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Universities Aim To Change 'Starving Artist' To 'Working Artist'

Stacy Nick
Students in Colorado State University's LEAP program argue legal issues, including copyright infringement, in a recent Law and the Arts class.

Patrick Weseman already has two bachelor's degrees; one in math and one in music. After graduation though, Weseman realized he didn’t really want to be a mathematician – or a musician for that matter.

“I wanted to start thinking of my life a little more practically,” he said.

That desire brought him back to school and into a program mixing the arts and practical business sense. These entrepreneurial programs are preparing the folks who will work both in front of, and behind, the curtain.

Now planning on going into festival management, Weseman was part of Colorado State University's first graduating class from its new LEAP (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Arts Advocacy, and the Public) Institute for the Arts.

“It’s not necessarily people that can’t hack it as a musician, or as a painter, or potter, whatever it is they want to do,” said Katie Rothstein, associate director of the LEAP program. “It’s people who actually have a desire to help other people make their art. And to help their communities make art better.”

Entrepreneurial arts degrees have been around at East Coast schools for years, but they’re just taking off in Colorado. CSU’s program is only two years old.

Associate Professor Constance DeVereaux said it used to be that in the arts, a dance company director or a symphony publicity coordinator often got their start by happenstance.

“You fell into your job, somebody left or there was nobody else willing to take over, so suddenly you’re the director of an organization,” DeVereaux said. “And you didn’t have formal skills.”

LEAP’s undergraduate and graduate programs offer students an arts bent on those practical skills, such as how to write a grant or how to put together a project plan. This is exactly what drew Patrick Weseman to the program, learning the skills he would later put into practice with an internship at the Atlanta Ballet.

“I learned about contracts, finances, budgeting, all those elements that we studied in our classes,” he said. “But it was a nice affirmation of what we learned in class in a real-world setting.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
In the LEAP program's Law and the Arts class, students role-play a variety of legal situations they might find themselves dealing with. Here, the students act out a discussion between a dance studio director and a group of parents demanding an instructor be fired.

Colorado State isn’t the only school helping students add practicality to their creativity. Leo Welch designed the University of Northern Colorado’s new Arts Entrepreneurship certificate program after a survey of recent arts department graduates revealed some interesting results.

“Ninety percent were thrilled with the quality of arts education they received,” said Welch, the school’s Dean of Performing and Visual Arts. “About 67 percent were happy with the kind of business-type skills that they might have gotten… and 7 percent were happy with the entrepreneurial offerings that they were given.”

While they were being trained to be artists, they weren’t necessarily getting the training they needed to be “working artists.”

The Arts Entrepreneurship program teams up with UNC’s renowned Monfort College of Business to offer courses in marketing and business planning, while students learn skills such as audition techniques, public speaking and event planning from the arts department.

“It’s about helping our students, especially at the undergraduate level, to realize that it’s not just enough to play violin at a very high level,” Welch said. “You have to figure out a way to make a living, you have to figure out a niche, you have to figure out a way to market yourself, to start thinking in terms of a five-year strategic plan. Things that artists – tend not to do.”

Welch said when he began his career in the 1980s, it was a very prescribed track, particularly in music. Graduates would either teach music or pursue a performance career. Now, fewer people are attending art in person, bypassing the stage for the (computer) screen.

“That’s really where a lot of new careers are being created in the 21st century,” he said. “And the creative sector in Colorado is the state’s fifth largest business sector.”

It’s a very different playing field, but with lots of opportunities.

“Arts entrepreneurship is definitely a hot-button topic across the country and it’s a direct response, I think, to that concern. You know, ‘what is my son or daughter going to do with this particular art degree?’” Welch said. “And my response is always, ‘With the proper training, whatever they want to do.’”

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