Arts Students Need Career Advice, Not Just Diplomas

Photo by Paulette Wooten on Unsplash

On a recent sunny but chilly afternoon in March, about 100 suburbanites on their own folding chairs gathered in a church parking lot in Evanston, Illinois to hear four talented musicians play and sing a kind of energized pop-rock-world music mashup. I was in that audience and it left me inspired. Thirty eight years ago, I might have joined them with my trombone. What had I learned in the meantime that might help these young musicians and others, no matter their future career?

Young and earnest, the musicians were excited to be there. It was, they said, the first performing they’d done since the start of the pandemic. Before that, they’d been on the road non-stop. They had come all the way from New York City. There was some connection to Evanston, to that church, and their performance was a benefit for the church’s women’s shelter. Still, they had come a long ways to perform for this enthusiastic but smallish crowd, and for little money.

I sat there thinking, “Why do they do it?” Not just these four but the whole lot of them, recent and not-so-recent college grads, putting hundreds of pounds of gear into cars nearly as old as them and trucking off to distant cities to play other people’s old songs and songs they just wrote. Introduced as “nominated for a Grammy,” and adding layers of clothing and scarfs as they worked through their engaging 90 minute set, why give it their all, in a church parking lot in the cold?

Equally important, why do some stop doing it and move on to non-arts jobs? Is the artist life too hard, too uncertain, too unfulfilling, so some stop? Are they simply putting aside the things of youth and becoming adults at last? Or is it something else? Why do we lose so many artists?

I’ve been thinking of late about young musicians, their big dreams and fledgling careers. I recently left the organization I created to pursue my arts dreams 38 years ago. As a result, I am again thinking about that young moment and the direction it sent me. Partly I have been thinking about how ill prepared I was, and most young artists are, for pursuing their dreams.

I started a non-profit for crazy reasons: a friend’s father had $10,000 to give us, and we wanted to perform pieces that combined music, drama and dance. So we did, for two years. By then, through side projects, we’d discovered that the arts are powerful vehicles for teaching literacy skills, so we pivoted to working in under-resourced schools in Chicago, using music and drama to teach kids to read and coaching teachers to do the same. Over 38 years, the budget grew from $10,000 to $2 million, the staff from 3 to 20, and more than 100,000 young readers were served. We got national recognition and awards, while multiple studies in peer-reviewed journals said lots more kids learned to read. Me? I was executive director for 38 years.

In hindsight, I guess I got lucky. Some of my dreams did come true. And I made new dreams to pursue, based on experiencing things that I liked better. I was able to work in the arts for a very long run. In addition to luck (which does favor the prepared, after all), I had entrepreneurial tendencies from a very young age. My father ran several of his own small enterprises in my youth, setting a good example for me. I started things in grade school and high school: a bike club so I’d have buddies to bug our parents to drive us to races; a jazz quartet to play paying

gigs. I needed money in college, so I hustled church gigs all those four years. What I did not have was any formal training for this.

What might keep more artists from giving up their dreams?

My friend Bob Murphy, who was a successful stock broker at the end of his long and varied career, told me early-on that he’d seen the difference for successful entrepreneurs in the for- profit world be just sticking to it for another day, one more year. Keep making a good product, scrimping by if sales are low, persevering. Then you get a call one day saying, “I love your product and want to buy all you’ve got!” Suddenly you’re off and running! Some people persevere that extra bit of time and the call comes. Others stop a day too soon and miss the call. That comment from Bob was enough to keep me going through some very lean early career days and years. One more day, one more year. Yes, there were several times when one call, one grant made all the difference for being able to continue. But we can’t count on everyone having their own Bob Murphy. What would help more artists stick for one more day?

I’ve been thinking about how higher education can do more to prepare students to really pursue their dreams, so we don’t have to rely on the whim of having someone who happens to say the right thing, or the good fortune of having childhood circumstances be just right. A friend of mine who teaches at a university said the key metric at her place is how many degrees they hand out. “We gave them a degree, what more do they want?” She wants the metric to be different. “We gave them a career and a first job.” That would be quite a shift! What would it take to deliver that?

Here are a few initial thoughts, from thinking and reading who’s doing what these days. (Unfortunately, little seems to have changed in most universities since I graduated 40 years ago.) How about coursework in arts jobs and career paths being required to graduate? Right now, even the few universities with robust career programs for arts students offer them for students who volunteer, not as a requirement. And many others don’t offer anything. How about every arts student has to create an arts enterprise that produces at least $5,000 during their four years on campus? And what if the university matches any portion the student puts into a starter IRA account, to get another good habit going? Could be a brass quintet that plays church gigs. Or a recording studio that records local artists’ songs for them, for a fee. Or an online visual art gallery. The point is, in the process of launching and running such things each student experiences product development, marketing, sales, accounting, budgeting, hiring and managing other humans. In the process of trying to generate even a relatively small amount of revenue, they must meet a standard. Even if they end up being hired by a major symphony orchestra and are never in charge of marketing again in their career, they know about it, they maybe appreciate it, and they might add some unexpected value one day when the marketing person asks them for their ideas. (Or maybe they bake a cake for the marketing person when their efforts sell out the concert or season!)

Some of this comes under the heading of “arts entrepreneurship training.” That is, I read, a thing now. It’s not available in most places, but some pioneering universities have been

thinking it through and creating coursework for this growing discipline. That’s pretty cool, if you ask me! They debate whether it’s the same as whatever content the business school is offering in entrepreneurship. But it generally is about spotting opportunities, discerning your intended customer/audience’s needs and wants, creating products to satisfy those audience needs and your own artistic muse, and marketing what you’ve got to who you want to pay for it. Sounds like business to me.

Wait, why would we want more artists? Well, for one thing, I think it would be great to have more people around who are doing something they are passionate about, like those musicians in the parking lot. That’s got to have some intrinsic value for our society, right? This pandemic has made many people think about what live music contributes to their quality of life. Or seeing a live dance performance, or being in a visual art gallery with a crowd for an opening of new work. Even if you’re not an artist, those experiences as an observer bring energy and excitement and beauty to you, too.

That parking lot concert inspired me. “Keep at it!” I wanted to cry out. “Don’t give up! Learn, adjust, change, see what works, try some more. One more day, one more year.” Being right down the street from several major universities at the time, I also assumed there were professors in that meager but enthusiastic audience. I wanted to say to them, “Stop being okay with just granting degrees, and start committing to launching careers.” Teach students how to think about the arc of a career, so they have some rough map of what to expect. And so they stick with it until their day comes, maybe tomorrow.