation major at CalArts will get to mingle with all sorts of artists, including actors, choreographers, composers and painters.
The Patty Disney Center for Life and Work connects CalArts students with internship and employment opportunities, along with discipline-specific résumé and cover letter checks. It also offers workshops on the business side of the art world, like how to write invoices or become an independent contractor.
Rajan is proud of the school’s alumni mentor program, which connects students to graduates who are employed at companies that may offer high-paying jobs.
“When X is your mentor and X works at Disney, there's more access,” he said, “or at least more of a pathway.”
Other students may also be considering Otis College of Art and Design — known for its toy design, digital media and fashion design programs — where recruitment starts early. School employees connect with middle and high school students, encouraging them to participate in its summer programs.
President Hirschhorn said it’s especially important to reach out to parents of prospective first generation students. He wants them to know that an Otis education isn’t impossible if you can’t afford the ticket price; more than 90% of students receive financial aid. He also wants to ensure that they’re privy to well-compensated careers in art and design.
Career services, which keeps close tabs on alumni, reported a 93.5% employment rate for the class of 2019 (the most recent year for which it has data). It also said that more than one-third of the class was employed before graduation.
Otis alumni who need help navigating the job market have unlimited access to career services. This includes counseling, a private website with close to 1,000 active job openings and support with essentials like negotiating freelance contracts or applying for grants. “The starving artist?” the school website reads, “It’s a myth, and our alumni prove it.”
Higher education promises a lot of things: jobs, better pay, fantastic opportunities, lifelong success. But trying to make it all happen is, uh, not so straightforward. LAist can't make decisions for you, but our guide to navigating college in California can sketch out the landscape — tell you the basics of what’s out there, highlight helpful resources, discuss pros and cons of different options, get honest about financial aid, and point you to real humans who can talk you through it.
In conversations around student debt, colleges hold up these services and statistics as a way to indicate that the burden of loans might be worth it, that graduates will be in the group with jobs and a real shot at social mobility, rather than the group unable to keep up with interest on their debt.
The ArtCenter in Pasadena was founded by an advertising executive who couldn't find qualified creatives to hire, so “we're unapologetically commercial in our orientation,” said Senior Vice President of Admissions and Enrollment Management Tom Stern.
When chatting with prospective students, he asks them to visualize themselves in 10 to 15 years, then plan backwards. Part of that planning includes looking at average salaries in their fields of interest. If students believe higher education will position them to be competitive for jobs in that field, “they might decide it makes sense to take on some debt in order to get there, because it will ultimately pay off.”
“I think the question of return on investment is a completely fair one for prospective students and their families to ask," Stern added. “It’s not a conversation we shy away from.”
He believes investing in an arts education can be extremely beneficial: Students develop the technical skill to be employable, but also pushed to create with an objective in mind. At his campus, Stern added, professional preparation “is intrinsic to the education itself.”
At the ArtCenter — where undergraduates can choose from majors like film, fine art, and transportation design — 79% of students receive some form of financial aid. The school itself provides 56% of students with scholarships. Alumni work at companies ranging from Apple to Hasbro to Procter & Gamble, Stern said.
I think the question of return on investment is a completely fair one for prospective students and their families to ask. It’s not a conversation we shy away from.
“We are not a job training program in the sense that we aren't placing students in individual jobs — we aren't guaranteeing anything," he added. "But we are unabashedly utilizing our connections to and awareness of industry to help prepare students to move into those worlds."
ArtCenter students also have access to career chats, where companies share what they seek in employees. Its Center for Career and Professional Development provides portfolio, résumé and interview preparation. Like CalArts, the ArtCenter offers a mentoring program, which pairs students with working creatives in their fields of interest.
Stern also encourages students to keep an open mind when it comes to career opportunities. He’s had transportation design students who are now working for Nike, he said, and other similar cases.
“There's all this crossover,” he said. “But, again, it comes back to this question of their learning not just the creativity, but how to apply it.”
What Opportunities Does An Arts Degree Unlock?
Gemma Castro, who grew up in Lakewood, graduated from CalArts just a few weeks ago, with a degree in composition and experimental sound practices. It was a long road to completion.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Castro grew up singing at her church. She went to Mayfair High School, then on to Cal State Long Beach. Though she loved music, she didn’t get into the university’s composition program — which she didn't even know existed when she first enrolled.
Castro left the university after a year. She took classes at three community colleges — Cerritos College, Fullerton College and Pasadena City College — to learn music theory and how to compose, all while continuing to perform on the side. Once she’d acquired the skills she needed, she applied to CalArts. To her delight, she was admitted.
The school offered her a small scholarship. To attend, Castro would have had to take on student debt. “It was going to be a crazy loan, and I just felt so scared,” she said. “I was heartbroken, because it just felt like, damn, I just don't have access to this, like this is just impossible for me.”
Staring down the COVID-19 pandemic, Castro again asked herself: What do I really want to do?
She recalled an important moment: Once, while working as a backup vocalist, she went out in search of the restroom and lost her way in a building. She opened a door and entered the wrong room, full of producers she admired.
“And I thought it was so crazy that people would just sit at a table and, like, talk about how to write a song,” said Castro.
“I wasn't supposed to go in that room,” she added, in retrospect. “It's something I was not supposed to see, one of those worlds you're not supposed to have access to.”
Castro, who dreams of owning a recording studio, applied to CalArts again. And for the second time, she was admitted. But this time around, she received a generous scholarship, and could take out a smaller loan.
And being a CalArts student has opened doors for Castro. Through Josephine Shetty, a faculty member in the school of music, she learned about Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco, a recording studio run by women and nonbinary audio engineers. For Castro, learning about this space was life-changing. Throughout her experience as a performer, she came across men who discouraged her from pursuing a formal education, including a professor.
“I felt that energy strongly,” said Castro. “I remember I'd be like, ‘I want to do this.’ And they'd be like, ‘Why do you want to go to school for music? You're pretty.’”
Shetty, in contrast, encouraged her to apply for an internship.
Castro has also made extensive use of the Patty Disney Center for Life and Work. After her initial résumé consultation, she made three follow-up appointments. “And they never said no,” she said.
“Because I've shown my face so much,” Castro added, the staff knows what her goals are, and they send her links to jobs.
Castro also applied for the school’s incubator program, designed for students interested in doing freelance work or launching their own businesses after graduation.
After being admitted, she was immersed in the business side of the art world. One of her tasks involved going to an event, taking a stab at networking, then reflecting on her experience. She also developed a business plan, pitched it to a panel and was awarded a small grant.
Castro is now an intern at Stones Throw Studios in Highland Park, where she gets hands-on experience making albums. And when she talks about the future, she speaks with confidence.
“I really want to focus more on composing and collecting the royalties,” she said. “In music, someone is always making a lot of money off of this. And why can't that person be me?”
Do You Need Art School To Succeed In The Art World?
Ever Velasquez manages the gallery where Manuel López had his solo show. She’s also an artist in her own right, but she didn’t go to art school.
She was raised by a single mom, she explained, “and there were things I needed to do and sacrifice in my life for the wellbeing of our family.”
“I didn't think about education first,” Velasquez added. “My whole thing was taking care of us, everything [else] came second. But also, within the structure of education, I wasn't sure it was going to pull me where I wanted to go.”
Velasquez grew up surrounded by art, an interest fueled by her mother, who taught her simple drawing techniques — like how to convert letters into animals — when she was a child. As she got older, Velasquez transitioned to collages. Then, as an adult, she joined local women’s art collectives.
Velasquez also sold sunglasses, dresses, t-shirts, and colored contact lenses at swap meets and los callejones, the bustling shops in downtown Los Angeles’ fashion district. She gained confidence speaking, along with the ability to quickly gather information and connect with people from different backgrounds. All of these skills, she said, are indispensable for her work at the gallery.
Velasquez now focuses her efforts on helping first-time buyers acquire art and helping up-and-coming artists make themselves known.
“Education is always powerful, necessary. And, yeah, I wish I could have gone to art school, but I think everything falls into place the way it's supposed to,” she said.
When López’s solo show was still up, some two dozen members of Las Fotos Project, a nonprofit that provides photography lessons and mentoring for teenage girls & gender-expansive youth, wandered into the gallery. A bit sheepishly, they asked Velasquez if they could look at the work.
Velasquez readily welcomed them. “The way I see it,” she told LAist, “any one of them could be Manuel some day.”