The Art of Keeping Oneself Fed in Art School

Master's of fine arts programs focus on the big picture, and the bottom line.

By + More

To a master's of fine arts candidate, there's no cliché worse than that of the starving artist. There is also no scarier prospect. It's a stereotype that a fine arts degree dooms the holder to years of low-income frustration, but it's one that is grounded in truth: Many emerge with multiple degrees to find few sources of funding, fewer jobs that utilize their degrees, and no idea how the art market even works.

[See our Best Fine Arts Schools rankings.]

Art schools want to ensure that their graduates can have their careers and eat, too. That's why an increasing number of programs are teaching graduate students practical business skills to help them manage a career path that can resemble a choose-your-own- adventure novel. Courses in professional practices, as many are called, are like a vaccine against postgrad artistic suffering. Taught by working artists or gallery owners, they give students a glimpse of the mechanics of the art industry and offer them the business and finance skills they need to survive. Professional practices courses vary, but most share the objective of teaching artists how to manage their finances, promote, write, and speak about their work, and find ways to support their art, such as grants, residencies, and fellowships.

[Art student profile: Surviving Art School—and Economic Stress.]

It wasn't always this way. In previous decades, art schools didn't offer practical career-prep courses, preferring to have students focus on their art. They expected students to pick up the business of the art world once they were in the middle of it, learning from mistakes. "I've had professors say to me, 'Why do you want to give the secrets away when we had to work so hard for this information?' " says Cara Ober, an artist and professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. "Dealing with issues of commerce and business can be seen by some as crass or not worthy of academic study."

Major pitfalls. "There's a bias in the arts that you're not supposed to talk about having a career because they think if the work is good, the people will just find it," says Catherine D'Ignazio, an artist and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. "That's so ridiculous and so disempowering for an artist."

That's why professors try to anticipate the major pitfalls that await an artist in the first year out of school, so students can avoid them. The biggest is money. Some professional practices courses teach students how to balance day jobs with their studio work. University teaching positions often are highly desired by M.F.A. candidates, but they can be difficult to come by in a recession, so advisers and professors urge artists to look at what other sorts of income-generating activities would appeal to their creative natures.

"Most artists are doing something that's not their art to make money," says D'Ignazio, who has known RISD students with day jobs ranging from illustrating children's books to guarding prisoners at Guantánamo. "It doesn't compromise your professionalism if you have one career and another on the side. That's the reality of making art in this country."

Students are taught not only how to make money but also how to manage it. Many courses cover the nuts and bolts of finances and contract law. For artists, "money tends to be in extremes," says Ober. "It's either feast or famine."

Students also are shown how to price works of art, read contracts with galleries and museums, understand commissions for nonprofit and commercial galleries, determine what can be written off taxes, and decide when (and when not) to seek a lawyer. "Ninety-five percent of what I've heard about artists showing right out of school is that they were treated unfairly," says Jayme McLellan, who teaches an undergraduate course in professional practices at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington and runs the Civilian Art Projects gallery in the city. "That's part of the learning process, but there are things we need to teach students so they won't make these huge mistakes. They don't have to learn so severely."