Getting Started in Art Education

The ability to express yourself through art, or knowing how to understand the influence of art on our culture and history is a valuable part of the human experience. For individuals to become art professors they need to have a true appreciation and commitment to both art, and the students they plan to influence. In most cases, art professors must master their artistic craft, and invest in between six and ten years of higher education, including earning both a bachelor's and master's degree or beyond.

Art professors must be a teacher and an artist simultaneously, and those who can achieve this can be quite satisfied with the impact they have on their students and the world.

The Basics of the Job

Art professors are artists themselves and often have a specialized interest in a certain area of the arts, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, or graphic design. They also must have a strong understanding of art history. In most cases, art professors begin their academic journey as an undergraduate art major and earn either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). Those who wish to teach at the college level will go on to pursue a Master’s degree or Doctoral degree in Art.

Art professors must also obtain a teacher certification in the state where they plan to teach. While it is not absolutely necessary that their undergraduate degree is in art, such a degree usually gives a candidate a better chance of acceptance into an art graduate program that will be required in order to become a professor. Having a strong portfolio of their own work can also help them advance between an undergraduate degree and graduate degree. 

Those who pursue a career as an art professor face a high level of competition, and it is common for new professors to start their careers as adjunct professors rather than full professors who are working toward tenure. Adjunct professors are usually hired one semester at a time and are not paid as much as full professors. Instead, they are often brought in by universities to teach entry level courses that students take to meet general requirements. The pay is also less for an adjunct professor than for a full professor, but the experience is invaluable and is widely accepted as part of the process.


Commit to Continuous Learning

To become an art professor, a person should have a high level of interest and skill in art, in a generalized sense as well as in the area they plan to give special focus. They should have the desire to share their passion for art, and the patience to encourage those at different skill levels to find a medium of art that they too will use to express themselves. 

Because the world of art uses both pen and pencil or brush, as well as computer hardware and software, an art professor must be fluent in both. Some common software that proves invaluable in the classroom is Apple’s iLife and iWork, as well as Inspiration. Photoshop Elements, Picasa, iPhoto and Print Shop are also great tools to bring out the artist in any student. 

Art Professors should also have the ability to present the best and most interesting aspects of various mediums of art and be able to organize material so that it can be presented in a way that allows students to be both active and passive learners. They should also be able to relate the style of art they are teaching, both to the period of time when it first became popular as well as modern times, and be able to defend their own views on the material they teach while respecting those who have different styles or opinions than their own. 

First and foremost, an art professor should be willing to continue to be a student themselves and have the ability to conduct research, write effectively, and communicate well with students, other professors, and the artistic community. They must be able to offer a fair and objective eye when reviewing the work of students and find a way to present feedback that will help them reach their goals.


Stay Current & Continue Developing Your Skills

Because there are new and ongoing developments that occur in the field of art, art professors, like other professors, must continue to be active artists, and present themselves as experts in their field beyond the scope of their own classrooms and teaching studios. In doing so, an art professor will be required to be more than a teacher. They must find the time and space to continue to produce work and expand  their own portfolio. A strong portfolio will help maintain their status as a working artist and also help with their credibility, both with prospective students and with the higher education institutions where they may wish to teach or publish. 

In addition to producing quality artistic pieces, art professors can also take advantage of research facilities on the campuses where they work to write academic papers both on their own and in collaboration with other artists or educators, on and off campus. By maintaining a wide range of industry connections, professors are better able to serve their students, especially those who ultimately plan to pursue work as an artist as well. 

Often, academic knowledge helps maintain the credibility of individual pieces within a portfolio, and may help a professor make the leap from adjunct professor to a more permanent position on a tenure track that draws in talented students with high potential of making notable contributions of their own.

Get to Know Our Experts

Benita VanWinkle

  • Title:
  • Company:
    High Point University
  • Where:
    High Point, NC
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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

  • Title:
    Professor of Art & Design at Oklahoma Christian University & Owner
  • Company:
    Michael J. O’Keefe & Associates
  • Where:
    Oklahoma City, OK
  • Experience:
    33 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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

  • Title:
    Founder & Professor of Scenic Design at Indiana University, Speaker of Art Entrepreneurship
  • Company:
  • Where:
    South Bend, IN
  • Experience:
    14 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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.

    Art Professor Infographic