New In Art School Curriculum: Business Acumen

By Whit Richardson
Portland Press Herald, Maine.

Miles Spadone graduated from the Maine College of Art in 2013 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics. As an undergrad, he never really thought of himself as a businessperson — a label he associated with monetary gain rather than artistic excellence. Then he took a class on entrepreneurship his junior year, taught by a visiting teacher from Babson College.

“It was really mind-opening for me,” said Spadone, who now works for a small product-design firm and sells his ceramic creations. “I went in thinking it would be a very monetarily focused class where you’re discussing the value of things, discussing the viability of an idea in the marketplace. And really it wasn’t about that at all. It was more about empathizing with people so you can better understand their problems in order to solve them.”

Students with a grounding in business principles and entrepreneurship are now the norm at MECA, reflecting a shift in the school’s mission and how it approaches the preparation of its students for life after graduation. Those students may be mastering screen printing and slip casting instead of spreadsheets, and studying Fauvism rather than finance, but make no mistake that the MECA students who graduated this month are as entrepreneurial as the graduates of a business school.

Artists have by necessity always been entrepreneurs if they wanted to make a living, but they’ve never liked to discuss it in those terms, says Don Tuski, MECA’s president since 2010.

And neither did art schools. In the past, art schools provided years of artistic training, then left the students to figure out on their own how to succeed after graduation.

That, however, is changing. Tuski believes the school’s mission should be to ensure that graduates cannot only make art, but that they can make a living by making art. “We’re helping them be entrepreneurs before they graduate,” Tuski says. “What we’re doing at MECA is putting much more emphasis on it; we’re much more intentional about it because we live in a capitalist society where you have to make a living.”

Nationally, art school graduates earn about $45,000 a year, relatively close to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ overall U.S. annual wage of $47,230.

In the past four years, MECA has added courses like “The Art of Business” and begun offering workshops on topics such as public speaking, how to use LinkedIn and perfecting your “elevator pitch” to a prospective client or investor. It has created a new department, called Artists at Work, with three full-time employees dedicated to helping connect students and alumni with professional development opportunities, internships, jobs and art commissions.

A year and a half ago, the school changed its mission statement to include “creative entrepreneurship” as one of the three key tenets of a MECA student’s education experience, along with “artistic excellence” and “civic engagement.”

“There’s a sense that making a living and making art are separate and what we’re interested in is bridging that divide,” says Jessica Tomlinson, director of MECA’s Artists at Work department.

The changes at MECA are part of a larger shift going on around the country, both at art schools and in the workplace, where over the past half-dozen years employers have begun putting more stock in employees who can bring creativity and innovation to their jobs, both areas where art students are well-versed after four years of creating, building and finishing projects under deadline.

“What you get in art school is so much more viable to the economy than trying to memorize things in the liberal arts approach,” says Tuski, who came from a liberal arts background and has a Ph.D. in anthropology. “You still do some of that in art school, but really you use your head, your heart and your hands to make things and create things on the computer or in an analog way. You’re creatively problem solving. You learn to see things in different perspectives, and for a business that’s really valuable.”

This is not a new idea, but it’s taken longer for art schools to catch up. The MFA, the master of fine arts degree, is the new MBA, quipped Daniel Pink in his 2005 book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.” Fast Company and Harvard Business Review have both published articles with titles that are a variation on that theme.

“In many ways artists are more akin to entrepreneurs than most people recognize,” says Elizabeth Jabar, a professor of printmaking at MECA, its assistant dean and director of public engagement in the Artists at Work program. “Entrepreneurship requires creativity and innovation — these are two things that artists inherently possess and pursue. And in many ways, artists are used to creating opportunities for themselves, forging a path of opportunity where there isn’t one, and I think this is very entrepreneurial.”

The Maine College of Art was founded in 1882 as part of the Portland Society of Art, which also included the Portland Museum of Art. The school and museum split in 1982.

Since then MECA and its flagship building on Congress Street have become the anchor, along with the art museum, of Portland’s vibrant arts district, which includes art galleries, artist studios, performance spaces and an art supply store.

The college has roughly 100 full-time employees, another 145 part-timers, and an annual budget of $16 million.

It currently has 460 students, a nearly 31 percent increase from five years ago, and offers three degrees: a bachelor of fine arts in 11 studio majors, a master of fine arts, and a master of arts in teaching.

The school is a net importer of creative young people, Tuski says. While only 35 percent of MECA students hail from Maine, roughly 50 percent of those who graduate stick around to start their own businesses or bring their creative problem-solving skills to local employers, according to the school’s data.

John Coleman, CEO and co-founder of The VIA Agency, a design firm in Portland, estimates that at least 50 MECA students and graduates have worked at VIA as interns or full-time employees over the past 20 years. In fact, one of his co-founders was a MECA alumnus and many of the ad agency’s first hires were alumni of the art school.

“So I knew the caliber of the individuals coming from the college (right from the start),” says Coleman, who also sat on the school’s board of trustees for 14 years. “These people weren’t just artists or designers. They were thinkers. They could innovate. They could talk about what was happening in society and talk about what was happening in the business world and contribute to how we could help clients grow their businesses in a way that was very sophisticated.”

Coleman cites another important skill that art students develop during their school years: the ability to give and take feedback. That skill can make a huge difference in a professional workplace, says Coleman, who has witnessed it firsthand.

Say VIA hires a recent graduate of an Ivy League school, Coleman says. The new hire shows up at VIA, where collaborative critiquing by peers is the norm. Typically, a person will hang up his or her work on the wall for review. If the work isn’t that good or not quite the direction the team thinks the design project should go, that feedback can be tough to take if the recent grad isn’t used to it.

“These people don’t know how to process it and it’s almost debilitating,” says Coleman, making sure to note that he’s witnessed this, but that it’s not the case for all liberal arts graduates who arrive at VIA. “They’ve had incredible privilege to get a wonderful education, but they have not learned how to dialogue about their work, and it’s a skill that’s necessary.

“When you hire students out of the Maine College of Art, they know how to critique. It makes them frankly much higher-performing members immediately.”

Those qualities translate into other corporate settings as well. MECA alumni are employed across a broad range of businesses, including Idexx, TD Bank, Town and Country Federal Credit Union and L.L. Bean.

Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of Great Works Internet in Biddeford, has advocated for years that students should seek a solid foundation in an arts or liberal arts education because technology is moving so fast now that it doesn’t make sense to tailor education to a particular job that could soon radically change or disappear.

He doesn’t know if GWI currently employs any art school graduates, but he says he wouldn’t hesitate to hire one.

“I’m not usually the hiring manager, but I try to convey the message to hire for talent and we’ll train them on the skills later,” says Kittredge, whose niece attended MECA.

In 2010, IBM conducted a survey of 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide and found that “creativity” was the most important factor that businesses need more of in the future.

Because of the so-called innovation economy, the number of people working in art- and design-related fields is expected to grow from the current 25 million to 28 million by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“I think the conventional wisdom used to be that going to art school was a frivolous degree,” Coleman said. “Now I view it as the more practical degree, and I think that’s a big shift for a lot of people.”

Art schools around the country are realizing that this shift is happening, and many are moving in the same direction as MECA, according to Sally Gaskill, director of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, which has surveyed more than 92,000 art school alumni in the country.

“If there’s one data point that sticks out … it’s that art schools need to do a better job preparing their students for making a living,” says Gaskill.

MECA alumni do well compared to the national average. Sixty-seven percent of MECA alumni work as professional artists, compared to a national average of 56 percent, according to the project’s survey data. And 61 percent of MECA alumni are self-employed, independent contractors or freelancers, compared to a national average of 45 percent.

Brian Wilk, a 1995 graduate of MECA and current board member, is now a vice president of design at toy giant Hasbro in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

After receiving his bachelor of fine arts degree at MECA, Wilk went on to earn a master of business administration, so his experience bridges the art and business worlds. He currently has two MECA students as interns in his department.

“I think the best assets you have in this day and age are storytelling and your intellectual property. That’s your point of difference,” Wilk says.

Spadone, the ceramics grad who now works for a small product-design consultancy called Vital Innovation, continues to make art with ceramics. The Portland Museum of Art recently chose Spadone for its biennial retrospective of Maine artists.

He credits his entrepreneurial and artist’s training with helping to hone the skills he brings to his work at Vital Innovation, which focuses on human-centered design.

“If you don’t have that empathy, that ability to understand what people need or where people are deficient, then your ideas can feel disingenuous and I think people have a hard time feeling a part of that,” he said. “I think it’s the same with art.

It’s conveying ideas and communicating ideas and hoping people can empathize with them in the same way you empathize with a product you use and devices you use.”

John Nelson founded his own metal fabrication shop not long after graduating from MECA in 2012 with a BFA in sculpture. You can see his metal work at several restaurants in Greater Portland, including Slab and Elsmere BBQ. Nelson’s first commission after art school was to build the large conference room table at ThinkTank, a co-working space on Congress Street.

While his entrepreneurial spark predates his time at MECA, Nelson says art school instilled in him a strong work ethic and improved his ability to approach and solve the day-to-day problems that any entrepreneur must confront.

“Art school really helps you become a really good problem solver, it helps you learn to work really hard because there is no final answer, so the work is unlimited,” Nelson says.

To help and inspire graduating students to pursue their own entrepreneurial ideas, MECA has created a grant program that hands out $500 grants to six students a year to help them start their own businesses.

Katie Ackley, who graduated from MECA this month with a BFA in illustration, received one of this year’s grants. She used it to help launch her own printmaking business called Inky Blue. She is now working at Liberty Graphics, a printmaking shop in the Waldo County town of Liberty.

A Machias native, she never thought of herself as an entrepreneur before arriving at MECA. But during her junior year she had the opportunity to make products to sell at MECA’s annual holiday sale.

“I had such an amazing experience. People actually liked my products and wanted to purchase them and it was very empowering,” Ackley says.

Through the college’s Artists at Work program, Ackley was able to get an internship with Eliza Curtis, a designer she admires who is based in Limington.

“I never went (to MECA) thinking I wanted to be a business owner,” she says. “It was just such an incredible transformation.”

That realization is at the core of Tuski’s philosophy. As president of MECA, he believes the school and its faculty have an “ethical responsibility” to help prepare its students to make a living before they graduate.

“The most empowering thing you can do is make somebody understand how to make a living as an entrepreneur, because then you empower them for life.”

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