Too Much Art To Learn, No Time For Managing You?

One last post about the arts entrepreneurship conference I attended a couple weeks ago. Tomorrow it will be on to other things.

There are increasingly productive efforts being made toward teaching/mentoring/instilling, (whatever term you want to use), artists to manage their own careers.  I purposely didn’t use the term entrepreneurial practices because there are those that rankle at the idea artists need to measure their success in terms of economics and commerce. I have written enough about the idea that arts organizations should be run like a business to agree with that point.

On the other hand, everyone can use some sort of guidance about how to manage their lives and careers, even if it doesn’t have a commercial focus.

You Interview For A Job, Not A Career

An issue that came up at the conference was that career development offices, especially those at universities and colleges, tend to operate with a 20th century orientation on preparing to interview for a job rather than creating a career for one self. This is least helpful for students in arts disciplines where interviewing often doesn’t occupy a central role in career advancement.

The thing is, when parents come on a college visit with high school students, they ask the admissions office how many graduates get a job, not how many graduates started their own businesses or independent careers. Most parents would likely be terrified at the thought of what might happen if their defiant 16/17 year old tried to start their own company. The focus of career offices are partially driven by the expectations of tuition paying parents.

You Don’t Know You Want To Know It Until You Do

The other difficulty with trying to teach students to be more entrepreneurs mentioned at the conference is that they often aren’t in a place where they are receptive to forced instruction in that topic. One of the panelists spoke about how a visiting artist held a Q&A after conducting a master class and said she wished she had learn more about the business side in school. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t have paid attention at the time.

Once students have a project they become personally invested in, then they become interested in learning what is involved in making it a reality. That may be the advantage Millikin University has in having experiential learning as an institutional value. They put students in a position where they become invested in the success of something while they are in school.

Many people don’t have that experience until after they graduate and lack the easy access to advice and resources an academic setting affords. That was one of the central topics of discussion on a panel lead by Millikin professor Dr. Mark Tonelli. He presented a series of quotations from research he conducted with students and graduates.

Lives Are Ruined, Others Are Not

One graduate’s response reflected their perception of what their education lacked:

“We have a jazz degree, but no idea how to go about teaching private lessons ourselves, we have no idea how to adapt our jazz skills to the popular music scene (i.e. gigs that pay), having our heads buried in self-indulgent art music leaves us completely out of touch with current trends in music, we don’t know how to negotiate contracts, when to hire an agent, how much to pay people, where to find legal advice, we don’t even know how to do our !@#$%&* taxes…this is pathetic for a university-level bachelor degree.”

While my first impulse upon seeing this was to become indignant about how schools are failing to prepare students, there were others who presented a more moderated view.

“I feel I was fully prepared musically and artistically…it was my understanding that my degree would not encompass any business elements [so] I cannot hold it against the degree. I do feel that more business would be helpful to most students. At the same time, I am somewhat comfortable with the notion that it is an arts only degree and those who wish to make a living can sink or swim by learning business in the real world…I remember some professors saying that while the business was very important, there is just so much art to be learned that it is better to do a great job of that than diluting the degree with a mixture of art and business.”

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, of the respondents Dr. Tonelli quoted simply said they wished they could just play jazz and not have to worry about the business side at all.

Beauty Now, Sharks Later Is Not The Only Option

As a person who works on the business side of the arts, I was a little annoyed by the student being told there is so much art to be learned it is better to put off learning about business until later. If you are learning to be an artist, is learning about the business side a dilution or is it a holistic approach to the subject?

Is there so much art to be learned that some can’t be learned later? I am pretty sure there is an assumption you will need to continue honing and gaining skills after graduation. Performers take voice and acting lessons throughout their careers. Visual artists pick up new techniques and skills. Musicians study additional technique.

The way the student characterized those wanting to make a living as having to sink or swim illustrates quite a bit about how business skills are viewed.  Do instructors and mentors really want their charges to think they will be fully informed about the thing they are most passionate about in life, but if they want to do anything with it, they are on their own with the sharks?

A university/conservatory education provides the basis upon which you continue to develop over the course of your career. So why aren’t some general career management skills part of that, again with the assumption that one will need to continue to learn? If that were the case, the first graduate cited might be less discontented with their degree: aware of the basics but knowing there was more to know and having a sense of what they potentially needed to know more about.

The idea that career management skills are something separate you pick up later if you need it seemed divorced from how artists have historically managed their careers. Worse, it places the artist in a passive role, waiting to be discovered by someone else who will promote and manage them or give them a job. Certainly at a certain point one needs managers, accountants and agents to handle one’s business—but until you get to that point one really needs to be aware of how to perform many of those tasks for oneself. To be active and in control rather than simply waiting.

Very few artists have achieved success as hermits passing their work through a partially opened door to an agent. There plenty of instances when an artist has found themselves in a difficult place because they didn’t have the skills to monitor how their agents were handling their business.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Too Much Art To Learn, No Time For Managing You?”

  1. “Most parents would likely be terrified at the thought of what might happen if their defiant 16/17 year old tried to start their own company.” My son started a company with another high school student in his senior year of high school. He is now a junior in college, still spending time as the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) of the company, which means doing all the hardware and software design. Their third product should be on the market by December. The company has been making money, but not enough to pay salaries for the founders, so they are just getting sweat equity so far.

    Note: although my son is very into acting, and has been since he was 5, his college degree will be in computer science, which is a much easier skill to get paid for.


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