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Arts and Culture Public Officials Breakfast 2015

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Is an arts job really as legitimate as a [insert every other industry here] job?

My colleagues in the arts industry may bristle at this question, particularly in light of the fact that I’m an arts and culture advocate. If truth be told, I thought we had moved beyond the point where we have to answer this question, due in large part to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis & National Endowment for the Arts. Last year, they released data demonstrating the considerable contribution that arts and cultural production makes to the GDP. After years of local and national organizations conducting analyses to explore the role of arts and culture in the economy – much to the dismay of some in the arts and culture field – the economists in government were finally paying attention.

Apparently Wells Fargo wasn’t. Wells Fargo’s ad campaign that elevated one occupation (science) by demeaning another occupation (arts) was uninformed and in poor taste. I found out about it through an opinion piece in Crain’s Cleveland Business. As an advocate, I couldn’t have asked for a better voice to respond to this ad campaign. It was a well-considered thought piece on the legitimacy of arts and culture as an occupation itself and the role that a liberal arts education and arts and cultural studies can play in sharpening reasoning, fostering problem solving skills and communicating. The theatrical, persuasive presentations made famous by the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk would be far less fabulous without the creative teams behind them.         

The fact is that we in the arts own some responsibility for this perception. We perpetuate stereotypes about the starving artist, while failing to celebrate and promote the artists that have upended them. It’s no wonder that parents who have children who are interested in more creative pursuits at the collegiate level frequently despair at the prospect of letting them pursue their passions. They’re worried that there won’t be work for them once they graduate – work that will pay all of those student loans. In fairness, colleges and universities have done work to try to alleviate some of those concerns through the creation of SNAAP – the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. Annually they pool funds to conduct surveys to track the lives and careers of arts graduates. That information is shared with prospective students by universities and in aggregate with the public. But the degree to which that information is actually changing college arts education to reflects opportunities in the field remains to be seen.

When I graduated from The Ohio State University’s dance program in 1998 there were two tracks for artists –performance/choreography and education. For those of us in the performance/choreography track, the preparation for the job market was focused on resume-writing, auditions and learning the ins- and outs- of producing, presenting and marketing a dance concert. Those of us who wanted more on the entrepreneurship or nonprofit management side had to seek it out for ourselves – with some support from the faculty. That lack of information prompted my interest in pursuing support of the arts sector as an occupation – and entrepreneurship education for artists as a focus. One of my first projects at Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) was the development of The Artist as an Entrepreneur Institute, which over 13 years later is being made available in an online format today.  

Two years ago, when I visited The Ohio State University, I toured Sullivant Hall (home of the dance department) and saw something totally different. In addition to the dance department, the building housed departments of arts policy and administration, entrepreneurship, technology, and design. And, I learned that students still have the dance curriculum that I experienced for the first two years of school, but then shape their own experience in the last two years of school to reflect the path they want to pursue. This is encouraging and it aligns with the way arts and culture is being made and the role it is now playing in community.


Sullivant's Travels from Department of Dance, OSU on Vimeo.

A new report released just this week by the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts explores the way artists are working today – in an entrepreneurial, multi-disciplinary fashion – and the supports needed to sustain that work in the future. That research, and the research of others like SNAAP, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and organizations like CPAC is critically important and must continue.

But, equally important, we must create moments where we can share the kinds of jobs that are available for students who want to engage their creative passions to make meaningful impact in society. It starts in elementary school – not just with a robust education that includes the arts – but also by teachers who invite people in arts-related fields to talk about what they do. And it continues in middle school, when we provide job shadowing opportunities for students that are more artistically inclined. On this point, we have an opportunity in Cleveland. The Center for Health Affairs recently launched an online tool called Prep2Practice that links students in grades 7 -12 with job shadowing opportunities in an array of fields, including the arts. Together, we can show students, parents and the wider public that a life worked in the arts is one worth living and one that affects lives and communities in profound and concrete ways.

This blog was first published on LinkedIn on September 21, 2016.

Categories: artist, Artist as an Entrepreneur, Education, research


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