The Work of Art

New York artists' efforts to teach students biz skills could shift tone of MFA programs

Jackie Battenfield paints for a living. She paints to pay for her son's neuroscience degree. She paints to keep her Tribeca studio. Battenfield's profession is one rarely maintained in a city where there's no shortage of fine-arts degrees, but woefully finite gallery space and grant money.

Paying for a master's degree in fine arts doesn't guarantee income for a graduate, unlike an MBA or a J.D., which at least make one employable.

In the past decade, Battenfield has become the de facto leader of an emerging camp that sees today's shifting marketplace as one that can support the lives and work of artists—business-savvy artists. And their idea could change the face of fine arts higher education. This group of area artists has created a "Business of Art" curriculum at six universities across the country, to be implemented this fall. It's designed to teach everything from filing taxes to copyright protection to portfolio preparation: in other words, how to work to live. Battenfield says young artists need to come to grips with the fact that no one will ever "crash-land into their gallery" and discover them. Art takes work.

illustration: Suzanne Allen

"But marketplace is a varied word," Battenfield said. "This is not just about getting artists to sell their work; this is about helping artists live a life with art in it," which can mean anything from starting neighborhood arts projects to placing one's work in corporate settings to attract attention.

This movement is not New York–exclusive (community arts groups from Houston to Boston offer seminars on grant writing and portfolio design), though it is New York–centric. The Bronx Museum of the Arts' Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program is the oldest, turning 25 this fall. Battenfield has been teaching it for more than a dozen years. She's also worked with the New York Foundation for the Arts to design and teach seminars on being a full-time artist. In recent years, NYFA has gotten scores of other artists involved in teaching marketplace skills, and works closely with arts groups in Philadelphia and Chicago.

"I've never had a class that taught me how my skills fit into the world, and would have loved one," says Alejandra Villasmil, at NYFA's June 26 conference. Villasmil, an installation artist, has lived in New York for seven years, but said she feels unable to navigate the complex gallery scene.

S. Kaye Klein, a photographer who recently earned an MFA from NYU, adds, "The notion that art needs to be divorced from business is absurd. Artists are shortchanged about their ability for responsibility."

The creation and distribution of the curriculum is funded by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in Meriden, Connecticut, whose former program director, Dini S. Merz, saw a rise in courses such as AIM's and wanted to help it reach a broader base of struggling artists. Since then, Tremaine has given at least $35,000 to NYFA for creating the 12-week curriculum, and nearly $50,000 to each of the universities, including Parsons School of Design and Columbia, for two semesters of classes. Appropriately, Columbia hired Battenfield to teach its version of the class this fall.

Despite the cash flow into the ivory tower, there's debate over whether such a class has a place within formal fine arts education—especially whether such a class should be mandatory, as it is for second-year graduate students at Parsons.

When Tremaine reps approached Chicago's School of the Art Institute, for example, professors threw up all sorts of flags. Nicole E. Chevalier, a program officer at Tremaine, summed up the academic debate over the purpose of teaching graduate-level fine arts: "Is it to teach, or is it to train? Those things can be seen as very opposing."

Charles Hagen, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut who's also graduate coordinator of the department of art and art history, says he would be highly skeptical of introducing the class into his curriculum.

"I think it is healthy to be aware of the practical realities of the art world," Hagen says. "Some very valid concerns for students are 'How do I pay rent? How do I buy paint for my palette?' But I'm concerned that this sort of class could push out other skill-based classes. In our program, time is precious."

But to students, money is also precious. If tuition funds and alumni donations can influence curriculum change, the Tremaine course will thrive. But can it create more good art by graduates, or just a cycle of increased competition?

 
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