One of many complaints from gallerists and art dealers, especially those that primarily exhibit early-career or local artists, is the lack of professionalism by the artists themselves. Any gallery employee likely has many a story about odd and unprofessional ways prospecting artists approached them, and this is not a challenge just localized to Phoenix, but an issue in the art industry worldwide. The stereotype of the flighty artist who simply is “discovered” or convinces galleries to exhibit them solely on talent and ego is a thing of the past. Today’s artist must present themselves professionally, and adhere to standards set forth by the industry. Even more so, today’s professional artist must be an entrepreneur and initially focus on directly marketing their work to build interest and success. The pointed question then is, where do artists learn to be professional?
It is no secret that there is little alignment between the art industry and art education. There is not a singular path to becoming a successful, professional artist. Like any business some people have the talent, some have the business acumen, some have both, and some have neither. But art education is sorely lacking in terms of providing a well-rounded education that will lead to a stable career as an artist. Some institutions are aware of the gap between education and employment in the arts. Notably, here in Phoenix there are innovators working to create more diverse training for art students, which in turn benefits the local art industry.
It is an old school joke that art students are regularly asked, “What are you going to do with that degree?” Realistically, there are numerous professions that art students could enter, but they have to mold their knowledge with their talent and creativity to find the best fit for them. Art graduates can work in nearly any field, from marketing to healthcare, education to social work, manufacturing to design; the possibilities are endless. The key is how to use their creativity and implement it into a field of interest. Most art students, rightfully so, want to be professional artists, gallerists, or museum professionals, and like other areas of study should be trained in the business of the industry. So, why aren’t they?
Before the 1960s, very few artists had degrees, and those who did seldomly studied art in school. The public viewed art as a trade and many artisans studied under masters as apprentices before branching out on their own. Then art became a commodity; prices rose by record amounts, and the big business art industry was born. Educational institutions took advantage of the trend, and schools created more art degree programs. Today it is considered a near necessity for an artist to have an MFA to be considered somewhat professional. The students also had a great deal to do with the shift to academic art programs. The thought was that if they could get a degree in art then they should have the ability to make a great deal of money using it. Virtually, art degrees became an attempt to create artists.
There are numerous avenues to pursue an art education. Art school is defined by the Princeton Review as an institution dedicated only to the arts. Other than basic general education requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education, a BFA from one of these schools focuses on total immersion in technique. Approximately two-thirds of the coursework is in the studio, leaving very little time to explore various other fields in any depth. It also is important to note that everyone attending these schools is in an art program; therefore they are entirely surrounded by other art students with little to no interaction with people studying other disciplines.
Traditional colleges and universities may also offer BFA programs but allow for greater expedition into other disciplines. They allow for more flexibility in coursework so the student can broaden their knowledge and build more applicable skills used in a variety of fields. These schools also offer other types of degree programs, such as business or graphic design, which allow the student to explore courses in the arts. A student could major in fine art and minor in business, which is not a bad idea. Or they could major in business and take art courses as electives. The classes usually have a mixture of students majoring in arts and non-arts degrees.
Community colleges also have fine arts courses and some have Associate degrees in art related fields. The main focus of Associate degrees is general education requirements for entry level workforce skills with a minute amount of specialization. A benefit of the community college system is that they are often located closer to home and a broad demographic of people can take individual classes and learn the basics of the arts, business, or any other field of interest.
An alternative to the academic route is to take technical classes at art centers, museums, or private run businesses that teach studio courses or workshops. Some aspiring artists find an established artist to mentor and learn from. Or, some may choose to bypass the academics altogether and learn themselves. Like many fields of expertise, one can learn through practice and experience, and some are just born talented.
The individual has to determine which path is best for their goals, so it is important to know there are many options. It is also essential to understand the realities of the art industry and think long term. No matter which route they take, a vast majority of artists will have to work in other jobs for some time, if not the rest of their life. Some people never reach the point where they can support themselves as full-time artists, just like not every person with a degree in architecture builds skyscrapers.
Another reason these options are important is this; art school (or for that matter any higher education) is expensive. Any potential college student should be looking for the potential return on their investment in themselves. For example, a BFA at one of the top art schools, such as the Rhode Island Institute of Design, can set a student back up to $250,000! A good formula when considering educational return on investment is the potential yearly salary five years after graduation should be greater or equal to the cost of the education. How many BFA holding artists make 250k within five years of graduation? RISD is an exceptional institution of higher learning in the arts and has a low acceptance rate based on talent. It is a prime breeding ground for extraordinary artists whose candidates are scouted by high-end gallerists from day one of their first class. But there are only three open elective courses in that program, and no courses dedicated to the art business, leaving very little room for the entrepreneur artist to refine the skills needed to work for themselves.
At Arizona State University, right here in the Phoenix area, a BFA could cost around $50,000, one-fifth of that at RISD, and there is an extra elective! Plenty of funding left for the MFA, which could cost between $25-60,000. Lower price than RISD, yes indeed, but how many artists are earning 110K annually five years out of ASU’s School of Art. But, ASU also offers interdisciplinary courses that provide a more diverse education and build skills that can help artists find work in other industries in addition to building their art business. Local community college systems offer a reasonable tuition rate at around $100 per credit for in-state students also. Phoenix College and Scottsdale Community College have exceptional fine art programs. Local art centers such as Mesa Art Center, Shemer, and even smaller places like BRIO in Scottsdale teach studio courses for all skill levels too.
Any educational path is a tough decision, and not one to be taken lightly, especially for one who wants to make a career from their art. The reality is art school teaches technique, theory, and some history; it severely lacks depth in essential elements for entrepreneurial artists, such as writing, business, marketing, and insight into the art industry. The best advice for any potential college student is to study an interest or field that has the potential for a personally and financially fulfilling career. One can always pick up a class here and there to improve artistic techniques; if your art is a hobby, enjoy it as one. Husband and wife art critics Roberta Smith (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine) recently addressed the issue of art school in a panel discussion in New York City. Their message was that art school is for artists who live and breathe art and cannot function without it; it is not for those who wish to become an artist. They were also very blunt in stating that “there are too many artists” and “we have more art than we need.” Their comments are poignant in a saturated art market. Their point is, do not totally invest yourself as an artist unless deep down inside you have to. If someone who does not have that absolute need to be an artist tries to make a career in one of the toughest industries in the world, they will end up a miserable, starving artist, and that does not benefit anyone.
Let’s take a break for a quick metaphor. Keep in mind the cost of art school outlined above along with the formula about educational debt. We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is to become professional athletes; the statistics on professional artists are similar. Every year approximately 3500 eligible football players apply to the NFL draft, and about 10% (350) make a team’s roster. The league minimum salary is $435,000 per year (players only on the practice squad get $6,000 per week), and the highest current salary is about $25 million per year. There are around 2000 players in the NFL each year. Oh, and most of these players went to college on scholarships and paid very little themselves. So in theory, professional football players have little to no debt and can make a lot of money right out of college, some never even need to complete their degrees. Those who do not play professionally also have an education to fall back on so they can pursue other careers.
In comparison, the 2010 U.S. Census reported more people claimed “artist” as their occupation than “lawyer,”, “doctor,”, or “police officer” combined; and each year in the U.S. 100,000 students graduate with art-oriented degrees. A survey in New York City in 2010-2012 reported 85% of art degree graduates (BFA/MFA/PHD) work in other non-arts related fields with a median earning of $25,000 per year, which is half of the average for all professionals in New York City. By these figures alone one can see the potential to make a substantial living right out of college is nearly as low as the chance of making a professional football roster, and at nowhere near the salary.
The statistics here prove that the current standard of arts education focusing on technique without any real business skills is truly outdated for today’s market. Graduates know how to make their product but little about how to make a living from it. We need a paradigm shift that teaches artists how to create opportunities for themselves instead of hoping that they will be discovered. Creating an entrepreneurial environment in art education will empower artists to experiment, innovate, and change the dynamic of American creative capital. A primary focus should be on how to use their creative talent to serve others in the pursuit of making a living for themselves. For many artists, competing for commercial opportunities and finding niches to fill with what they do best, fulfills their financial needs. If they can learn how to do this themselves, they will have more autonomy and less reliance on agents and galleries. Self-sufficiency is the goal!
Self-sufficient artists create opportunities by understanding the market and inserting themselves into it, filling the gaps. There is, of course, the resistance to “selling out.” This term is as antiquated as the standards of art education. Let’s choose to look at it this way, selling out is a positive, especially if your entire solo show or inventory is selling out. If an artist can use their skills and business acumen to win commercial jobs that pay well, what is wrong with that? They can always continue to pursue other artistic interests, and having a paycheck helps keep those art supplies stocked! It is possible to create a unique aesthetic, articulate its value, find an audience, and consistently create content that people want to own, and do it on your terms. An artist must find that content and their voice while structuring their art career as a business. By doing this the chances of success increase exponentially.
Many art schools see the benefit of more business-focused education in art programs, but some are reluctant to change because the formula works just fine for them. Students who are dead set on art school should choose a program that will allow for exploration and customization. They should also take classes in marketing, business development, public relations, web design, journalism, and grant writing. These classes will all benefit artists in their careers. Artists who have already completed their formal education can still learn these skills too. There are plenty of options, and dedicating the time is worth it. Learning, whether in the studio, the classroom, or the real world should be a continuing theme throughout an artist’s career, there will always be something new to add to the toolkit. Students should also get out of the studio, go to museums, galleries, events—network! Get to know the people working in the industry in your area. Phoenix has a vibrant community of artists and art professionals! Find a mentor, volunteer in an art space, get to know the industry.
ASU faculty member and gallery director Peter Bugg sees a definite need to incorporate more economic aspects into art degree academics, especially for undergraduate students. Luckily, ASU has been open to introducing business to art students earlier, and the most resistance has been from the students themselves according to Mr. Bugg. Cyndi Coon’s course, “Professional Practices for Artists,” teaches the importance of business plans, business structures, contracts, and best industry practices for artists, but it is not required for graduation. Mr. Bugg teaches the required “Professional Exhibition and Portfolio” course, and he works to develop an industry ready document with each student. He also brings art professionals to speak to the class about the important realities of the art business. He stresses the need for more immersion as well, for students to learn outside of the classroom.
“They need to complement their coursework with being a part of student organizations and professional development outside of school.” He encourages his students to attend conferences and look for internships or entry-level jobs in art businesses while they are in school, so they have a better idea of how the industry works. Potential opportunities in galleries, museums, public arts organizations, art magazines, or as assistants for professional artists and designers could provide valuable insight and prepare them for the real world when they graduate. “They will get first-hand experience and be better able to articulate why they would want to work for those sorts of places and what would make them suitable candidates.”
One area of opportunity he observes is in teaching art students how to write about their work. Not only for exhibition submissions and applications but to help them articulate what they do, and why it is important. He would like to see a substantial artist statement by the time they get to their senior exhibition, a goal that could be accomplished with more interdisciplinary study perhaps?
Overall the common outlook for art students is too black or white–celebrity artist or starving artist—what about the middle-class artist who is comfortable and able to create what they want? Bottomline, if one chooses to pursue a career as a professional artist they need to know more than how to make art. There are many ways to learn and no one formula to success. Each individual must figure out what areas they excel in and where they have the opportunity to grow. There are very successful artists who are self taught and naturally gifted in promoting themselves professionally. On the other hand, there are artists who studied at the most respected schools, and may even be supremely talented, but know almost nothing about being a professional. Even less talented artists might find ways to create a business around what they can do. Inevitably the artist has to control what they do about their career. If they want to be successful, they need to know how to make art, communicate it to others, market themselves and their work, look for opportunities, and build their career. No one is going to do it for them, and it is not easy, but the rewards are there for the taking. Of course, if an artist would rather focus on the creative and hire a professional to help with the business, we are here to help.