Fine arts programs prepare students for real world: Artists taught how to deal with galleries, market work

November 5, 2007

Most fine arts students used to exist in a bubble-running to class in paint-splattered clothing and practically living in their studios, channeling their muse and honing their craft. Once they graduated, those who were driven enough to try to make a living off their talent still had a lot to learn about running a business.

But now many universities are doing more to make sure art students graduate with the business skills they need.

Local photographer Ginny Taylor Rosner graduated from IUPUI's Herron School of Art & Design in 1991, when the school was just beginning to offer business classes-but only to students studying painting.

"Herron helped me polish the craft and content of my art," she said. But "I felt like I was reinventing the wheel most of the time when I was setting up my business."

Offering business-of-art classes is part of a broader trend that began about 15 years ago when universities began taking a closer look at how classes related to the real world, said Herron Dean Valerie Eickmeier. After getting feedback from alumni, Herron incorporated those topics in its curriculum.

Now, presentation and marketing skills are covered in classes freshmen take and all art students must take a separate "practical concerns" course in order to graduate. For that class, gallery owners come in to coach students on how to present their work, attorneys lecture on copyright issues, and accountants offer advice on how to establish a small business.

And with its Basile Center for Art, Design and Public Life, Herron is stepping efforts up to get students some realworld exposure before they graduate. The center lines up local companies who want to commission artwork, and both students and faculty members can compete to land the paying gigs.

Those who get the commission do the work and classmates help with the project, learning the ropes along the way.

"It's a way for students to get professional practice while they're being mentored by faculty. They have to handle real projects, real budgets and real time lines," Eickmeier said. "The students who come out are better prepared than they've ever been to find their way in the business world."

When Ivy Tech Community College started its fine arts program in Indianapolis last fall, it began with an eye toward getting students real-world skills, said program Chairwoman Stephanie Lewis Robertson. That's because the instructors are all working artists.

"It has become our mission internally ... because we had to find it out ourselves through a lot of trial and error, and that takes a lot longer," said Robertson, a textile artist.

Ivy Tech also is asking the state to allow it to offer a business-practices class for art students. The state must approve all new university classes to make sure there isn't overlap.

Other universities offer business courses as electives but struggle to get sometimesunfocused undergraduates interested.

Indiana University's fine arts program first offered a professional skills class five years ago. In it, students are given a good dose of the cold, hard facts about making a living as an artist.

"A lot of it is making sure they understand the realities of it all," said instructor Betsy Stirratt, including the fact that making a living as an artist is "something that very few people can obtain."

The class presents career paths for artsrelated day jobs and teaches students the ins-and-outs of the art market, including presenting their work to galleries, pricing and building a reputation.

But the tough part is getting students to enroll in the elective. Usually only between 15 and 20 students sign up.

"There's a lot of resistance to this way of thinking," Stirratt said.

She said some students don't think they need the class and even some faculty balk at teaching the commercial aspect of art, an attitude Stirratt doesn't understand.

"All aspects of the art world are commercial. It's a commercial enterprise," she said.

Recent graduates say the business skills are invaluable if someone is serious about working in the art world.

Indianapolis-based artist Susan Hodgin got her bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of Montana at Missoula in 2001. She said the professional practices classes there warned students that they'd need to find an arts-related job first because they couldn't just graduate and hope for immediate art stardom.

Then, instructors showed how to do everything from shoot slide images of paintings to write an artist statement and resume.

"I learned a ton of stuff along the way," said the 29-year-old painter. But many of her best lessons still came from outside the classroom. During college, Hodgin also worked in an art gallery where the owner gave her a valuable piece of advice: You can always raise your prices, but you can never lower them.

So Hodgin started out pricing her pieces low and her reputation grew to where she now works full-time as an artist.

Herron graduate Emily W. Kennerk said her classes there covered how to polish a portfolio, write a proposal and present oneself to a gallery. But even more useful was watching the working artists on Herron's staff. She said professors walked students through the process as they wrote proposals for projects, tabulated material costs and hours of labor. She received a bachelor's of fine art in painting in 1997 and a bachelor's of fine art in sculpture in 1998.

The knowledge seems to be paying off for Kennerk, whose career is gaining steam. She was a 2005 Efroymson Contemporary Arts Fellow, earning a $20,000, no-strings-attached grant, and the first American exhibition featuring her work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art recently closed.

"There was a very practical side to the program you can only get seeing professional artists working," she said.
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