The art school of the future

By Ruby Lerner


In more than seventeen years at the helm of Creative Capital, an arts funding organization that has supported more than 600 awardees in all disciplines, I’ve learned a lot about what artists need to sustain their careers. Artists come to us with brilliant ideas and incredible technical skills, but they may never have learned other important life and work skills, like how to plan for their taxes, write a realistic budget, or speak confidently about their work to potential presenters or investors. These skills may not be intuitive, but they can be taught. We connect artists with the practical skills and advisors they need to thrive, and we’ve seen truly transformative results.

Here’s just one example: Creative Capital grantee Byron Au Yong, a composer from Seattle, credits our strategic planning workshop with teaching him to better manage his time and only take on opportunities that align with his values. He told us, “Creative Capital has helped me focus by honoring my practice … After the workshop, I began to hone the logistics of my life and be more honest with my musical goals. I made specific changes, like having a meeting with myself every Monday to organize my week. I became better at deciding what to do and what NOT to do.” Byron’s new strategic planning and time management skills gave him more time for creative work.

Over the years, I have often wondered, what if the practical skills that we teach our grantees when they come into our system had been taught to them when they first began pursuing their creative work? How much stronger could these artists’ foundations be if they began building them earlier in their careers?

Historically, I have seen an aversion to teaching professional practices in many undergrad and especially graduate-level art, film and performance programs. In recent years, as the Creative Capital model and similar approaches to artist professional development have become more well known, a few schools have incorporated business skills into their art programs, and we’ve been thrilled to present Creative Capital workshops for a small number of student and faculty groups. But I would like to see a drastic reworking of the art-school model to ensure that skill-building for self-management is a fundamental part of all artists’ education.

If I were designing The Art School of the Future, I would integrate art theory, practice and technical training with a professional development curriculum. This would start with strategic planning, goal setting, work/life balance, and time management. The Art School of the Future would also teach financial literacy, encouraging young artists to build good financial habits early in their lives and careers. And we would spend a LOT of time on communications — verbal communications, presentation skills, negotiating, marketing, outreach and PR. We would teach artists community engagement skills — how to reach the audiences they most want to reach, and who to partner with to make that happen. We would teach strategies for working collaboratively with other artists.

These skills are powerful, not only because they will be useful throughout a working artist’s life, but equally because they will help artists take advantage of many other opportunities in creative fields, and beyond. The reality is that not everyone coming out of art school programs will end up as a working artist, supporting themselves full-time on creative work — and that is fine.* So, art school graduates should also be able to teach, run an arts business, curate, produce, install work, raise money, do promo and marketing, and understand the technical aspects in their mediums.

I believe that if all art schools integrated professional practices into their programs, graduates would emerge with greater control over their careers. They would be better equipped to achieve fulfillment in both their personal and artistic lives and to be generous colleagues and contributors to their communities.

Ruby Lerner is Founding President and Executive Director of Creative Capital, an organization that supports innovative artists across the country with funding, counsel and skills-building workshops.

* The SNAAP survey of nearly 100,000 art school alums includes a breakdown of art school graduates by occupation. Among respondents, 42% report working outside the arts. Even within the arts, substantial percentages work as arts administrators, educators, curators, etc.

Photo by Peter Belch via Pexels / Creative Commons Zero

Published April 7, 2016

  • Jennifer Boudrye

    I’d suggest that we need to start these aspects of education for artists when they are in high school. Students and parents need real guidance and education in selecting the best fit post-secondary experiences. Understanding and developing skills necessary to secure funding and professional opportunities in college and beyond not only strengthens them as individuals, but is essential for their success in the arts.

  • Jenifer Simon

    I think it’s a great idea to teach artists these skills, but what arts-based courses will be cut to accommodate business and career related curriculum? What is the art school and faculty’s responsibility to teach students how to be an artist? Most art school faculty have buttressed their career with teaching in order make a living, so are they really the best to teach others how to be an artist and thrive in the global marketplace? James Elkins’ 2001 ‘Why Art Cannot Be Taught’ challenges the role that we think art schools should and are capable of playing to develop artists and help them “succeed” (what does it mean to succeed as an artist, anyway?)

    A studio-based education in the arts does not train or prepare artists to be a curator, museum professional, promotion/marketing specialist, or business owner, nor should it be expected to do so. While experience in the arts can translate into other careers, these other professions have discreet career tracks and required coursework specifically designed for these areas of knowledge and practice. Let’s not lead artists down a path that the world is their oyster when it comes to making a living in the arts. It is a challenging arena to live and work in.

    If art requires talent; talent cannot be taught. This lies at the heart of Elkins’ argument. Skills can be taught, but we can’t rely on art schools to be the end-all-be-all source to help artists make it. Students and artists have to be resourceful as well. No program is going to or should be responsible for this. Not everyone is going to make it as an artist, especially when less than 1% of the population buys and collects it.

  • Michele Cohen

    Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, the first and only
    visual arts college for women in the United States, prepares student for
    professional careers in the arts by emphasizing critical thinking, problem
    solving, risk-taking, and strong communication skills. We integrate business
    skills into all of our programs in order for our graduates to have successful
    and sustainable careers in the competitive twenty-first century world.

    Our career statistics reflect our mission to educate
    women for careers in art and design, as 94 percent of 2014 Moore BFA graduates
    are employed or in graduate school, 87 percent in their fields of study.

    Moore’s Locks Career Center, a lifelong resource for
    all students and alumni, offers interview prep workshops, resume coaching and a
    robust job database. Each student receives a $1,000 fellowship to complete a
    required paid internship during their junior year. In advance, they take a
    professional development course which gives them the tools to enter the world
    of work and prepares them for the specific demands of their field. Our annual Senior Show brings hundreds of art
    enthusiasts, internship hosts and employers to campus to view and buy student
    work and interview students. We offer a Business minor and classes in marketing
    and accounting, as well as a leadership training program for students to learn entrepreneurship,
    leadership and service while pursuing their degrees.

    Moore is dedicated to producing graduates that
    distinguish themselves as leaders in their fields. A local employer put it best
    when he said: “When I’m hiring, I always look at Moore first. You have a very
    mature student base that is ready to work. You train your students to become
    really great problem-solvers.”

    Cecelia Fitzgibbon
    President, Moore College of Art & Design

  • Lina Cuartas

    Extraordinarily accurate! I wil certainly look you up and do all the research about this fascinating proposal!

  • Patty White

    I believe leadership skills are important as artists are some of our most innovative change agents.

  • Denise Mullen

    Creative Capital has been a vital source of information and support for artists for many years. In the instance of this article, the Art School of the Future, there are many who will tell you it’s already here. Among the free-standing, independent, non-profit art colleges in the US, the member institutions of AICAD, the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, each institution has professional practices components in their curricula.

    At my institution, Oregon College of Art and Craft, the professional practices content begins in the first year of the BFA program and culminates in the fourth year with a robust and comprehensive exercise in mounting an exhibition, including the business, physical and curatorial aspects of the exhibition. The “professional practice” component is supported by in depth study in the “theoretical, practice and technical” training for just the reason Ms. Lerner points out, to enable our BFA, and MFA, graduates to understand the business side of maintaining a studio practice, as well as developing communication skills intended to serve them in future academic pursuits and marketing alike. We educate our students to be skilled makers and thinkers who can not only enter studio practice and other career paths, but who have the skills to create their own careers.

  • Kevin Conlon

    First, Ruby, thanks for all your work with Creative Capital, a truly tremendous and transformative organization and resource for artists. Second, the Art School of the Future can be found within the collaborative spirit of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD). Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) is a member institution and we’ve benefited tremendously from the open conversations about what artists and designers need. As a result we’ve made significant changes to all of our degree programs, each now with a required business and career prep course built into the very first year. One course is specific to students in the design disciplines called Collaboration across the Design Disciplines, and the other is specific to those in studio disciplines called Studio Art and Entrepreneurship. Not only are these courses required but they also act as the first course in a newly launched 15 credit business minor that can be completely integrated with a student’s major with no additional time. Other course topics in the minor include basic accounting, art law and intellectual property, and marketing and entrepreneurship. Our belief is that a professional practices experience over four years is much better than a single course tacked on to the end of the program. More on what other AICAD schools are doing can be found here:

  • Roberta Tucci

    Glad to hear this point of view, Ruby. My 2007 Ed.D. doctoral dissertation researched best practices for the integration of professional preparation in Higher Ed Studio Programs. Many of these practices are beginning to show up more widely in art schools and universities. As working artists, we have long known that making art is only one small part of the multi-faceted practice of being an artist. Well done!

  • Marc Zegans

    I’m delighted that Ruby is setting an agenda for bringing the sorts of skills that Creative Capital teaches so well into the curricula of degree granting arts programs. I view, professional development as she describes it as an important aspect of a life practices in the arts curriculum that needs to be framed somewhat more broadly.

    Both the idea of an artist as a professional and the notion of an individual trained as an artist entering an allied profession demand meaningful inclusion in programs of serious art schools, but it is important not to let “professionalism” become the single lens through which we communicate and cultivate the development of life skills among budding artists.

    Profession and its associated normative position represents one significant and honorable path for an artist (or an individual trained as an artist) to pursue, but it is not the only such path, nor is it ipso facto the best path for all. Consider some alternatives: pure art supported by other economic activity; art as extended journey; art as practice in daily life; art as calling; art as healing; art as pointedly commercial activity; art as political subversion; art as cyclic process (perhaps including sales, distribution and cultivation of audience, perhaps not); art as expression within community; art as expression of community. Each of these alternative conceptions emphasizes art as a way of doing and perhaps a way of being, and, implicitly, art making in life as following one or more of these courses. (In this context art as profession becomes simply one more means and way by which art is made; art is shared, and through which the lives of makers and receivers are shaped.)

    A life skills curriculum grounded in an understanding of art-making, evolution and transmission as a plural process that can take many vital paths invites naming and exploration of these paths, and consideration of the resources, methods, dispositions and intentions both necessary and useful to their pursuit. By enriching students’ understanding of the range and diversity of possible art-making paths in life and how they can be followed, we provide a basis for students to develop a capacity to know their motives; reflect on their personality structures, resilience and resourcefulness, and to cultivate a close match between themselves and their chosen path or paths.

    For some the path will be strategically sophisticated professionalism of the sort that Ruby describes, for others the path will be different. The central question that effective training will help students answer is, “what skills and resources do I need to proceed, and how do I best cultivate these both in school and in later life?” From this place of reflective self-knowledge they can seek out, and schools can provide, the pragmatic training that will serve them best.

  • brilliant…all for it!

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons