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The Future is Bright, Say Art Entrepreneurs

According to a new report by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) the old adage of the struggling artist may officially be a myth. SNAAP’s special report, “Career Skills and Entrepreneurship Training for Artists,” surveyed over 30,000 arts alumni of all ages and creative disciplines, including architecture, visual arts, art history, arts administration and education, creative writing, dance, design, music and theater arts, who graduated between 2011 and 2015. The online survey and data management database are designed to enhance the impact of an arts education by getting to the root of what working artists feel they most benefitted from when receiving their arts education.

As it turns out, art entrepreneurs are quickly becoming a growing sector of the gig economy. Over 15 million Americans are self-employed, and a staggering amount of those entrepreneurs are creative artists. Of those artists who responded to the survey, about 80 percent reported having been a self-employed artist or art entrepreneur at one instance or another in their career.

SnaapAccording to many, their success as an art entrepreneur is closely tied to their college experience – though many have identified areas in which collegiate organizations have room to grow. As most people who have received higher education already know, a person’s expertise is often deeply embedded in their practical experience — and artists are no exception. Most report that they developed their entrepreneurial skills through real-world application, though the gap between college entrepreneurial education and post-grad experience is definitely closing.

And the overall satisfaction doesn’t stop there: art entrepreneurs are reporting higher income levels than their predecessors, and are overall far more satisfied with their financial status than artists before them.

Art Entrepreneurs are Feeling More Confident Post-Grad

According to SNAAP’s report, more art colleges are churning out successful art entrepreneurs who feel confident in their business skills. Developing financial and business skills, those surveyed say, has contributed greatly to their level of confidence: 39 percent of respondents said their college education integrated all aspects of career development, including financial management, into their curriculum.

SnappArts alumni feel most confident about the actual artistic skills they are being taught in school. Students who attend art school are generally expecting to be taught basic technique and criticism, but it turns out they are receiving far more these days within their arts curriculum. According to survey respondents, most are being taught how to brainstorm and generate new ideas, with collaboration and referencing being encouraged. Respondents note that colleges are helping them find new methods for solving problems or taking new approaches to making art.

While most artists feel like art school exposes them to a broad network of contacts, colleagues and successful artists, a far lower amount suggest that their art school didn’t exactly teach them what to do with that. Roughly 50 percent reported that career development wasn’t integrated into their education and that they didn’t feel like they were able to take full advantage of career development services. Moreover, another 50 percent say they weren’t exposed to varying types of careers within their education, outside of working within the discipline they studied. (Take a look at some of our favorite art adjacent careers!)

Artists claim they would have greatly benefitted from developing long-term, strategic plans for their career goals while learning how to market and promote their work. According to many respondents, learning how to make the best work is crucial, but being able to disseminate in an effective way is equally as important. Likewise, art entrepreneurs wish they had had more guidance in engaging with the community or landing public speaking opportunities. In addition, monitoring tax and legal issues, like copyright protection and infringement, would have been an effective tool for art entrepreneurship.

Colleges Can Offer More to the Art Entrepreneur

Interestingly enough, the SNAAP survey highlights how most artists have, at one point or another, been a self-employed artist since the 1980s. Those respondents surveyed that graduated in 2005 have reported high levels of self-employment, with up to 80 percent claiming they’ve been self-employed at one point or another. The same remains true today, though there are notably fewer arts alumni claiming they’ve been a self-employed artist – today’s art entrepreneurs amount to about 78 percent of alumni surveyed, compared to a peak 84 percent between 1985-1996.

What could possibly be accountable for the gap? In today’s increasingly digital, start-up-friendly environment, it seems counterintuitive that arts alumni aren’t going out on their own upon graduating. However, taking a look at our earlier findings—that artists feel a disconnection between their career goals and their arts education—suggests that perhaps artists are unsure which direction to go in when it comes time to take on entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, the number of art students that feel that their colleges are helping them close the gap between real life business skills and entrepreneurship is still rather low. According to the study, only 26 percent of students feel like they were able to gain entrepreneurial skills in school, citing the need for more education on finance management, legal issues and marketing and promoting their work.

Naturally, being a self-employed artist and art entrepreneur can be a daunting experience when you don’t feel prepared. If you’ve never had experience handling administrative tasks like invoicing and budgeting, then you might be hesitant to take on your own business venture and risk not budgeting correctly for your own living expenses. Likewise, if you have no experience with business development practices necessary to continue to be successful, it’s understandable that you’d be afraid to step out on your own. However, that’s precisely why the SNAAP study exists; to alert colleges and art schools to what’s missing in their arts curriculum.

At the same time, it’s important for future art entrepreneurs to note that often times, financial management courses can be elective. Not every arts institution will require coursework in this area, and it’s up to you to seek those particular courses out. That’s also why studies like these are so important — they alert you to what’s missing in your education, and help you identify where you may need to fill in some blanks.

Here’s Why It’s Important to Develop Entrepreneurial Skills

Identifying those areas where you may be able to further develop your entrepreneurial skills by taking on extracurricular courses in entrepreneurship pays off in the end. According to the SNAAP study, students who are able to develop entrepreneurial skills in college are about 10 percent more likely to be satisfied with their income post-grad. They’re also more likely to work as a self-employed artist, or alternatively, find a job in the field within less than four months.

So what’s the ultimate takeaway from the SNAAP study? In our view, the survey is just as relevant for art schools and educational institutions as it is for students. As an aspiring art entrepreneur, you know that the road to success isn’t exactly cut and dried, and this study only reinforces that. Understanding what’s missing from the curriculum of arts alumni that have gone before you will allow you to better assess which courses you might benefit from as electives within a typical arts curriculum. You can also seek out mentors that will fill in the gaps for you as you proceed to tackle self-employment.

Read the SNAAP Report Below

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About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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  • This hits the nail on the head. I graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s in Studio Art, and I had zero mentorship to encourage financial or entrepreneurial preparedness.

    Now, 5 years later working in the retail industry completely unrelated to my skill set, I’m seeking help in business planning, permits and licensing with am intent to offer services as a portrait artist.

    I will say this. The challenge is fun. Getting to meet and talk to people who have made it and gain from them is a huge takeaway in the midst of the turmoil.

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