The Atelier versus Academia by Kirk Richards

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The Atelier versus Academia

by Kirk Richards

Our thanks go to Kirk Richards for permission to reprint this letter. Those wishing to see, and read, more of Kirk's work are encouraged to visit his gallery on ARC. Kirk Richards is the Vice President of the ASCR.


I studied at an atelier to receive the skills I use now as an artist, but prior to my atelier1training I received a BFA and MA in art from a university. I have also taught in the university on two occasions in my life, in 1981, immediately after completing my studies at Atelier Lack , and last fall. I believe what you are suggesting is theoretically possible, but not practically possible.I will try to explain my opinion starting with why its not possible.

The primary objective of every university is to have its schools (or departments) filled to capacity. Painting is an art form which demands personal attention, as close to one-on-one as possible. Even with ideal conditions, ideal faculty, adequate studio space including natural north light, you are still faced with one instructor for every 20 students (if fortunate). No one can learn painting in these ratios. University "training" has been reduced to the dispensation of catch phrases and ludicrous assignments geared to large groups, in part because teachers cannot work with students individually, assuming the teacher has anything to teach.

The problem this presents is not just of time and space, but of prioritizing students. No less a teacher than Howard Pyle taught at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences.He found the experience totally unsatisfactory, and his letter of resignation reads as follows:

... The great majority of a class as large as that which I teach at the Drexel Institute is hopelessly lacking in all possibility of artistic attainment. There are only one or two who can really receive the instruction which I give. To impart this information to these two or three who can receive it appears to be unfair to others who do not receive such particular instruction. This apparent favoritism on my part must inevitably tend to disrupt the art school or to make the large majority discontented with the instruction which they receive in contrast to that which the few receive; nor is it possible to assure such discontented pupils that that which I give them is far more abundant and far more practical than that which they could receive from any other art institute - the fact remains in their minds that they are not given that which I give to others and that apparently there is favoritism in the class.

This position forces upon me two alternatives, the first is not to impart such particular instruction but to confine myself to general teaching; the other is to abandon general instruction for the particular instruction of a few pupils. Of these two alternatives, the the first I cannot accept ... as to the second alternative it is probable that the Drexel Institute could not afford to maintain so expensive a school as a school of illustration for the benefit of some 4 or 5 students. Hence my reason for resigning.

This situation as Pyle saw it many years ago was with a wonderful teacher, in possession of a wonderful curriculum, and still it was not workable. The situation today includes all the above reasons as well as the fact that the instructors as you portrayed them are woefully inadequate.

Richard Lack once speculated that a painter could be trained in a university or institute if a curriculum could be arranged as it is in a music department, with the student receiving private instruction for a certain allotment of time per week, and then a weekly master class for everyone in his or her studio.This is exactly how it is done in music schools across the country.The reality is, however, that here too, the studio of a violin instructor is limited to a small number of students, 9 or 10, not a class of 30 crowding around a model, with no room, poor light, and lamentable instruction.

As alluded to by someone in an earlier post, very few (or no) competent teachers of painting learned their craft in a university, meaning that very few (or none) of them will have degrees and will therefore not be "qualified" or eligible to teach in a university. Your new instructors would all be possessors of an MFA, or in other words, trained in the university. You would be moving laterally, not up, in the quality of your instructors.

While I regret sounding negative or discouraging to the idea of your department transformation, my advice would be that your energies would be far more positively applied in finding an atelier or studio already in existence and diligently learning what is available there, than in trying to convert a university program that is going to suffer from all the ills mentioned by Pyle. As to an MFA bringing security, it will in reality only entrench you in the same bureaucracy you now regret about you current situation, but this time, as one of the instructors. Remember, if you receive your MFA in a university, then what you know you will have learned there.

If you really want to be a painter, then I would advise you to learn your craft, and then jump into the water all the way and give it your all. I came to the point in my own schooling, where I determined that learning to paint was more important than degrees or "job security."

Learning art in a university today has even more pitfalls, but this letter is too long. I'll save something for another time.

Best of luck,