WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘artists’

Staying Young

July 11th, 2011

In certain art forms, age is a sign of maturity and wisdom.  In the field I know best, classical music, I have had the pleasure of hearing memorable concerts by pianists in their 80s (Rudolf Serkin, Menahem Pressler) and their nineties (Arthur Rubenstein and Mieczysław Horszowski- the latter at the age of 99!) Writers and painters can also be found quite active after three quarters of a century.  But there is one artistic discipline where age is almost universally considered a liability- dance.  A dancer is essentially an athlete, and like our sports heroes, they often have very short careers.  So I was delighted to read in the very same week that two of my dance idols are alive and well and active, well into their 70s. Edward Villella, at 75, was back in a Miami Beach gym strapping on his boxing gloves, which, along with dance, were very much a part of his youth.  After his remarkable career at New York City Ballet he founded the Miami City Ballet and has led the group ever since.  Then there is Jacques D’Amboise, a year older than Villella, who is currently promoting a new book which talks not only about his remarkable career at New York City Ballet but also a second equally impressive career founding and running one of the country’s most successful dance education organizations, the National Dance Institute.  What is the secret of these and so many other active creative people who keep going after seven decades or more?  Perhaps it is that they always find new ways to exercise their creative juices – the best prescription anyone has ever discovered for staying young.

In the early 1990s, I facilitated a meeting of artists as part of a strategic planning process for the Massachusetts Cultural Council . We met in a beautifully restored theatre, whose brilliant Gilded Age surroundings contrasted with the prescient words of one passionate artist-entrepreneur at this early moment of the Internet’s development. He rose to argue that as new forms of media were developed, artists would be called upon to create content and must be willing to enter new arenas – video games, web site design, and so on. Back then, this seemed like a pipe dream.

Times change! The options for artists seeking employment have clearly expanded since those days. Some interesting new research, conducted as part of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), indicates that arts training pays off in the workforce (contrary to the cliché of artists furthering their careers by waiting tables). For example, “…92% of those recently graduated artists who wished to work currently are, with most finding employment soon after graduating. Two-thirds said their first job was a close match for the kind of work they wanted.”

My guess is this has happened because artist training is embracing a more entrepreneurial stance. The New England Conservatory, for example, has instituted a program called “Entrepreneurial Musicianship” (that WolfBrown helped design) to consolidate and expand its music industry and business training programs to better prepare graduates for the realities of building a meaningful career as a musician.

These changes notwithstanding, artists still have a hard time earning a living. Indeed, the SNAAP research indicates that “…almost a third (30%) of former professional artists and those who wanted to be an artist but did not do so pointed to debt, including student loan debt, as a reason to find other work.” Click here for a summary report.

What other examples of an entrepreneurial bent to artist training programs are there? How has professional development for artists evolved since the primary means of content distribution has become the Internet?

Given my background in urban planning, new funding initiatives that place arts facilities and programs in the context of community-building and neighborhood revitalization always pique my interest. LINC (Leveraging Investments in Community), in partnership with The Ford Foundation, has launched a new program to support the planning and development of new arts spaces called Space for Change. The program is notable for its holistic approach, which embeds planning, community engagement and operational capacity into the fabric of the funded facility projects.  In addition to funds towards planning and development, grant recipients will participate in training seminars in marketing, development, finance and other operational skills. Revitalizing communities through arts spaces is not as simple as renovating or building facilities.  It also involves supporting the ongoing needs of the artists and arts organizations that will inhabit these spaces, especially given the limited capacity of small and mid-sized arts groups to finance and operate facilities. The Space for Change  program is a step towards achieving a more comprehensive strategy of sustainable facility development, and could establish a new model for the sector.


Until recently, the typical way for visual artists to apply to juried exhibitions and craft shows has been by duplicating a myriad number of slides, labeling, and shipping them to multiple destinations.  As a studio craftsperson, I remember what a laborious process this was and so I can see what a huge benefit it is for artists to now be able to apply for many juried exhibitions online using a single digital interface.  Register once and you’re done!  One such system, called ZAPPlication, has been up and running since 2004.  It is hosted by WESTAF (Western State Arts Foundation), a leader in digital services for artists.  WESTAF also offers an analogous system for applying for public art commissions called Café, which stands for Call for Entry.  What’s interesting to me is not only the development of such new technology, but the growth of a community around the ZAPP site.  Their forum discussions include everything from advice on how to assemble booth displays to reports of sales at various art shows and festivals.  A soon-to-be-released iPhone application will allow visitors and patrons to access art show and festival information.  Among other things, the app will allow people to search show content by artist or medium (e.g., drawing), access event schedules, and link to the artists’ websites.  Beyond simplifying life for artists, the power of these tools is their ability to build connections between artists and their audiences and to enhance the potential for more engaging dialogues.


I was researching artist services for a client recently when I came upon a site called GYST-Ink, which offers just what I was looking for. What was most interesting to me was the very sophisticated “professional practice” software designed specifically for visual artists. From guidance on résumés and grant applications to to-do lists and inventory tracking, it offers an extensive array of features. I remembered back to 1984 when Tom Wolf, Pat Doran, and I did a book that explored computer applications for craftspeople. Other than calculating glaze formulas, there wasn’t much available. So, my curiosity piqued, I did a bit of work with Google and very quickly found several other packages available for visual artists – there’s ARTBASE and Artsystems Studio to name just two. And, for presenters, there’s Impressario. All this in a 15 minute web search! I suppose it’s not surprising that developers target artists for software solutions. Still, it’s yet another indication of our success at portraying artists as business people!

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