Survival of the Fittest


I certainly learned nothing about how to conduct myself as a professional artist when I was a student,” recalls Larry Edwards, a retired member of the art faculty at Tennessee’s Memphis State University, “and I made a lot of mistakes over the years.” Generally stemming from attempts to juggle a working life and an art career, he counts among his blunders waiting in his studio to be discovered, asking inappropriate dealers to represent his paintings, and not pursuing potential sales.

To prevent his students from falling into those same traps, in the early 1980s Edwards began began offering a semester-long course on “Professional Art Practices” that incorporated information on how to write a résumé or grant proposal, secure a teaching position, or find an art dealer.

During that time, survival courses were a rare find at art schools and in art departments at colleges and universities across the country because, critics charged, they impinged upon the purity of the medium or gave students the false impression that there was a specific path they might take for success. “When I started teaching this course, other art instructors thought it was pointless,” says Edwards, “But, based on what I knew about some of them, they didn’t know any of this stuff.”

While there are still many who resent or oppose these courses, a consensus of opinion has emerged that current graduates will need more information on how to develop careers as artists— and just earn a living. A growing number of schools now offer either semester-long courses or business-of-art talks on the subject, and local institutions, such as The Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts, provide noncredit workshops on more specific areas, such as networking, contracts, and portfolio building.

Supporters of survival classes believe that students with greater art world savvy presumably have a better chances at exhibiting and selling their work, while those who graduate with no clear idea of how to establish a presence are more likely to meet with continuing frustration and eventually give up their art entirely.

But finding ways to interest students in vocational issues that may be far down the road for them is a readily acknowledged problem. “Our office does a lot of outreach to tell students where we are and what we do,” says Krista Bergert, director of career services at Parsons. “It’s hard for sophomores and juniors though, who are worrying about their next projects, to think about what they’ll be doing when they leave.”

Yet whether survival courses will result in artists who achieve success— or at least make fewer mistakes along the way— is more a matter of belief than of hard evidence. “I have no idea if the ‘Survival as an Artist’ workshop helps students in their careers,” says Thomas Lawson, dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts. “We operate on the assumption that all information is helpful, and students make of it what they can.”

At best, most school administrators offer anecdotal support on behalf of the career information they are providing. “I’ve heard from students who said that the courses were invaluable,” says Deborah Dluhy, dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, notes that “all of the students we’ve heard from say that they wished they had received more of this kind of information.”

What is clear is that a number of factors can determine the influence that survival instruction will have on students after graduation. One element is if the information offered in a course or workshop is reiterated in the students’ other classes. In some instances, other art faculty members will discuss how they or their colleagues got a first exhibition, or supported themselves while pursuing their art.

Other faculty members, though, may never mention such practical issues because they don’t like, or don’t know, the subject. “Academic full-time faculty are somewhat shielded from the necessity of developing markets for their studio work,” counters Brian Sikes, who teaches a professional practices course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “The circumscribed nature of their own careers may be a point of embarrassment for them.”

Even at schools where survival information is routinely offered, equivocal attitudes persist. “I’ve frequently heard from students, ‘I don’t have to know how to write a résumé. My gallery will do that for me,’ and I have to tell them again and again, ‘No, you have to know how to do this,’ ” says Sue Belton, a painter who currently teaches “Business Survival Skills” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

More typical than these semester-long survival courses are workshops and seminars offered by a school’s continuing education division during the evening or on weekends when alumni or artists in the community can take advantage of them. Degree students may attend, and some do, but they are not the targeted audience.

“Trying to teach entrepreneurship to a young student is a very tough business,” says John Slorp, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, “That’s not what they’re interested in at this point in their lives. In truth, you have to take your knocks before you can begin to understand why any of this career information might be important.”

One of six articles in our Education Supplement.