Art Market

Six Artists Working as Teachers Share the Lessons They’ve Learned

Benjamin Sutton
Oct 16, 2018 5:10PM

Artist Rodrigo Valenzuela works with a student during an open studio at UCLA. Photo by Reed Hutchinson. Courtesy of UCLA.


Artists’ creativity often extends to the ways they make a living. The most famous may live off their studio practices, but many more cobble together a livelihood from sales of their art, grants, freelance work, and day jobs. For tens of thousands of artists in the U.S., this means teaching art.

The exact number of visual artists who teach at colleges and universities at any one time is hard to pin down, but according to a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts study, of the 271,000 workers who reported holding secondary jobs as artists, almost 21 percent, or nearly 57,000 workers, identified as teachers in their primary jobs. For some, teaching may be a temporary solution; for others, it becomes a career-long calling that presents its own distinct set of challenges, from navigating institutional bureaucracy and campus politics to supporting students, all the while continuing to develop their own practices. It represents an enormous commitment of time and energy that can be nurturing for some and stultifying for others.

“You can’t simply think of it as a supplement to your art sales income,” says Laura Parnes, who is currently a visiting artist in three different MFA programs (at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons School of Design, and Maryland Institute College of Art). “Your academic engagement should expand your artistic practice. Otherwise, you would be better off finding another way to make a living.”

Of the 271,000 workers who reported holding secondary jobs as artists, almost 21 percent identified as teachers in their primary jobs.

And, as a way of making a living, teaching at an art school—even one that is very highly regarded—isn’t without its perils, either. The recent boom in higher education for artists may be starting to level off, and prospective students are increasingly aware of the often-enormous costs of art school.

In fact, those exorbitant costs have been important factors in the controversies that erupted at two major art schools recently. Earlier this year, 51 of the 54 students in Columbia University’s visual arts MFA program met with their dean and provost to demand tuition refunds. Their primary complaints were about appalling conditions in many of the on-campus studios and the prolonged absences of many of the school’s more high-profile faculty members, both of which were extenuated by tuition rates of nearly $64,000. And in 2015, all of the students in the first year of the MFA program at the Roski School of Art of the University of Southern California dropped out in protest of changes to the school’s faculty and reduced tuition subsidies, among other issues. Art schools, in other words, are not impregnable ivory towers. Nevertheless, they offer working artists the prospect of a stable income, benefits, and intellectual stimulation.

“Being an artist in New York is so difficult, to have a job that helps with the hustle is such a relief,” says Monica Cook, the interim head of the sculpture department at the New York Academy of Art. “When I am in the position where I don’t need the income from teaching, I still see myself involved, doing workshops and master classes.”

Teaching and being taught

Artist Michelle Grabner speaking to a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

One oft-cited distinction between (and advantage of) teaching art in a college or university setting as opposed to other artist day jobs (like, say, professional blackjack player) is that it can help artist instructors be more engaged in their own studios. Working through intellectual, material, and formal problems with students helps artists develop their practices.

“Teaching is an extension of my work,” says Parnes. “Working with students, I’m constantly reassessing my own philosophical relationship to artmaking. The experience of having to advise and respond to work outside of my own immediate interests (formally, conceptually) can be a tremendous catalyst for growth. It’s a challenge that pushes me.”

Consequently, an important dose of humility is key for any artist who wants to make a go of being a teacher.

“A lot of times, some 18-year-old will prove you wrong. You have to have the generosity to let them be on their own and give them freedom.”

“You can’t just expect to go and teach the things that you know, and then leave and get paid for all that knowledge that you think is so great inside you,” says Rodrigo Valenzuela, a Chilean-born artist now based in Los Angeles, where he has been an assistant professor of photography at the University of California–Los Angeles since 2017. “This capacity of wanting to learn, and the capacity to speak out loud about the doubts that you have, it requires a certain openness. A lot of times, some 18-year-old will prove you wrong, or an 18-year-old who hasn’t made any art will have better ideas than you. You have to have the generosity to let them be on their own and give them freedom.”

Location, location, compensation

Learning on the job—from students and fellow faculty—is hardly the only potential perk of a teaching job for an artist.

“There are some places that will give professors studios, that will give professors housing, that will give you a moving package, that will help you get set up—those are important questions to ask if you’re relocating,” says Sam Vernon, an artist who moved from New York City to the Bay Area to take an assistant professor position at the California College of the Arts.

After working as a teaching assistant at Yale while she pursued an MFA there, and as an adjunct professor at Vassar College, she didn’t take the decision to move across the country for the job lightly. She stresses the importance of getting as full a picture as possible of the campus culture at a given school before committing to a teaching role. “What’s the energy like? Are people frustrated, are they excited? Is there a level of camaraderie that you sense among the students?” she asks.

A photography critique at at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Another question artists should ask themselves when sizing up teaching jobs has to do with compensation and cost of living. While major schools in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago may confer institutional prestige, the compensation they offer will not necessarily go very far compared to what schools in more affordable cities can offer art teachers.

“Knowing what the cost of living is in that particular city is really important,” says T.J. Dedeaux-Norris, an artist and assistant professor at the University of Iowa. “So if you’re comparing a salary that might seem like a really, really good salary, it might not be that much money if the cost of living is really high. Or you look at a job and see that the salary feels mediocre or low compared to somebody else that you know that lives somewhere else, but then you realize that the cost of living is really low.”

From compensation to cost of living to campus culture, the more artists can know about a school before taking a job there, the better, says Vernon. “Because you will be committing a very large part of your time and your life to these spaces, and—I have to stress this because I’ve seen it happen—if you have any level of resentment toward where you have chosen to be, the students and your colleagues will sense it; they will know.”

The adjunct hustle

Artist Catherine Opie speaks to a student during an open studio at UCLA. Photo by Reed Hutchinson. Courtesy of UCLA.

And for many artists who teach, there are plenty of possible sources of resentment. The adjunct crisis is well-documented in every sector of secondary education. In recent years, in California alone, part-time faculty at the Otis College of Art and Design, California College of the Arts, San Francisco Art Institute, and Laguna College of Art and Design have voted to unionize in hopes of negotiating for better pay, benefits, and greater job stability. Adjunct pay differs from one institution to the next, but typically ranges from $2,000 to $6,000 per course, with instructors often taking on many classes—often on different campuses and for different schools—in order to make a living.

“I was confronted with many challenges teaching adjunct,” says Dedeaux-Norris, who previously held visiting and adjunct teaching roles at Xavier University and Dillard University in New Orleans and Santa Monica College in California. “Even with my Yale degree, I found it difficult to crack the glass ceiling of adjunct work and I would oftentimes not know until a week or two in advance what classes I’d be teaching—if any. This made course planning difficult and pretty stressful.”

The adjunct hustle has become such a common part of how artists make a living that, in 2015, Dushko Petrovich, an artist and longtime adjunct himself, was inspired to launch the Adjunct Commuter Weekly, a publication intended specifically for educators routinely traveling many miles between part-time teaching jobs.

Courtesy of California College of the Arts.

“I started at Boston University in a two-year position called ‘teaching fellow,’ and then I stayed there as an adjunct, adding Yale, RISD, and NYU to the list as an adjunct,” says Petrovich, who is now the chair of the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and doesn’t miss being an adjunct at all. “I would rather have a full-time position. I like teaching and running a department, and the financial stability gives me a lot of freedom, which I cherish, in my own work.”

For other artists, a part-time or adjunct role can provide the freedom to tune out the bigger issues at a given school and focus on their students and their studio.

“It’s such a rewarding job, with many challenges,” says Vernon. “But I don’t blame someone who opts out and just wants to be in their studio and drop in every now and then.”

Students in the studio?

One particularly prevalent challenge for artists who decide to teach involves the boundaries they do (or don’t) erect between their careers as artists and their careers as educators. The classroom can be a helpful space for teachers to work out issues they’re wrangling with in their studios, but this can lead to difficult situations where students’ work begins to resemble that of their professors.

“If your role as a teacher is defined and limits are set, everyone is more comfortable and students can delve into their own particular interests without feeling pressure to emulate their teacher’s work or to appease various personalities,” says Parnes.

Artist Monica Cook with student Spyros Procopiou in her Painting from Imagination class at the New York Academy of Art. Courtesy the New York Academy of Art.

For Vernon, the boundaries between her artistic practice and her pedagogic practice are more porous, and she stresses the potential risks of that arrangement.

“If you do bring [your work] into the classroom, with that comes a certain level of intimacy in which the students’ curiosity is piqued,” she says. “And then it can lead to more questions, like, do I allow my students into my studio space—which I have done—and then, how much do I share with them about my practice, because many students become inspired and that turns into, are they making work that looks like theirs or yours? It’s a fine line.”

“When I am overwhelmed with my own work, helping someone else can be like stepping into the calm during a storm.”

Making that line much clearer can also help an artist who teaches mindfully balance one’s schedule and priorities.

“It can be really difficult when I am preparing for a show under tight deadlines,” says Cook. “When I am overwhelmed with my own work, helping someone else solve their problems can be like stepping into the calm during a storm.”

Ultimately, for many who do it, the decision to teach art comes down to a question of generosity and wanting to help and be helped by younger artists.

“If you feel like you need to improve something, and that art education would be better with you in it, I think it’s good,” says Valenzuela. “We shouldn’t surrender to the weight of the institutions and not think that they’re made up of people; people should improve these places.”

Benjamin Sutton