New focus: The art of making a living

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Last year's seniors Kate Blankenship (left) and Maeve Griffin, with President Cecelia Fitzgibbon, at the 2014 Senior Show last April. This is a capstone event for seniors, organized by the Locks Career Center. (Handout from the Moore College of Art)

When administrators at University of the Arts were seeking a new way to prepare students for work after graduation, they didn't have to look far. An answer lay just across Pine Street.

They struck a cross-registration deal with Peirce College, a neighboring school that offers classes in finance, e-commerce, marketing, and app development.

Kirk Pillow, the university's provost, said it's part of a broader effort to create value for students.

"There's really been quite a national conversation going on about the return on investment for higher education," he said. "The emphasis on professional preparation has been growing as people have been asking the question: What is the payoff of an undergraduate education?"

Those pressures have been felt keenly at art colleges, whose students may find the starving-artist stereotype less romantic now that recent college graduates are facing 8.5 percent unemployment.

Institutions are responding by beefing up career centers, introducing entrepreneurship curricula, launching business incubators, and holding the type of business-plan competitions and on-campus recruiting sessions more commonly associated with M.B.A.s than B.F.A.s.

For some schools, it's meant creating a career center for the first time.

That was the case at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which hired Greg Martino to start such an office four years ago.

"When I came on board, I was told, 'These are artists. They may be reluctant to utilize career services.' And that turned out not to be true. I think students have a real appetite for it," he said. "Most of them realize they are going to have to be entrepreneurial, and that the old institutions that brought artists along aren't necessarily in place anymore."

The academy has always offered a senior seminar in which students prepare their resumés, portfolios, and artist's statements. But this year, they piloted an eight-week, noncredit course for all first-year students to begin professional development earlier.

"Parents are very concerned," Martino said, and the school is responding.

No wonder, then, that at Moore College of Art and Design the career center is prominently situated next to the admissions office.

"That's by design," said the center's director, Belena Chapp. "Increasingly, we're seeing students come in earlier. These women come in from their high school experience already thinking about jobs."

This isn't the hands-off career center you may remember (or not) from your college days.

"I'm there almost every day," said Davinica Nemtzow, a Moore senior. "They're a huge help for career skills, and they have connections everywhere. They're also there to calm you down when you start to panic."

Moore has always had a professional focus, Chapp said. But that mission has become increasingly overt in the last five years.

In that time, Moore has added a business minor and launched an honors program with tracks in leadership and entrepreneurship. It has also begun requiring internships, along with internship preparation classes, and offering each student a $1,000 fellowship to defray expenses while working.

Fifty percent of Moore students now take business classes, and all seniors take a professional development class. This year, the school will launch a business-plan competition sponsored by Your Part-Time Controller, with seed funding at stake.

For the last two years, Moore has also been surveying alumnae so it can answer parents' concerns with hard data.

"We're able to talk about the 96 percent of 2013 graduates who are employed in their field," said Moore president Cecelia Fitzgibbon.

"This data demonstrates that going to Moore College of Art and Design is a good investment," she said. It also reflects an evolving mind-set at schools like Moore, where career services are offered to alumnae for life.

"The recognition [that] what happens after college is just as much our responsibility as what happens in the four years students are here - it's a different way of looking at the responsibility of a college," Fitzgibbon said.

It's also part of an effort to rebut troubling statistics like the College ROI Report salary-tracker PayScale released last year. It placed most art schools far behind, say, those that grant business and technology degrees.

The University of the Arts, the only art school in this region that was analyzed, was ranked last in Pennsylvania.

Deborah Obalil, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, said many members had begun conducting alumni surveys or participating in studies like the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, which tracks recent art graduates. It found that 65 percent of recent graduates found work in related fields.

As for the other 35 percent, it's now common practice at art school career centers to help all students develop two separate resumés - one tailored to their field, and a general one for other kinds of employment.

That's the case at the University of the Arts, where Emma Law, a dance major, has been taking business classes at Peirce - just in case there's a hitch in her plan to move to New York after she graduates in 2016 and audition with dance companies there.

"Having this knowledge is providing a safety net for me," she said. "I will have the education if I want to start a dance studio or a company."

Administrators and counselors are also building pipelines to companies that hire interns and entry-level staffers.

Stephanie Knopp, chair of the Department of Graphic Arts and Design at Temple's Tyler School of Art, coordinates a relationship with Hallmark, which sends recruiters to the campus each year.

In 2013, she launched a design incubator called the Hatchery to bring students' designs to production, selling them at pop-up markets and online.

"The idea was to connect them with the concept that they could be entrepreneurial, that they could create and sell their own work," Knopp said. "We saw, besides pedagogical implications, it's a way of showcasing the brilliant work students do and teaching them the basic business skills they need."

Rebecca Kuemmerle, a Moore senior, entered art school with trepidation.

"My parents were concerned about me making a living," she said. "No one in my family is an artist."

But after she changed her focus from fine art to illustration, added a business minor, and landed two internships with highly successful fantasy illustrators, her parents are optimistic.

She's already written a business plan and designed a logo and business cards. Over winter break, instead of taking a vacation, she plans to launch her website and begin contacting art directors.

"Being a young woman entering the workforce you can make a lot of mistakes in your early days," she said, "but I feel pretty confident."

 


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