Melissa Coppola might fit many people's stereotype of unemployable art students: a 31-year old pianist and graduate student at the University of Michigan. But that would discount Coppola — and big changes at colleges that are making more artists into entrepreneurs, overhauling arts programs to teach entrepreneurial skills that grads need to thrive in the emerging gig economy.
You've heard the jokes, like comedian John Oliver's 2016 bit about Trump University: "Every university has sold students false hopes and lies; it's just that most of the time, they call it a theater arts degree."
It turns out, however, that recent arts students are likelier to start organizations than other grads — about 12 percent start nonprofits, according to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. Most are self-employed for at least part of their careers.
In response, arts schools are developing new ways to teach artists how to create their own gigs (and gigs for others), either as founders of companies and nonprofits or as freelancers. There's plenty of demand for the training: 93,000 visual and performing arts majors graduated from U.S. universities in 2015–16, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, only 2,000 fewer than majored in engineering. And arts, including media, are a $700 billion industry, so plenty of opportunity is out there.
Entrepreneurship education for artists became a trend after 2008's financial crisis, said Linda Essig, dean of arts and letters at California State University at Los Angeles. Now 16 universities host arts-business incubators, the oldest of which include Arizona State University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Another 16 schools have competitions where students compete for start-up funding, and a dozen more have artist-in-residence or business coaching programs, according to a December 2016 study Essig led.
"After the recession a lot of arts programs said we have to make sure students can navigate the economy as well as the studio," said Essig, who claims a higher percentage of arts grads work in their field than do accounting majors. "Students today will have on average 11 careers. So you need skills that are transferable [for other professionals]."
If there are models for other schools, the clearest, at least at colleges that send lots of alumni into high-profile gigs, may be at the University of Michigan and at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. These programs — which offer certificates in innovation and entrepreneurship — charge students with creating innovative business projects spun from their own art interests. For example, plotting a social music network or developing websites that would let dance instructors share teaching tips and advice. In addition, they have students attain skills in marketing, self-promotion and business planning.