Once a month, Artrepreneur invites our resident university student staff member, Clayton Sisson, to reflect on his journey as an emerging artist and university student. This month, we asked him to reflect on his experiences with arts education: learning about his changing course track and focusing on a broad array of subjects in addition to his interest in art classes. As a budding sculptor with a great appreciation for both art history and the practical aspects of running a studio, Sisson shares his story of navigating a complex undergraduate education system in New York City.
Determine Your Arts Education Path
After 12 years of taking mandatory classes, you’re finally in college, ready to figure out your major(s) and minor(s), and no one can tell you what to study except you. In this newfound position of power, you might be tempted to only learn what you want. After all, why wouldn’t you major in Art if that’s what you’re passionate about?
Well, the reason you might not want to major in Art, at least not exclusively, is because an Art degree doesn’t necessarily give you the practical array of skills you might need to set yourself up for success. In an ideal world, any artist coming out of an art university would be able to jump right into the art world and set off on their dream career path. The truth is that working your way to prominence in the art world is a process that takes connections and time, a lot of that time being unprofitable.
However, rather than being an artist working night shifts at restaurants, there are smarter ways to set yourself up for success, or even give yourself a backup plan and/or keep doors open for yourself in case you ever want to change career paths. One key way to do this? Prepare yourself for the business side of art. If you plan to be a commercial artist, arguably the most helpful degree you can earn is a business degree, along with education at an art university. As a commercial artist, you’ll need to have skills like financial organization and management, as well as being adept with social media and marketing. While the draw to focus only on your art throughout your college education is tempting, knowing your way around the market is an important skill that could set you apart from the pack upon graduation.
There are even ways that you can narrow your focus slightly to art business classes, but naturally, that requires a background in business education first. Every school is going to have the core fundamentals, such as Accounting and Finance, but learning how to tailor the experience to your needs will depend on the school. Universities like NYU have schools, such as the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which allows you to create your own major and tailor your academic experience to exactly what you want. So, if you wanted to get both an arts and business education, that’s something you could do at Gallatin. Other programs throughout NYC also provide similar options to study at more than one college in a larger university system, such as the CUNY system or joint classes at Columbia University and Barnard College, for example.
Market Yourself: Art, University and You
Entrepreneurship and marketing are two avenues with obvious benefits for artists as they develop their practice. These skills coincide and complement each other well: to be a good entrepreneur, you need to know how to market yourself. Depending on what medium of art you want to explore, and what type of clients you are looking for, you may want to focus on marketing yourself to galleries and more traditional fine art spaces. However, many contemporary artists have success on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, building an online following and making money through commissions.
Navigating the social media space will be different for everyone depending on their art and style, as well as their intended audience. While marketing and entrepreneurship are stand out choices, finances should be a key component of your education. When you’re earning money and paying expenses from multiple sources, being well organized in your record-keeping is essential, and keeping track of your income and expenses will be important when filing your taxes and claiming deductions for work expenses.
All this being said, allow yourself to explore your interests, however small. As a freshman coming into a liberal arts college, in my opinion one of the most frustrating things can be all of your required courses. You worked so hard to finally be able to study what you want, and now you can, but you still must take all these courses that you have no interest in. Think about all those time slots that could be used to study subjects you’re passionate about. It’s getting in the way of your goals, right?
The truth is, any one of those classes could be what inspires you or gives you an idea to push your art farther in a unique direction. Being a successful artist isn’t always about the technical skill of the work, but rather about the ideas and philosophy behind the work. Andy Warhol’s prints were easy to recreate and manufacture, but it was the philosophy and thought process behind these works during the time period that makes his work so valuable today. Learning how you can push art in the modern era requires you to be able to think critically about a wide variety of issues and find the right way to present these ideas from a new, revolutionary perspective. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take a whole bunch of classes you don’t want to take, but at the same time, think about your arts education as a time to explore anything you’re interested in learning more about. There is an important truth to those myriad guest graduation speeches about winding career paths: the fact is, you may find your true passions in the most unexpected of places.
You may find that the philosophical musings of Nietzsche will change the way you want to create your art, or the message you want to send. You might find that your language course has inspired you to do work about how language shapes a nation’s culture. Whatever it may be, using the time you have as an undergrad to explore can give you the direction you didn’t know you needed. Locking yourself into one focus too early can rob you of your potential.
Becoming a successful artist has never been more competitive than it is right now; The advent of social media has made it easier than ever for people to put their work out there, and getting into big art schools like Tisch or RISD is becoming more and more competitive. If you can present a new idea or concept, or a new take on an old topic, that’s what will make you stand out. By incorporating different facets of an arts education into your practice and making the effort to study business practices, you will be fully prepared to conquer the art world as an arts professional. This is why diversifying your education is so important: because ultimately, the best thing you can do as an artist in college is give yourself all the skills and tools you can to make yourself unique and prepared for a bright future ahead.