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Embracing The Feedback Loop

A few months back, Seattle based artist Clayton Weller, wrote a piece addressing what he feels is a self-limiting outlook held by many artists that theatre is dying and there is no money out there. He confesses to having embraced the same outlook until he worked for a start up company.

Now he advocates for every artist to work for a start up in order to adopt their more nimble outlook. (my emphasis)

When you say the word “business” to someone, especially an artist, they automatically assume you’re talking about something stuffy, rigid, uncompromising, and [insert horrible adjective].

You say “business” but they hear “bureaucracy.” THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING!…

To eschew something because it can be done poorly, is a disservice to yourself, and might rival einsteins famous definition of insanity (look it up plebes!).

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Talking directly to people, iterating ideas before execution, creating a feedback loop with measurable data; it all makes perfect sense.

By doing this you create a real connection with your customer (audience) and develop a product (art) people will not only tolerate, but will clamor for. In terms that an artist would use: your art becomes relevant.

That’s a big deal.

The average artist does NONE of these things. Not only that, they intentionally avoid them. They lock themselves away to pursue their secret “vision.” When they receive negative criticism, they blame their audience (customer). WHAT?!?

For me this addresses some age old debates about artists being more business minded and selling out vs. thinking you know what audiences/customers should like. (the most negative extremes of the spectrum)

Obviously, I like his point about not dismissing options because other people don’t do it well.

I think the complicating factor is the fear is that you too won’t do it well and the process will dominate your time and take you away from your creative work. Or worse, make you resent your creative work for making it necessary to become involved in the business side. For some it may not be a wholly irrational fear.

Still, I think regardless of your fears and regardless of your views about what constitutes selling out and remaining true to your art, the feedback loop Weller mentions is a useful process.

Failure and missteps are things you will face, especially when you are working in the arts. Proper feedback can help minimize this over time. If nothing else, the process can help you identify the proper people to solicit for feedback.

If you start a flow chart from the simple proposition that you want to support yourself with your art. You can ask, do people say nice things about my art? If the answer is yes but they don’t pay for it, you either need to find other people to get feedback from or figure out a different way to monetize your art from the people giving you feedback.

Likewise, if there are a lot of people who criticize your work, but still won’t buy it after you make the changes to the areas in which they say you fell short, then you may need to find other people to solicit feedback from.

Obviously it isn’t as completely clear cut as that. The problem may lie in your execution not being very good. My point is that you can’t depend entirely on your family and friends or trolls for feedback. It is necessary to identify people with the level of discernment you seek whose feedback you can trust and work from there.

You just need to recognize and own the potential implications of appealing to 1,000 versus 100,000. You can make a lot of money from those 1,000, but you need to be producing to a certain standard. Meeting the expectations of 1,000 can be just as burdensome as that of 100,000.

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The Apprenticeship Option

Recently Marginal Revolution blogger and economist Alex Tabbarok linked to an article he wrote a year ago suggesting that the United States would be well served by adding a focus on putting students into technical apprenticeships to the current push to get kids into college.

He starts out by applauding the now familiar push by governors in many states to provide incentives to students pursuing STEM fields over Liberal Arts. “We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees.”

I particularly oriented in on the part of the article where he notes,

“In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.”

Wow, that is pretty great, huh? But he goes on,

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

I initially felt a little indignant at the idea that graduates in the arts aren’t spurring innovation. But then I started wondering if the arts sector needs to take a little responsibility for this. It seems this might be a result of a lack of training and good public relations.

There is an on going conservation about training arts students to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their work so there is already an acknowledgment that this is an area to be improved. Perhaps part of that training should emphasize not undervaluing your work so that people don’t undervalue the work that artists do.

In terms of public relations, I think there is a lack of circulation of stories about successful creatives like those I recently cited about the winners of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition (one with a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese Lit., the other with a BA in Aerospace Engineering) and the Rotman School of Management’s design competition.

The main thrust of Tabbarok’s argument isn’t so much to diminish the liberal arts degree as to advocate for apprenticeships. He notes that some people are simply not suited for college but vocational education programs have a stigma of being the dumping ground for high risk kids. He points to the model of Germany (among other European countries) where students normally opt for technical training and apprenticeships that provide real world work experience while the students are in high school.

What appealed to me about this was the idea that if there is room in the day for a high school student to receive vocational training, then you have to allow that there is time in the day for arts classes.

But I am not suggesting that some kids be allowed to paint while the other kids go learn to weld. I think high school vocational training should seek to provide opportunities for students to train and apprentice at local arts organizations as well. Who says you can’t take some of your welding classes in a scene shop or art studio or that you have to do your apprenticeship in a shipyard?

Apprenticeship programs like this could strengthen ties between schools and arts organizations and reinforce the idea that vocational skills don’t have to be applied in purely practical ways.

On the other side of the coin, I have a vague recollection of reading an article that suggested many visual artists today don’t have a good understanding of the materials they use because they haven’t had a lengthy exposure working/playing with them. Even if my recollection isn’t correct, the opportunity to work with materials still exists.

The reality is, four years of college isn’t the entire key to becoming an artist either.

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Teach First, Ask Questions Later

Along the theme of my post yesterday about good ideas, I wanted to point out some interesting ideas about higher education for arts majors suggested by David Cutler on The Savvy Musician blog.

I won’t say all the ideas are completely viable, Cutler doesn’t make that claim either, but some implementation of the basic intent might be practical enough to break up the status quo a little.

One of the common themes of Cutler’s suggestions is predicated on the fact students looking for a career in the arts need to be more than just talented artists. They need to be good collaborators and have some basic entrepreneurial ambitions. He proposes evaluating those factors right from the time of auditions.

He also suggests multidisciplinary approaches including more allowances for electives, having at least two areas of specialty and working with different specialists.

“Encourage or require students to select at least two areas of specialty throughout their single degree program. This priority reflects the real world, where artists must possess multiple skill sets to survive and thrive.

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“For at least one semester, each student studies with someone from another artistic specialty. Imagine the lessons a violinist might learn from a cellist, trombonist, dancer, or painter.”

This idea appealed to me because one of my former employers ran a residential arts and music camp where students had one major (an area they were already good at) and two minors (areas the want to explore.) The focus there was more about letting kids explore disciplines they had no experience in but were curious about. They might learn they were really awful at it or might gain a new interest.

A more rigorous approach in higher education could give students cross-training they may need in their careers but also provide the basis of increased avenues for creative expression.

What really interested me were some of Cutler’s ideas about what the educational experience might look like:

Paradigm 4: CLASSES & ASSIGNMENTS

Traditional model. Classes are typically built around a lecture. Students are assigned homework or projects to complete on their own time.
An alternative. On their own time, students watch lectures online. During class, the teacher works interactively with them on homework, projects, and other experiential endeavors.

If this alternative model sounds like wishful thinking, let me assure you what he suggests is very close to how some math classes are being taught on my campus right now. The approach has been very successful in terms of improved grades and student persistence.

Paradigm 5: PRIVATE LESSONS

Traditional model. Music students typically take a one hour lesson with a specialist in their area each week (i.e. violinist study with violin professors).
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Alternative C. Teachers are in their office for certain hours each week. Students are free to show up as often as they want, and stay as long as they desire. If unprepared one week, perhaps they shouldn’t waste the teacher’s time with a meeting. On the other hand, maybe someone could benefit from 3 lessons a week leading to an audition. This open structure also allows students to observe their teacher interacting with others who face similar/different challenges, teaching valuable lessons in pedagogy and beyond. (This is the model I experienced when studying composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, Austria).

Cutler also proposes flipping the timing on education students’ teaching semesters and doctoral candidates’ orals from the last semester to the first.

The benefit for student teachers is, “This shows them what needs to be learned early on, and frames their entire college experience.”

For graduate students, “Begin the degree with some version of orals. Get people excited about researching and learning on their own before choosing classes.”

Now granted, I wonder how valuable having a completely inexperienced student teacher would be to the school in which they were placed. That whole experience would probably have to be redesigned.

I do think he is spot on saying that it would show arts ed. students what needed to be learned. I think I have mentioned before that when I was pursuing certification in secondary ed, everyone in my cohort agreed that it would have been helpful to have had a refresher course in grammar rules before we had done our student teaching. We would have paid more attention to that throughout our college careers had we known just how terrifying it would be being uncertain.

In terms of career preparation, he suggests students having a career mentor rather than (or in addition to) an artistic mentor for at least one semester. Instead of doing a summer or semester long internship, “Partner students with an external organization throughout their studies, so they are constantly challenged by real-world, practical concerns and trends.”

I have only covered some of his proposals and I quoted some of his ideas out of their original context (though I feel I accurately represent his overall argument) so you should check out his blog if any of this sounds intriguing.

If you are like me, when you read it you will wonder where in a student’s studies would there be time to implement many of these ideas. But I think his whole point is that the entire approach and prioritization of art student learning needs to be examined and revamped in order to make the experience and the degree granted more relevant.

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Will Artists Save The Motor City?

NPR had a story on All Things Considered yesterday about people moving to Detroit lured by dirt cheap property costs and a belief in the potential the city has. (Listen to the story rather reading the text which doesn’t accurately reflect the audio.) Among those interviewed are a small group of artists hoping to establish a little colony that “are interested in working on houses but also interested in working in social ways. Be a part of the neighborhood themselves..”

It will be interesting to see if they bring vibrancy to part of the city…and resist being displaced by any gentrification they may inspire.

I haven’t really seen it as part of my career path, but I always thought if I had an opportunity like this and the resources to pull it off, I would buy up buildings or warehouses and turn them into spaces artists could practice their craft. Even though I am in the performing arts, I never really considered opening a performance space. I think I would have rehearsal spaces for theatre, dance and music as well as studios for visual artists. A good situation would also allow me to get an apartment building so that visual artists could be in residence a few months while they created and then move on. With other artists around, they might find inspiration and collaboration in the people and environment without actually having to move permanently.

While Detroit offers this sort of opportunity, I wonder if I have the energy to make something like this happen. I live a fairly spartan existence so the prospect of living in the back while renovating the front doesn’t bother me. I just don’t know if I can be a one man renovation squad for the time it would take to get things to a place where the project could start paying for the next phase. That is assuming enough artists move to Detroit interested in utilizing the spaces.

But as I said, since I never really saw this as part of my career path, I haven’t invested much thought in how I might accomplish it. The idea has mostly been idle speculation born of visiting many towns and cities that seemed to lack good rehearsal facilities for the individual/small group artists.

I figure it is worthwhile posting the idea here on the chance it inspires someone to explore doing it in their own town, say Detroit.

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