Is it worth it? Examining the cost of art

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“It was an unreal level of demand — six hours per week and a ton of out-of-class time doing the actual painting,” said Cristina Vere Nicoll ’14 of the “Intro to Painting” class she took last fall.

The former art major recalled the significance of this expectation for one of her classmates in the small, intense seminar: “One girl had to drop out. She had to quit her job because of the time commitment involved with taking the class. But then she had to drop the class, because she couldn’t afford the equipment anymore.”

Producing high quality art is an expensive venture today. While art majors at other universities are allocated budgets or are eligible for special funding requests, students at Yale are expected to fully fund the cost of materials. Art major Olivia Schwob ’14 said she has spent more than $250 per art class so far.

Austin Lan ’13 detailed the monetary requirements of taking an art class: a $150 materials fee at enrollment, which goes toward the maintenance of machines and reusable tools, and then the additional expense of materials.

While this may be de rigeur for declared art majors, it complicates the decision process for students deciding whether to pursue the study of art.

“I’m definitely interested in the classes, but it just sucks that you have to pay to take them,” said Ryan Bowers ’14, a Theater Studies major.

Considering the state of the University’s budget, which (according to a Yale Daily News article from January 19) has yet to fully recover from the recession, further support for students enrolled in these classes is unlikely in the near future. So the question becomes a contextualized version of the age-old shopper’s dilemma: is it worth it?

A consensus seems to exist within the community of art students — despite the high costs and the hours (Nicoll and Schwob were both in a class that required them to be in the studio from noon to 3 a.m. at least once), a Yale art education is worth it.

This may largely be due to a certain Yale culture. “We take art very seriously here as an intellectual pursuit, because Yale’s kind of like a little bohemian enclave,” Schwob said.

That attitude means more of a focus on the thought behind the work and less concern for employability, craft and matters of expense.

“There’s no way to avoid the materials fee, so I’m not going to let it affect what I do in terms of course choices,” said Lan.

As far as she knows, she added, the expenses are not regularly discussed among students.

In the process of choosing a university and comparing art programs within the Ivies, Yale appealed to Schwob because art classes here take a more artist-centric approach than one focused solely on technique, she explained.

For many art students, Yale’s is the first setting in which they are considered more than just makers of pretty landscapes and still-lifes, said Nicoll.

“Here, I feel that I can sit down at a table with an engineer and garner an equal amount of respect,” she added.

Jen Mulrow ’14, also an art major, expressed a similar level of engagement. “You get a lot out of art classes because you put a lot into [them].”

Going through that experience together makes people feel familiar and comfortable with each other within the art community, said Nicoll. “You develop a sense of camaraderie after coming out of the courses as a survivor.”

It’s this sense of looking out for each other that helps students identify ways to maneuver the costs and demands required of them, as they consult with each other and with professors for advice on where to get supplies for the best prices. Hull’s, the only supplies store in downtown New Haven, is highly overpriced, according to four students interviewed.

Some teachers tell students to go to Walgreen’s to buy certain materials, said Mulrow, while Nicoll explained that students in her painting class went to an arts supplies store called “Michael’s,” a 20-minute drive away, to avoid the prices at Hull’s. Lan said that professors try to keep expenses low for students. The community is, therefore, recognizing the problem and coming up with solutions that work, at least on the micro scale.

But the overwhelming feeling is that this is simply art students’ cross to bear. Attitudes within the academy emphasize that materials are worth the outlay when producing ‘good’ work, Schwob stressed.

“People know what they’re getting into once they’ve entered the major,” Lan stated.


For students simply looking to explore their artistic side, however, the costs associated with enrolling in these classes can be a significant deciding factor.

“It definitely does deter people looking for an interesting fifth class — if you’re looking at a gut versus an art class that requires you to pay extra money, I think you’d be affected,” Ryan Bowers ’14 said.

Lan said a friend of hers interested in photography balked at the high price of the materials. Photography classes are notoriously costly, requiring students to pay anywhere from $150 to $1000 for chemicals and, if necessary, the purchase of a camera.

Her friend chose to take drawing instead.

This consideration can prevent non-art majors from exercising a part of their brain that’s very important and should not be allowed to atrophy, said Schwob.

“Taking these classes does great things for how you think and see the world,” she added. “They take your ideas seriously and enable a lot of personal growth.”

But even intro courses demand materials fees that are nothing to sneeze at. With that weighing down on students, some choose to forgo the potential benefits of enrolling in these courses.

Nicoll said that courses at Yale, being especially rigorous, require that one produce “inordinate amounts of art.” What lies behind that is a significant drain on one’s checking account to pay for a substantial amount of materials.

Claire Horrell ’14 said she would be willing to explore a class that cost up to $400 in materials, but probably not more than that.

“It’s not a determining factor, but it is [a consideration],” Bowers said.

Schwob said she gave the art department a shot, and has now chosen to “follow through on this part of her intellect.” Are you willing to try to do the same thing?

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