Art education is both a fun and a very frustrating topic. First, because there is such a huge amount of stories I could tell; second, because there is no simple or cohesive way for me to relate my experience.Like my life in general, my art education has been a patchwork of experiences and encounters. As a child, living in Saint Petersburg, Russia, art history and “culture” were a part of my everyday life. Moving around and about the city, I would learn the names and
the stories of various sculptures, buildings, and other cultural landmarks. My parents would frequently take me to various museums and art galleries, to theaters, and to circuses and concerts. I realize now that this must have been quite different from the average experience of children, especially those living outside of the two cultural capitals. Even so, art education is valued nation-wide and the Russian education system reflects that.Instead of just having some art classes included in the school colloquium, Russia has a well-developed network of music and visual art schools. (Some schools and youth centers offer other kinds of art activities and clubs, but my school didn’t. Neither did it offer “normal” art classes, so I can’t really elaborate on those either.) Some of the oldest art schools were founded in the 19th century; however, the system was mostly standardized and popularized in the Soviet times. Children will usually start attending music and/or visual art schools at the age of 5-7, the same year they start elementary school. In visual art schools classes of drawing, painting, sculpting, and art history are required. It takes approximately 4 years to graduate, however, it really depends on the school; some might offer advanced classes or have classes for children that started at a later age.
Because of our mobile lifestyle I couldn’t really commit to a single school; however, I did bounce in and out of the system for years. Through personal tutors and occasional enrollments, I got my share of Russian “muzykalka” – music school. The musical education usually takes 6 years and includes individual lessons, choir, and music theory and history. The more talented students, and those aiming for a career in music, will usually continue their studies for four more years before applying to a conservatory. The schools are mostly government-funded and so, if the child is enrolled fulltime, the cost of this education is only 200 rubles a month (about 10 dollars). Even by Russian standards, this is cheap. Furthermore, as long as there are vacancies, and they pass some elementary musical testing, anyone can join the school. Despite this, the popularity of music school or art schools in general is clearly declining. Even if a big percentage of kids have, for at least a few years, attended one, few do so voluntarily. For many, art education is imposed on them by their parents. As a result, they learn the mechanical skills but do not learn how to appreciate or creatively interpret art.
Finnish art education is, in a way, the opposite of Russia. From elementary school to upper-secondary school, there is a number of compulsory music, visual art, and craft classes. Again, there is variation from school to school, but in general art education is pretty democratic: everyone learns the same basic skills and theory. For example, during the eighth and ninth grades we had tests on Finnish music history, reading sheet music, some simple guitar chords, instrument recognition and some basic dance-steps. The school offered some optional classes such as photography and design (and class A was music-oriented, but they never took anyone new in, so it wasn’t really an option), however those were still very elementary, so people interested in actually making art had to look for guidance somewhere else.
There is one major difference between Finnish and Russian art education – the cost of it. In Finland the price for individual instrument lessons alone ranges from 50 dollars/month up. Therefore, people attending are, for the most part, doing it voluntarily. Also, I attended an arts oriented upper secondary school, so the difference between people with strong personal interest and commitment to arts and those without became even more obvious. To get into the school in the first place you had to pass an evaluation which consisted of your secondary school grades, a musical test and an interview. Once in, a quarter of the credit came from art studies: music history and theory, individual lessons for the major and minor instruments, choir, band, orchestra, studio techniques etc. A few people transferred after the first week, a few more after the first year, but as a rule, people who got in also stayed in. I personally wasn’t that thrilled about having my piano grade show in my final diploma, but for the most part studying in such an artsy environment was a pleasure. (I was a music major, in case you didn’t figure it out by now.)
From what I’ve told here, it might seem that I’m favoring the Finnish system and, admittedly, in many ways I do. However, it definitely has its flaws and
downsides. Especially after the graduation, trying to get back into musical circles has been immensely difficult because of the high demand for the few vacancies and thehigh cost of education. Unmotivated people get sorted out, but so do many of those who would really appreciate a chance to try. In that sense the Russian art schooling is way more available and approachable.
To quickly give you an idea of what my personal art education has been like: I’ve had three different flute teachers, six piano teachers, six visual art teachers (in andoutside of school), learned sewing and clothes design at home, attended several art clubs and schools, done independent research and worked at an art gallery. My art education has been chaotic and at times inconsistent, but it allowed me to encounter a wider scope
of arts and art history than I would have if schooled in a more traditional way.