Parents often ask me if it’s “worth” sending their kids to art school. I cleverly read between the lines and realize they’re actually wondering if their child — and his/her paint brushes, pottery wheels, tripods and assortment of laptops — will ever move out of the house and be able to make a living as an artist.
The answer is yes, IF. And this particular IF is non-negotiable. But before I explain, I should give my tepid qualifications to respond in the first place.
I assume these parents consider writing an art or they’d never ask me in the first place. And while I’m not likely to get rich off my first book, my writing skills are valuable far beyond the tiny bubble of memoir. Every job I’ve had – from newspapers to broadcast, public relations and freelance video – I got because I can write.
I moved up the management ranks at Ogilvy PR Worldwide because I can write. And in that capacity, I hired art-school grads. So I know they can be employable.
So the question isn’t really where an artist gets his/her degree, it’s IF that program also emphasizes writing. Check SCAD’s course descriptions. Beyond the actual degrees they offer in writing, SCAD students can choose from almost 100 courses with the words writing in the title.
SCAD administrators don’t offer all those classes out of some sense of liberal arts legacy. They do it because most artists also work in other fields. In the waking hours when artists are not creating art they teach, they promote, they design, they code, they raise money, they publicize, they report, they research. That part isn’t new.
What has changed is that all artists today have to be entrepreneurs, even those in the purest, classic art forms. You want to paint landscapes for a living? You’re going to have to describe that work in order to sell it. Want to teach studio arts? You’re going to have to write a fabulous application essay for grad school. Want to exhibit your work? Try getting a grant without solid writing skills. Want to open your own photography studio? Someone’s got to post blogs and write press releases to submit to local media. Fancy yourself a gallery owner one day? You’ll be writing everything from content for your website to articles about openings. Want crowd source funding for your aboriginal sculpture research? Those clever You-Tube documentaries have scripts. With words that somebody wrote. Want to collaborate with other artists on a big project? You’ll have to write a creative brief and project summaries.
No one will know your work better than you. No one will be able to convey your passion more articulately than you. No one is going to do your marketing and messaging for you (at least not for free). The key is realizing that all working artists are their own brands. And you can’t build a brand if you can’t write.
So my advice to parents (and students) considering a degree in the arts is yes, IF. Do take the plunge IF the program also teaches you practical writing. As an artist, writing skills will give you the self-sufficiency to build an audience, reach investors and communicate your vision. And even if you end up choosing not to make a living as an artist, you’ll have a skill set that transfers to almost every field connected to the arts.
The ultra-modern design of the new art museum at SCAD was reason enough to make a trip to Savannah over the weekend. I had no idea that there was an exhibit by the renowned South African sculptor Jane Alexander; it was just a happy accident. I haven’t been as unmoved by a museum exhibit since stumbling onto a Thornton Dial retrospective in Indiana last year. I say unmoved, because in both cases I simply stood there, transfixed. With Dial, I instantly recognized a witness to the South’s despair and disparities. When I saw Alexander’s creepy, life-sized “humanimals” my feet felt cemented, weighed down by a deep connection and unease I still don’t really understand.
I suppose in the case of her “Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope” the connection is the childhood I spent in South Africa. Like Alexander, I grew up a treasured white girl in a country that still embraced Apartheid. Unlike her, I have never found a way to express the myriad of ways that system both shaped and shamed me.
Although Alexander is famously reticent about the “meaning” of her work, I sense this exhibit is her way. There are no pamphlets full of art-speak. The walls have no explanatory paragraphs. Even the titles of the pieces are enigmatic; I didn’t know what “Bom Boys” meant until I scoured the internet. Gary loves this kind of freedom to interpret art (he can’t stand even naming his photographs for exhibitions) but I need context. So for me the eager student docents positioned like ambassadors at every turn were actually useful. The young man who kindly noticed my inability to just move along had clearly gone through something similar himself. His role, his relief perhaps, was to share everything he had learned about the stories behind each piece.
Before I realized it, my feet were working again. Maybe his enthusiasm was just a factor of the museum’s newness. Maybe he was earning extra credit or fulfilling a work study obligation. But I’d like to think it was transcendent, connective power of art.