Artists! Sustain Thyself!

MCC, UCA share common goal of helping emerging artists make a living, making art


(Artist Sustainability: In April, Reader ran a feature on sustainable art, that is, art dedicated to drawing attention to social, economic and environmental issues. Beginning in May, we are publishing a two-part story on an issue even nearer and dearer to all in the creative class, artist sustainability. Part one below concentrates on non-degree colleges, programs and venues that enable especially emerging artists in their struggle to make a living with their art. Part two in June will concentrate more on other non-profits that help more established artists accomplish the same.)

“Starving artist. Will paint for food!”

Whether a myth or a sign of the times, that thought must enter your mind every time you cross the intersection of 11th and Howard in the Old Market. Portrait painters, gangly guitar pickers and plaintive sax players, engaging magicians and the latest version of the Von Trapp Family aren’t there just for your amusement.

Sustainable art and performance for the benefit of society and the environment gets most of the attention today, but for all of the above competing for attention and more, making a living is an even bigger, more immediate issue.

The U. S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2012 there were well over two million artists working in America. Only 10% of them labeled as fine artists including painters, sculptors and illustrators.

The National Endowment for the Arts says of the 200,000 or so fine artists, roughly 35% of them are self-employed, that is, making a living primarily with their art. The BLS estimates another 25% work within art museums and centers or as curators and gallery owners, or in other arts related fields even as they create art. Some 30% have jobs in non-related fields or are supported by their spouses, families or patrons.

The remaining under-employed artists one assumes–as statistics here are vague–work part-time in an arts-related job or can often be heard saying: “Can I supersize that for you?” or “Two percent or non-fat with your latte?”

Despite these sobering statistics, four-year colleges graduate more than 120,00 arts majors annually in all fields according to Strategic National Arts Alumni Projects (SNAAP). Though the NEA reports that full-time fine and studio artists make 15% less than comparably educated professionals in other fields consider this.

In a 2011 Economist article, Alex Tabarrok, a George Mason University economist said that in 2009  the U.S. graduated 89,140 in the visual and performing arts alone, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. And more than double the number who graduated in 1985.

Even as their numbers continue to increase, the main goal of each fine and studio arts major is sustainability: how to make a living selling their art. Yet, though their degrees may have shaped their skill and talent, many hopeful and emerging artists soon learn that viability in the market place is another matter often not addressed with their BFA or MFA.

Sustainability requires adapting to a changing market where showing and selling one’s art has changed radically.  For that knowledge many emerging artists of all ages are turning to non-degree or non-profit programs in order to avoid being that “starving artist.”

Two such resources, at times working together toward similar goals, are the Metro Tech Community College and The Union for Creative Art. MCC offers its Certificate of Achievement in Entrepreneurship for artists  and UCA makes available several programs including internships, Support for Artist workshops, fellowships and an exhibition program.

MCC’s certificate includes courses specifically designed to prepare artists for a professional career as a studio artist such as Creative Careers, Art Gallery Management, Internship, and Portfolio Development and Professional Practices. In addition to these art courses, the certificate also includes business entrepreneurship courses that help students develop a specific business plan.

“This is one of the few programs in the area specifically designed to provide artists with business skills,” said Anne Burton, MCC arts instructor in Creative Careers. “The certificate provides business and marketing skills for artists who are looking for help dealing with the practical issues related to making a living as a creative professional.

“MCC is in a unique place to offer art education for artists at all points in their careers. We have students who are straight out of high school, students with a four year degree who are looking for some additional career and professional readiness, to people who are long practicing artists and want to stay up to speed with business and/or technology.”

Burton, a printmaker and painter herself, said that information is key to succeeding as an artist. As an art student she did not understand the context of the art world.

“It was all very mysterious,” she said. “How do I show my work? How does anyone make a living this way? Like so many artists, I felt like I made it all the way through my MFA without actually ever learning about practical survival as an artist. After leaving the nurturing, but also highly theory based, programs at many schools the financial reality of being an artist can be pretty scary.”

Burton helped MCC develop the Professional Practices course which helps one put together a professional looking portfolio. Students learn about practical issues like photographing their artwork, writing an artist statement, creating a website, using social media to market their work and how to submit their work to galleries. And they visit professional artists’ studios and galleries here in Omaha to connect with the reality of life as an artist in the Omaha area.

Those interested can also take Art Gallery Management where students participate in all aspects of running the Gallery of Art and Design at MCC on the Elkhorn campus. This includes the entire curatorial process from selecting artists to hanging the work as well as writing press releases and marketing the exhibition.

Jamie Burmeister, a successful exhibiting artist who teaches Professional Practices and Portfolio Development at MCC, knows from personal experience that most professional artists spend 50% of their time making art and the other 50% of their working time doing documentation, promotion,

Networking and book keeping. Though his class concentrates on both, he says there are two main obstacles each artist faces in order to be sustainable, and the solution to the first can’t be taught.

“First, the artist must be able to wake up each day and have the motivation to make his or her work,” Burmeister said. “Second, they must be able to find a way to make enough money that they can continue to wake up each day and have the motivation to make their work. There are no rules about how to do this. We visit many professional artists so the students can see how others sustain an art practice. I like to emphasize that the only artists that succeed are the ones that keep making art.”

Abe Jackson is an artist who Burmeister believes has made a successful career after MCC because “he consistently finds way to make and exhibit great art.” A large part of that success is due to Jackson’s determination to incorporate art into both his personal and business life. For him art is less a means of economic sustainability and more a way of feeding something else.

“Art is a special part of my life and defines a lot of who I am,” Jackson said, “ but I decided early in my life that I would not be dependent on art to meet my financial needs, at least while I was raising a family.”

A mixed media artist by choice, by trade he is a data analyst who “looks for those opportunities to make (art) a part of my job. Maps, graphs, custom program interfaces, etc. are acceptable visual art forms that make my daily work life creative and appreciated.” He credits MCC for giving him the tools to make this possible.

“It was especially helpful for me to learn how to use the graphic art software and the updated printing equipment,” Jackson said. “Understanding how to use the Internet and communicate through computers is really helping me now. The Metro Community College offers a course in printing 3D objects, and that class is on my (to do) list.”

Besides expanding one’s knowledge and skills on the job or in school, Jackson advises artists to be “a part of some creative group. It is important to be able to share ideas with others. I may have completed a milestone at school, but I will always consider it an important source for learning new ideas, methods and expanding relationships.”

One such venue for professional and artistic growth in these areas is The Union for Creative Art, dedicated to, among other things, serving emerging artist needs not necessarily met by traditional, educational programs in the Metro. Artist sustainability is key to its mission. UCA Program Manager Paige Reitz says that the idea of a “starving artist” stems from the historical tradition of undervaluing artists and their work.

“While there are many successful artists and ways to make means meet as a full-time artist, there is still a common struggle among artists that feel like they are not valued, or their work isn’t valued, or that they cannot make a comfortable living off their work,” Reitz said. “Just a small example, of all the Union Fellows we’ve served, only two were full-time artists making a modest living off their art.

“We can work to empower local artists and offer them opportunities to dig deeper into their creative practice and provide a community of cheerleaders to offer support and advice and connect them to resources in Nebraska…and possibly feed them through that growth in their creative work.”

She realizes that The Union will never fully change how society values and views the role of artists. But she thinks UCA’s Support for Artists workshops that focus on providing professional development, such as building an online portfolio, finding grant resources and preparing taxes, go a long way toward building confidence and how artists value themselves.  

“These provide information that can help local artists grow the side of making art that is less creative,” Reitz said,” but possibly more self-sustaining in terms of finding more monetary support.”

Besides its workshops and fellowships, UCA collaborates with MCC by accepting its interns who get first-hand experience in networking in the Metro community with the sort of “arts group” that Jackson advised emerging artists seek out. One such intern is student Shelby Bockman, a painter/printmaker, who says she has made the most of her opportunities.

“I have been lucky enough to observe how a Co-Op organization is run,” Bockman said. “I also help with its Saturday’s youth outreach art club, overlook  the Wanda Denise Ewing gallery (UCA), as well as a plethora of other jobs the non-profit organization has for me. Since studying art at Metro, my work has evolved and my ability tob create and talk about the art I make has immensely improved.”

The 21-year-old ockman will graduate this fall with her Certificate of Achievement and like many emerging artists she is eager for but wary of what the future holds for her and her art.

“My biggest challenge is not knowing where I’ll be in five months or five years,” she said. “As a young artist just entering this cruel world of dismissal, I’ll admit I’m scared. Can I make a living creating art? I don’t know. But why wouldn’t I try before I give up?”

Bockman and other arts students of all sorts shouldn’t be too discouraged about life after graduation as The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate for fine artists in 2013 to be 4.6%, well under the 6.6% overall. The SNAAP DataBrief also says, whether self-employed or not, arts graduates are “plucky, they start businesses work multiple jobs, work across sectors and disciplines. In short, arts graduates approach their careers the way they approach their art – they use every tool available to them, every resource, every connection in order to exert their will and their vision in the world.”

And what’s more, according to SNAAP, artists are among the happiest professionals, happier than lawyers, financial managers and high school teachers. For many artists, there is very little relationship between satisfaction and the amount of money they earn. It appears that artists of all ages are starving for something more.

“Artists are starving, yes, but they are not starving for food,” Bockman said. “They are starving for success and hungry for acceptance within the world of art.”

As for the veteran Jackson, “I’m enjoying my life as an artist. I’m 64 and feel like I’m just starting. At this point I get to choose my projects, and I have several in process.”

All he says he needs is “time and space to create my art.”


Category: Art, Literary
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