How to Become an Art Professor

Professionals from all types of fields seek to become professors at a university or college for a many reasons such as prestige, economic reward, and of course, passion for passing on the knowledge they have. For successful artists, teaching is an option that often offers financial stability, while also giving them the space to practice their art and continue growing creatively.

Art professors normally teach studio classes as well as art theory and history, but they could also instruct in theater or dance. Besides this, they are usually expected to continue working on their art, whether it is painting, sculpture, graphic design, or another medium they are focused on.

In order to start teaching, most artists will need to obtain a master’s level degree or even a doctorate to make them more competitive. The majority begin as part-time teachers and teacher’s assistants, later as consultant professors, then finally obtaining full-time tenure positions. This is a field that sees a lot of competition and is not an easy trajectory to choose due to limited spaces available for full-time positions.

This being said, it can be an immensely rewarding opportunity. Sharing your knowledge as an artist with students who are passionate about their future, while also continuing to practice an art form that you love, could be the perfect combination, especially considering the economic reward that a tenured position can offer.

Take a look at this infographic to learn more about the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Benita VanWinkle

Professor at High Point University

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Employer:
  • Benita VanWinkle
  • High Point, NC
  • 30
  • High Point University
I have an AA in Communications from St. Petersburg Junior College, an AS in Professional Photography from Daytona Beach Community College, a BA in Liberal Arts from the University of Central Florida, and an MFA in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University. I also worked as a photojournalist for almost 8 years.

Today, my average day is spent teaching classes, then attending meetings, grading assignments, writing lectures, or advising and meeting with students for several more hours. I am generally at work about 8-9 hours a day at the University and then I take work home if I have a lot of assignments to grade, which is most of the time.

I love teaching students, seeing them reach goals, and have accomplishments that they are proud of. I teach photography, and I believe it changes the world- how we look at ourselves; how we respond to others; how we interact with the world in general. I weave a lot of ethical questions into my assignments, as well as research about how photography can be used by non-profit organizations in a positive way. Having the conviction that what you teach can be life changing and empowering is a big motivation for being in the classroom. Dislikes? Giving tests and grading! However, even then, I know that it is part of the feedback that my students need in order to understand where they are in the learning process, so it isn’t that bad.

Advice

Do what you love
Whatever you are passionate about is what you should pursue. You shouldn’t be a teacher because you think it will be easy. It is demanding, time consuming, and you literally do not have ‘time off’, because you are always thinking of what needs to be researched, graded, written, or how you can get an idea across in a better way. However, if you have passion, all of those things become relative and exciting to work on!

Live your profession
Being a part of the professional world is important, and you start that when you are a student by going to conferences, presenting papers, doing research and getting it published, and again, if you are an artist, then that research and publication might include doing exhibitions and getting your work into art galleries, museums, and collections. It is easier to get hired if you have shown a commitment to your craft, art, and career.

Try it out early
Another great way to get started is by applying for adjunct teaching in the community where you reside, but keep in mind that this requires a higher degree than a BA or BFA at most institutions. Become a member of local art organizations, and when possible, volunteer at the local arts council events. Teaching in adult education, teen summer programs, or continuing education programs pays very little in funds, but it is a great way to learn if you are really passionate about teaching and how much you actually enjoy that part of the career. You will also make contacts that can be extremely helpful.

Michael O’Keefe

Professor of Art & Design at Oklahoma Christian University and Owner of Michael J. O’Keefe & Associates

Quick Look Bio

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  • Location:
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  • Michael O’Keefe
  • Oklahoma City, OK
  • 33
  • Professor & Business Owner
I have a BS in Art and a BA in Social Science from Harding University, as well as an MFA in Communication Design from the University of North Texas. In the past, I have worked for 5 advertising agencies in Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City as an Art Director or Creative Director. Additionally, I have been servicing my own clients for the last 15 years.

The reality is that there is never an average work day for me. My days include teaching, grading, class preparations, counseling students, administrative work, servicing clients, securing quotes for jobs, producing advertising and graphic design for clients, and much more. What I love about the teaching part of my career is seeing the students progress as artists and designers and great work becomes the outcome; but it can get frustrating when there is a lack of support from the administration for much needed facilities and hiring faculty.

Advice

Be prepared for the market
Today, it’s not easy to get jobs. Most universities are only hiring part-time teachers to save money, so it will be difficult to get tenure. Have a great portfolio of your work, and if you are an artist, get a prestigious exhibition record.

Don’t over study
An MFA (60 hours) is the terminal degree, since it is equal to the PhD in pay and promotion and is expected for those who teach studio courses. But be careful not to get a ‘mail order’ MFA; where you do the work at home and go to the school for short stints in the summer or with occasional workshops.

Yuri Cataldo

Founder at IndigoH2O, Professor of Scenic Design at Indiana University, Speaker of Art Entrepreneurship

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
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  • Yuri Cataldo
  • South Bend, IN
  • 14
  • Business Owner, Professor, Speaker
  • IndigoH2O, Indiana University
  • @YCataldo
I started out with a BA in Theater and Drama from Indiana University, where I work today. I later went on to complete a professional program in Theatrical Design, Administration and Marketing from the Julliard School in New York, as well as an MFA in Production Design from Yale University.

Today, I am a successful entrepreneur and university-level instructor. I combine music, theater, and the arts with tactical, real-world business strategies. As an instructor, I am determined to create a pathway for art students towards business ownership, career opportunities, and financial satisfaction without having to rely on a ‘fallback plan.’ As an entrepreneur, I have honed my skills in guerilla marketing and promotions, tough negotiations, responsible sourcing, team leadership, and business finances/P&L. Last year, 2013, I was named one of Indiana’s “40 Under 40 Business Leaders.”

During my time at Yale I worked for the Santa Fe Opera as a design assistant on 2 productions. I also designed costumes for the Al Pacino movie Wilde Salome as well as costumes for a show girl review at Fox Woods Casino. After grad school I worked on the Broadway shows West Side Story and White Christmas, as well as the movie When in Rome. In 2009 I was an assistant for Broadway producers John Hart, Jr and Fred Zollo. When the economy crashed in 2009 a lot of the design jobs dried up, so I move back to Indiana and started my bottled water company with no real business training. I’ve found good mentors and read lots of books to help build it up.

As a professor, I love passing on the knowledge and experience I’ve learned over the years through trial and error. I try to incorporate life lessons, practical knowledge, and business advice into each class I teach. Those days seems to be the most interesting for my students. I teach at a smaller program, so I would love to have more students who are interested in design. The students who take my classes do so to fulfill art requirements for other majors. I was very fortunate to learn from some of the best designers in the world. I was taught how to creatively design a show but not how to find jobs. I wish I would have learned how to market myself and my work. This is something that is still missing from most art programs.

Advice

Be flexible
Colleges are always looking for new hires, but for your first job you might not have the location you want. I’ve noticed that for theater design there are always openings in the Dakota’s or Montana. Let everyone know that you’re looking to get hired as a professor. Not all jobs are posted online, especially if the school is looking for someone to fill in at the last minute. Also keep searching the Internet as new jobs pop up all the time.

Choose the right master’s program
I would choose a master’s program you feel the most at home in, especially if they are not offering you scholarships. Having to make decisions after school because of student loan debt will limit what you’re able to do.

Build your network
Email local colleges, professors, and go introduce yourself. Offer to speak in their classes for free about a topic you’re passionate about that would benefit their students. You can now say that you’ve spoken and taught at the college level. Once it shows on your resume that you’ve taught something at the college level, you are more likely to get hired to do it.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Art Professor?


If you want to become an art professor, you will need the right combination of education and experience. The first step is to get a Bachelor’s or preferably a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with a focus on a subject you are particularly interested in, be it photography, painting, sculpture, or design.

Next, you will need to obtain an MFA, specializing in the subject you would like to later teach. In this case, it could be important to choose a school that is well-known for their fine arts programs, as well as to work with professors who have similar interests to yours. Finally, you can go on to get your doctorate level studies in Fine Arts; however, this is not always necessary. There is a mixture of reviews regarding whether you need a PhD in order to become an art professor: Some say you will have an advantage over your competition, while others consider it unnecessary.

Despite the fact that the education process will be very important to your becoming an art professor, your career as an artist will have just as much weight. You need to have the right portfolio and a certain grade of success in order to convince a university to give you a tenure position as a professor. Having exhibitions, a successful art business, and a known public profile will help you in achieving this career goal.

SOME TOP OPTIONS FOR FINE ARTS DEGREES IN THE U.S.

  • Yale
    The U.S. News and World Report ranks Yale University as having the top Fine Arts program in the country. With an inter-disciplinary approach to teaching, Yale offers an exclusive MFA program for students with a very strong portfolio. Tuition alone stands at $45,800, not including fees and living expenses.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
    VCU offers some of the best recognized arts programs in the U.S. You can get an MFA in Fine Arts or Design with focuses such as Ceramics, Fiber, and Furniture Design among others. VCU also gives students the option of continuing onto Doctorate level studies in Art History. Graduate tuition is just over $7,000 for in-state students and close to $13,000 for out-of-state.
  • University of California – Los Angeles
    The UCLA School of Arts and Architecture offers Master’s level studies in Art, Design, and Media Art, as well as World Arts Cultures and Dance. Thanks to an optimal location in one of the most artistic states in the U.S., UCLA is a great place to learn and practice. In-state tuition for MFA students is $15,582 and $27,827 for out-of-state graduate students.
  • Rhode Island School of Design
    RISD offers 12 different Master’s level programs, including subjects such as digital and media, jewelry and metalsmithing, glass, textiles, printmaking, photography, and others. Education here is highly studio-based, with lots of hands-on work. Annual tuition is $44,284.
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago
    Chicago is home to some of the best museums in the country, as well as one of the top arts institutes in the U.S. SAIC offers its students a interdisciplinary approach, including programs in Art Education, Modern and Contemporary Art History, MFA in Studio, and a variety of programs in Design. Cost per credit hour for graduate students stands at $1,467.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

It is widely accepted that becoming an art professor is not an easy path to choose. The competition for getting a tenure position at a prestigious university is fierce, and it can take years of teaching before an instructor can get proper recognition.

Just like any other field, becoming an art professor means having a wide network within the art industry. It is important to begin building this network early in your career by going to conferences, keeping in touch with your university professors, other students, and coworkers too. At the same time, you will need to be obtaining your education and building a name within the industry. If people know your work, you are more likely to get hired.

Meanwhile, you can start taking the first steps to becoming a professor early on in your career. Begin teaching while you are finishing up your bachelor’s degree. This could be at a studio or giving private lessons. This will help you develop your teaching skills. On the other hand, when you are completing your master’s degree, try getting a teaching assistant position or giving classes for free, once again, to gain experience.

Finally, when you have gotten your MFA, you should contact various schools and Fine Arts departments to find out if anyone is looking to fill part-time teaching positions. From there, you will need to build up from giving a couple of classes a semester, to a full-time contract position, and later tenure.

Note that in a lot of cases you will also need to get certification to be able to teach.