At Work

The big changes colleges are making to help art students snag jobs in America's gig economy

Key Points
  • Art schools have launched incubators and certificate programs to help art students launch businesses and prepare for careers in the gig economy.
  • Now 16 universities host arts-business incubators, the oldest of which include Arizona State University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
  • Some schools offer certificates in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Peter Mueller | University of North Carolina School of the Arts

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.

University of Michigan
tiny-al | Getty Images

Coppola founded Girls Rock Detroit with a $10,000 venture capital–style grant from Michigan's School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD) after winning a business-plan bakeoff in 2016. A nonprofit running music camps for girls ages 8-15 and gender-nonconforming kids, Girls Rock Detroit wants to inspire a new generation of artists, especially in an era where many school music and art programs are on the chopping block. The organization is now looking for a new executive director to replace Coppola, who's getting her doctorate. The organization has mentored hundreds of students, teaching them to play and write music, she adds.

"What's interesting about it is that most students, including myself, didn't realize entrepreneurship skills could be used to start nonprofits that aim to do good," said Coppola.

Fast-tracking art entrepreneurs

At Michigan, former SMTD dean Aaron Dworkin, a 2005 Macarthur Foundation genius-grant recipient, created the school's EXCEL Lab (for Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment and Leadership). With a $100,000 annual budget, EXCEL gives out microgrants of up to $1,000 for one-off student projects like shows or festivals, including stipends allowing students to take low-paying internships.

An accelerator program has helped almost two dozen student-founded ventures launch-- from performing companies to educational organizations. The largest grants, like Girls Rock Detroit's and 2017's grant to expand the student-run Threads All Arts Festival in Ann Arbor, go to students whose organizations deliver significant social impact, says Jonathan Kuuskoski, chairman of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Leadership at Michigan's arts school.

After the recession a lot of arts programs said we have to make sure students can navigate the economy as well as the studio.
Linda Essig
dean of arts and letters, California State University

At University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Chancellor Lindsay Bierman has spearheaded a similar approach since arriving in 2014. Four students yearly get $2,500 grants to produce their own, hopefully commercial projects in a program launched this year; last spring's winners included three community-arts projects and a documentary film about a sovereignty movement in Hawaii.

Other prizes help students, staff or alumni get cash and management help from the nonprofit Center for Creative Economy to launch a business or nonprofit in Winston-Salem. Winners include a start-up to provide handmade wigs to cancer patients, and software start-up Avae, founded by 2006 alumnus Christopher Baine, whose product is billed as a tool to let sound designers work more efficiently.

The school also partnered this year with Wake Forest University to offer a one-year master's in management for UNCSA graduates at Wake's business school.

The plan's goal is to nurture a creative economy of arts enterprises attracted by Winston-Salem's low cost of living, Bierman said. A partnership with the Center for Creative Economy and a local foundation has created about three dozen local jobs, but all the organizations funded are still operating.

"If (UNC system flagship school) Chapel Hill can be a hub for biotech, why can't we be an R&D center for the creative industry?" said Bierman.

Following a pro-business mission

Two main tracks of preparing arts students for work seem to be emerging.

One is where the school pulls out all the stops to get students on a professional track as performers, or blending performing with teaching or running a small business. The other is to add majors in arts administration, for students who choose a less-volatile career that still works with their passion.

Baldwin Wallace University in suburban Cleveland does both. The school is notorious in theater circles for its relentless outreach to Broadway's community — no musical-theater major in the last decade has graduated without an agent, the school said.

The school's four-year old arts administration major now has 70 students, said Bryan Bowser, the program's director. Classwork covers marketing, fundraising and other back-office arts jobs, he added. The first class of graduates last spring landed at Washington's Folger Theater, the Wolf Trap concert venue outside D.C., and Cleveland institutions like the Beck Center for the Arts.

"I heard from hiring managers that our students had more of a second-job than entry-level kind of experience," Bowser said.

But the most popular model for teaching artists to be businesspeople is to build personal-management learning into arts curricula itself, especially as graduation nears.

At Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon, that means a class called "The Business of the Business.'' At Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts, the last semester for BFA theater students features a seminar dwelling on business details, like tax planning and online marketing. Rutgers also graduates actors in December so they're available for jobs during TV's pilot season.

Syracuse University moves senior drama students — nearly all of its actors and many stage designers and directors — to New York for a semester-long spring program that exposes them to working professionals and teaches networking and auditioning.

"We want them to get direct exposure to people who have the best knowledge of how to create a career — and a leg up," said Ralph Zito, Syracuse's drama department chair.

Transferring art skills

Only a handful of arts programs float above pressure to emphasize career planning, preferring to spend more of students' on-campus time on studying and making art. One is Northwestern, whose theater alums include Stephen Colbert. Instead of pushing career training, Northwestern makes arts majors take more liberal-arts courses than peers, and relies on liberal education plus arts skills, including running student productions, to make students marketable, said David Bell, head of Northwestern's musical theater program.

"There's a reason people like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks send their kids here," Bell said. "Artists need to understand who they are as thinking members of society. You can't assume they know that at 18.''

On the other hand, arts skills translate into more corporate pursuits, said Bierman, who ran Time Warner's Southern Living franchise before entering academia. Dance majors claim the focus they learned in their training helps in law school, and one acting alumnus coaches Google executives on presentations, he said. Plus, he added, organizing production builds teamwork and project-management skills under pressure that work in any industry.

"When the curtain goes up, there's no 'the dog ate my homework,''' he said. "We don't do a good job of helping arts students understand that their skills apply broadly.''

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