The Modern Artist

Associate Professor of Performance as Public Practice Paul Bonin-Rodriguez says a degree in fine art is worth much more in today’s world than people realize.

Compared to more conventional disciplines, graduates from fine arts programs have traditionally had a tougher time finding their way from commencement to dream job. The odds are often stacked against them—they face limited access to steady jobs and tight-knit networks of professionals in their field.  But new research tells us that now is actually  a wonderful, even important, time to be an artist in the U.S.—especially one with a sense of mission who is willing to cross genres, mediums, and industries to find an audience for their work. Studies on employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census tell us that self-identified artists and creatives make up a vital and growing segment of the U.S. population.

As noted in Creativity Connects, a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing numbers of artists are working across disciplines, or combining them, and making an impact by incorporating new technology and applying their skills in areas like governance, health, education, transportation, public safety, business, and community development, among others. The places for artists to find work are growing, and artists are proving themselves agile and adaptive.

Regularly today, artists are traveling across the nonprofit, commercial, community, and government sectors seeking various mixes of economic reward, support for risk and innovation, meaningful relationships, and impact. It has become more and more common for artists to run small-business incubators; to work in prisons or municipal offices as artists-in-residence; and to move in and out of the tech sector as self-identified creatives.

New initiatives and technologies have played a major role in helping expand opportunities for artists. Following the lead of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the City of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division just announced its Artist-in-Residence program. On May 1, Egyptian-born artist Rehab El Sadek began a nine-month stint with the city’s Watershed Protection department engaging staff and creating works that bring awareness to environmental issues, such as flooding, water pollution, erosion, and scarcity.

In 2009, artists and businesspeople came together to create Kickstarter. According to a 2016 University of Pennsylvania study, the crowdfunding platform has generated more than $5.3 billion in economic impact in the creative economy and generated more than 300,000 full- and part-time jobs.

Other changes have been the product of deliberate research and development efforts. Two decades ago, in the wake of a cultural war that vilified artists and negatively impacted the public funding for culture in the U.S., the greater arts sector began a comprehensive rebuilding effort. Rather than presuming support, researchers asked what the arts contribute to society and how artists manifest reward, economically and socially. Those efforts set forth a period of infrastructure building across all 50 states—research and programs that brought a new vitality to the creative sector.

A number of fine arts students arrive at the university through a narrow pipeline. Many are highly skilled in one discipline and intent on refining those skills in anticipation of a rewarding career. To prepare emerging creatives, our curriculum is tasked with widening students’ focus, expanding their skillsets, teaching ethics and leadership, and offering informed ideas about what it means to be an artist as citizen, scholar, and activist.

In these capacities, universities become places to build skills in critical thinking, an incubator for new ideas, and a hub for their future profession.




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