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VOL. 128 | NO. 230 | Monday, November 25, 2013

Tools to Succeed

Memphis College of Art works to improve graduates’ chances

ERINN FIGG | Special to The Daily News

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If Memphis College of Art President Ron Jones has anything to do with it, there will be no starving artists among the ranks of the college’s future alumni.

Under the leadership of MCA administration and with help from the Memphis business community, the school is sharpening its focus on professional practices by integrating lessons in entrepreneurship, marketing, networking and other business skills into its courses.

Iryna Kurlylo, an illustration student at Memphis College of Art, gives a PowerPoint presentation as part of the professonal practices curriculum in Michelle Noiset’s Illustration 5 class. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“The way art schools have taught students in the past have almost set them up for a greater likelihood of failure,” Jones said. “No one was teaching students how to manage themselves as independent contractors. If we’re going to be true to our students, we’re going to have to give them all the tools they’ll need to succeed in the business world, plus help them be the very best artists they can be.”

For many artists, the employment scene can be challenging, to say the least, Jones said. Students graduate from art school with honed talents, an abundance of enthusiasm and innovative visions, but they often find themselves floundering in an extremely competitive environment that requires polished portfolios, savvy self-marketing skills and strong communication and networking abilities.

As such, many art school graduates find themselves unemployed or scrambling for a new career direction.

National statistics show that artists make up a miniscule part of the U.S. workforce. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau information, approximately 2.1 million Americans – about 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force – report an artist occupation as their primary job, whether full-time, part-time or self-employed.

Additionally, a 2012 report, “Hard Times,” by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce ranks a fine arts degree as the second least-valued degree in the country, with a current national unemployment rate of 12.6 percent for fine arts graduates.

Obviously the outlook for artists varies by geographical location and area of specialization. In June, the National Endowment for the Arts introduced a new online research tool, “Equal Opportunity Data Mining: National Statistics about Working Artists” – based on current U.S. Census Bureau data – which offers statistical profiles of the nation’s artists.

In Memphis, the highest concentration of employed artists is in the design field, with 1,030 designers in the city’s workforce of 324,140, according to the Census Bureau’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Tabulation 2006-2010 data, as reported by the NEA.

(The federal Standard Occupational Classification system defines “designers” as commercial and industrial designers; fashion designers; floral designers; graphic designers; interior designers; merchandise displayers; set and exhibit designers; and other designers such as jewelry designers and memorial marker designers.)

In addition, the EEO data also shows 450 employed fine artists, art directors and animators; and 180 employed photographers in Memphis.

Jones and his colleagues would like those numbers to be higher. Remy Miller, MCA dean and vice president for Academic Affairs, said administrators began plans to enhance the college’s professional practices program about three years ago.

“What’s falling into place now began in fall 2010 during our regional accreditation process,” Miller said. “One of the things that process requires is a quality enhancement plan. The school as a whole votes and chooses an area of focus.”

That area turned out to be professional practices. Consequently a committee of alumni, faculty, administrators and students formed to get the initiative rolling.

“The new plan entailed embedding professional practices in pre-existing coursework,” Miller said. “Rather than develop an entirely separate course, we developed 12 outcomes that would be included in every freshman program. In every class, students will also focus on skills they need to develop, such as how to write a resume, how to exhibit their work beyond the classroom, proper communication etiquette in professional situations. And depending on the medium and program, specific courses will approach these outcomes in a way that is appropriate for their fields.”

The school unrolled the program on a limited scale in 2011. By 2014, Remy said, it should be incorporated in all coursework.

In addition, the school is developing a revamped professional practices course for juniors.

“We had a professional practices class for years, but it was taught by one of the existing studio faculty,” Miller said. “It had a bent toward fine arts traditional practices, but wasn’t always appropriate for the business world.”

The new version of the course will be taught by guest instructors from the Memphis community and will include everything from marketing to filing taxes as an independent contractor to intellectual property laws. The school plans for the course to be a junior-level requirement by next fall.

“We’re in the process of making connections outside the school within the business community to find people to come in and teach different sections of this class,” Miller said. “When our students leave this school, we want them to have been taught by experts in every one of these fields.”

Founded in 1936, Memphis College of Art is one of only four independent, regionally and nationally accredited art colleges in the South and is the only one to offer graduate degrees. The school’s professional practices program is another distinguishing factor, as there are few like it in the country.

“Our goal is not to be the No. 1 art school in the country – that would be naïve,” Jones said. “Our goal is to provide the kind of education we know that all art schools should be providing. Our goal is to be the school that is honest with students and really gives them the option of a lifetime in art.”

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