I used to believe that my role, and that of my teaching colleagues, was to ensure that we gave to our art majors our full measure of knowledge, skills, and understanding. I like to think that we took every opportunity to sharpen their critical eyes and guide them to more enriched sensibilities as they aspired to be artists, art teachers, and art historians.
That was what college was all about, and I thought that if they worked hard and gave it their “all,” then we’d applaud them at commencement and wish them well (while, among ourselves, we knew full well that many, perhaps most would not “make it”).
While I don’t think I ever said it straight out, I do believe that my message to graduates at every commencement was, “We’ve done our part; now it is up to you.” I now am embarrassed to say that implicit in this thinking was the notion that we in higher education need not assume any responsibility for what happens later, after our students leave. After all, we gave 100 percent to all of our students—so we thought—who were with us for those four, five, or six years. What they did after graduation was unquestionably up to them.
The national discourse about the value (or lack of value) of higher education is making it quite clear that there is a greater (or new) expectation that we in higher education now provide a bit more—perhaps a lot more—than a “discover yourself” curriculum that results in nearly half of arts graduates dropping out of the field before the second anniversary of their commencement (see Strategic National Arts Alumni Project that has been tracking the lives and careers of arts graduates in America). This, of course, is not a desirable result; therefore, we must change the way we’re doing things or we will continue to get the same result in years to come.
What has become obvious to me is that artists are entrepreneurs too. Artists have to network, have to market themselves as well as their work, they have to take risks and have to profit from failure not unlike those we recognize as the most successful entrepreneurs. Whether a designer or painter or sculptor or even art historian and art educator, there is a benefit to being additionally prepared with the tools to manage one’s career and apply one’s creativity to ensuring success.
No longer can we simply wish our graduates a good life and forget about them. (Interestingly, when those very few are successful, we put them on our website, brag about their accomplishments, and quickly take credit for their success while never mentioning the vast majority who are finding it difficult to ”make it.”)
We should do better, we could do better, we must do better—and we can. What is important to me is that we not turn our backs on what we have done so well. We must continue to commit ourselves to the notion that every one of our students should graduate with the skills, knowledge, creative acumen, experiences, and spirit to flourish as an artist or designer. And to this we must add those appropriate additional skills, knowledge, and business acumen to ensure that what we have done truly does empower our graduates to have a life of options and an unquestionable ability to act upon their world.
One class at the senior level is insufficient to empower our students with a level of professional proactive that is sufficient; for there to be systemic and beneficial impact, we must build professional practice into the entire curriculum, into every course, establishing strategies that will sequentially and holistically instill in every aspiring artist those understandings and behaviors (i.e., strategies that will dramatically increase the probability of lifelong success in art)!