By Blair Tellers
Shimmering, handcrafted jewelry rests atop black velvet squares in the Whitworth Art Department showcases. Lithograph prints lay pinned in a collage on the back wall, and an empty, slender glass vase winds upward on its stand: all visual proof that life in art offers a bouquet of options. The showcase of works on display in the Whitworth Art Building testifies to the diverse paths that aspiring artists may take after graduation.
An art major grants a student more advantages than simply making attractive things to look at. Not all artists are starving. Some are even quite satiated with caffeinated beverages.
"The most rewarding thing about having a career in the arts?" joked Brian Gage,'91, founder and owner of Brian Gage Design. "The free coffee."
In a world obsessed with digits and technology, the creative element is still vital within a range of careers. In 2004, artists held 208,000 jobs in the U.S alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's Occupational Outlook Handbook. And that's not including fashion designers, graphic designers, commercial and industrial designers, curators, photographers, interior designers, advertisers, or public-relations practioners.
Beneath the glorified commodities of a machine-driven economy, art is the underdog. Even though creativity is the mastermind behind innovation and success, art is still undervalued in the education system, which is a serious setback for students of all ages. Yet, despite a competitive job market and often-humble salaries, a life in the arts is rich.
Survival Hints: Incorporating Passion with Practicality
Some Whitworth alumni have found a way to mesh their talent into an art career that will still put food on the table. For artists like Brian Gage, graphic design has met both of those criteria. The Occupational Outlook Handbook states that graphic designers are expected to have the most new jobs amongst the artistic professions through 2014, making graphic design a highly promising career. Graphic designers layout text and produce art reproduction in print and electronic media. This includes any type of print, websites, exhibitions and sketches for corporate identity programs.
Gage found a way to incorporate his interest for the visual arts with other areas of study in addition to his art classes.
"I always wanted to do the arts but when I found out that artists don't make very reasonable money, I took advanced math classes and public relations," Gage says.
He combined a love for art with his studies in computer science, and it paid off. Brian Gage Design now caters to an impressive range of clients, including Whitworth. Gage's organization designed the logo and promotional pieces for Whitworth's most recent major fundraising campaign. The Institutional Advancement staff liked Gage's design so much that they decided to use it as the basis for the new university logo. The familiar torch and open book that marks every piece of Whitworth paraphernalia is the brainchild of Gage and his creative team.
The best thing about the commercial arts, Gage says, is getting paid to be creative, along with the comfort of a regular clientele. The median salary for those in the special graphic designs services is about $41,620 a year.
"The pluses are that I get to make money doing the arts, which isn't always the case with the fine arts. With fine arts you tend to do it for yourself, where as with the commercial arts you are hired to do a project," Gage says.
Artists want to find a job that can incorporate a certain freedom to be creative and still provide a respectable paycheck, Gage says. In the art world, jobs aren't handing themselves out. The average freelance artist makes less than $35,000 a year. Only a small number of artists, roughly 29,000 in the nation as a whole, enjoy the luxury of surviving solely off of profit from independent projects, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Marie Pascoe, '04, remembers wondering how she could possibly hold a job in the arts and still be secure financially. Now she is the pre-press graphic designer at Goodbye Blue Monday, a T-shirt company in Boulder, Colo. Pascoe knows most of the best-paying art jobs these days are in commercial and graphic design; therefore she has made career choices that allow her not to have to sacrifice creative freedom for security.
"My compromise has been to learn the industry commercially so I can apply it personally," says Pascoe.
Graphic designers decide the most effective way of getting a message across in print, electronic or film media. Pascoe, who is artistically enthused by the Tyrannosaurus Rex, utilizes her creative interest in the giant reptile for inspiration.
"Tyrannosaurus means 'tyrant lizard king,'" explained Pascoe. "I like the dinosaur because his arms are kind of puny and he wears a grin really well."
The Importance of Art Education
While artists have numerous professional opportunities and the arts have values that extend beyond the classroom, federal dollars are being slashed from art education. In 2006 alone, $35.6 million were taken out of federal art education appropriations. The U.S. Department of Education explained that "eliminating funding for the program is consistent with Administration policy of terminating small categorical programs with limited impact, in order to fund higher priorities. Arts education programs may be funded under other authorities." But other authorities have not been designated. This in turn placed school administrators in a difficult situation – how do they fund art programs with just local dollars?
"I think it's very clear that students don't have a very deep education in the arts," says Scott Kolbo, Whitworth Assistant Professor of Printmaking and Design.
Cutting back on art budgets, in some situations, has even backfired on school districts. When the Milwaukee Public School District eliminated most of its art programs due to budget cuts, school officials reported morale decreased as vandalism and delinquency increased. Disciplinary staff had to be hired just to deal with the new problems that had arisen, making the additional staff more costly than the art programs themselves.
"I think education in general could use more funds, but art is definitely seen as a low priority in school budgets," Pascoe says.
Underestimating the importance of art education may be an unfortunate mistake. Art education results in greater academic achievement and higher test scores, research has consistently shown. Valuable lessons such as math, tolerance and morals can be celebrated in the study of art, making it a constructive subject because it can teach many lessons through one medium.
When Jake Cooney,'98, first began art classes under Scott Kolbo, he was concerned about integrating his faith with the arts. Cooney believed that non-religious things, such as R-rated movies and un-Christian art, still had good values.
"A lot of art isn't Christian art, but Kolbo reinforced the fact that un-Christian art is still worthwhile," says Cooney. "It was really influential in the way my view of the art world was shaped."
This Seasons' Hot Item: Portfolios
Because the arts attract talented individuals with creative potential, the number of aspiring artists increases every year. The Occupational Outlook Handbook explains that the competition for jobs is expected to be keen for both salaries and freelance jobs in all specialties because the number of qualified workers exceeds the number of available openings.
"No one comes and recruits you in the art world. In the art world people have to use their wits to survive," Kolbo says. "You have to be very self motivated and work hard to promote yourself, and after a long while, you get in this process where people want to see your work."
The all essential portfolio, therefore, is the must have for every well accessorized artist. A portfolio is the nifty sidekick that can be whipped out during an interview; the device that can sway an art director or client to hire you. The evidence of talent and skill displayed in an artist's portfolio is a major factor that may determine whether or not an artist will get the job she is seeking.
Cooney spent over a year searching for a job after graduation because he refused to work at a mundane day job. Now the web designer/marketing manager for a company called Thriva in Bothell, Wash., Cooney fully understands the importance of a portfolio.
"Make a portfolio," Cooney encouraged. "It was pretty expensive and it took me a long time, but I really feel like it helped me. It really helped to print out everything so during my interviews I could just point out my work."
The importance of a ready and accessible portfolio is crucial. Online there are over a thousand websites advertising the work and skills of hopeful artists. ArtQ.net, for example, displays hundreds of portfolios in every type of medium. Art connoisseurs can browse through abstract paintings of dancing cats, to a cubist artist's pastel rendition of a traffic jam, to a sculpture of an elephant angel made out of copper wires and sea shells.
"The thing I tell most students is plan ahead early. Most don't prepare ahead of time and just expect they're gonna get handed a job. In this field you need a portfolio, resume and multiple internships," Gage says.
Advice To Remember
Apart from a snazzy portfolio, there is more to being successfully creative. The art sphere possesses a vast diameter of diversity; infinite uniqueness exists from one medium to the next, so being trained in other areas, particularly computers or business, can never hurt. Pascoe emphasizes the importance of making yourself available to new and unexpected opportunities. Being versed, or at least aware, of other areas outside of art can be a tremendous advantage. Be flexible and remain creative in the vocational pursuit.
"I wish I would've broadened my skill set at Whitworth, spending more time in digital art classes, and taking advantage of the facilities on campus, like the dark room and printing press," Pascoe says.
Taking additional classes besides art proved to be a tremendous help for Cooney. Beginning as a computer science major, Cooney took computer classes, eventually switched to business, and then finally settled with art. Cooney highly recommends that art majors immerse themselves in other areas besides art.
"With a degree in art, you have to find what works for you," Cooney says. "Stay open minded. You've gotta find your own little niche."
Now, even though he reports to a boss, Cooney still feels he has a strong sense of creative freedom and artistic integrity.
While a job like Cooney's is more likely to ensure a regular paycheck, fine art and graphic design are two different realms of the creative world. If anyone really wants to be in the arts, advises Kolbo, they must build a life that allows them time to do what they love.
"If you want all that middle class stuff, you have to live a life that doesn't give you a lot of space for being creative. Live simply; limit your desires and then you won't owe as much to anything and that gives you time to pursue your desires and dreams," Kolbo says.
French painter Henri Matisse says in the 1800s that creativity takes courage. Finding a way to live a life in the arts is a combination of compromise, open mindedness and sacrifice. For people like Gage, Pascoe and Cooney, the satisfaction of maintaining a level of creative freedom and artistic inspiration - in and out of work - is worth the work it takes to get there. Adjusting life in order to generate enough energy for the creative light bulb may take some patience, but as far as Gage is concerned, a life with room for artistic inspiration has its perks.
"The thing about having a job in the arts is the immediate satisfaction of something tangible, getting to create things people can see, feel, touch and enjoy," Gage says.