Art school is a wonderful place to grow as an artist, but do most art schools prepare students for fulfilling art careers?
Often times, the answer is an unfortunate no. According to a recent SNAAP report (read our take on the study here), 60 percent of college students training within the visual arts took advantage of their school’s career resource center, yet an overwhelming 91 percent say they wish they had gained more career-related skills while in school. So where does the disconnect occur? How can artists be better prepared to tackle and manage fulfilling art careers?
According to Heather Pontonio, the art program director at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, taking full advantage of your school’s career resource center begins with looking beyond its borders. “I think it’s up to the student to truly think about their art career from a broad perspective,” says Pontonio. “Where are they going to live? What’s their network? How can they continue to grow that?”
Through her work at the Tremaine Foundation, an organization that identifies and aims to solve key issues within arts education, Pontonio has become well-versed with some of the most pressing issues facing a typical college career resource center. While Pontonio notes that the overall outlook for most college career resource centers is brighter, there are certain institutions that are priming their students for successful art careers. “Around the country, we’ve found that art schools are doing a better job at teaching students career skills than larger universities,” says Pontonio. “Rhode Island School of Design and School of the Art Institute Chicago are some of the strongest in the country because they offer their students career boot camps and engage them from the outset of their college career.”
Pontonio notes, however, that most career resource centers across the country are servicing students in a more traditional fashion, rather than waking up to the realities of today’s gig economy. “Art schools still only know how to put artists into art jobs, by teaching them how to brush up their CVs for grants and galleries,” says Pontonio. “Artists today are making it in the gig economy, it’s the biggest area of growth for young artists, and career resource centers really need to be focusing on those models as art careers.”
While art school career resource centers may be some of the strongest in the country, students who choose to attend larger universities or state schools can still take advantage of career resource center programs by being prepared. Pontonio says that the typical career resource center won’t be able to help a student unless the student has done a certain amount of legwork, so both parties know exactly what the student wants.
Go Beyond the Career Resource Center
The first order of business for art students embarking on finding promising art careers is to talk to their network. While many young students aren’t necessarily sure where their network might exist, Pontonio suggests artists need look no further than their favorite professor.
“In almost all cases, students seem to find more individual connections to professors than they do with career services centers,” says Pontonio. “Students have more of a bond with them.” However, Pontonio notes that many professors don’t realize that they can have an active hand in helping their students connect with new opportunities, which is something the Tremaine Foundation is actively working to change.
Connectivity is currently lacking,” says Pontonio. “There are a lot of professors who are outside in the community and they’re looking to pair students with projects. I think it’s on the students to ask where they can make personal connections and grow outside the campus structure, and it’s up to the professors to have these conversations with the students and let them know what opportunities exist within their own circles.” Pontonio says that’s especially true with adjunct professors, who thrive on both university roles and their careers as artists.
Art Students Must Ask Themselves the Tough Questions
Aside from doing the work of reaching out to your professors, art students should also be utilizing those relationships to develop an understanding of their work and where it fits within the art world and within their community. While some of those questions may be a bit more open-ended, much of what should be determined has a more quantifiable context. “You need to understand what you’re going to be able to make – will you make gallery pieces or will you make five pieces a year?” says Pontonio. “Asking yourself these questions allows you to determine whether its viable that you might be able to sustain yourself as an artist.” And if it’s not? “Then you’ll have to ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a day job,” says Pontonio.
Pontonio adds that it’s not uncommon for artists to struggle with these questions, and wonder how best they can determine whether the work they want to produce will lend itself well to full-time work as an artist. She suggests that reaching out to professors is a wonderful way to gauge how viable it is that an artist might be able to live off their work. It’s also possible, says Pontonio, to get creative with your living circumstances in order to focus exclusively on your art.
We live in a global world and that has to get you thinking about where you’re moving and where you’re working,” says Pontonio. “For example, having a studio in St. Paul and commuting to New York is a much more affordable way to think about your career.”
Think Outside the Artist Box
Another common misconception among art students and universities is that students who study art in school must graduate and become artists or find an otherwise creative career. Pontonio says that kind of thinking is erroneous. “The business world values creativity,” says Pontonio, “but we as a society structure things in certain boxes and it’s often hard to get out of thinking that an artist can’t be utilized in a corporate setting.”
Sure, most art students probably studied art in college because they wanted to transition into fulfilling art careers. But instead of being married to the idea of a full-time artist, Pontonio suggests students should think critically about the types of art careers they might be able to obtain with the skills they gained in art school.
“One of the great exercises I’ve heard about within some of the professional practice courses we’ve funded is to ask students to write every skill they have because they’re an artist,” says Pontonio. “One professor I know won’t let them stop until they have at least three pages. They find that they have different ways of looking at the world and looking at materials, that they’re great at problem-solving to be cost effective, that they’re excellent researchers. Corporate jobs can utilize these skill sets that dropped students in the art world and pushed them to think beyond.”
Whether you see yourself transitioning into a more corporate role or prefer to go it on your own as a creative or artist, following Pontonio’s advice is a first step in the right direction. Before visiting a career resource center, artists should identify their goals and potential network, talk to mentors and figure out which skills could be most valuable as they transition from school to fulfilling art careers.
Have you had success when using a Career Resource Center? Let us know in the comments below.