On campus, a growing support for arts-oriented careers

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Photo by Folake Ogunmola.

As an emerging playwright in New York City, Theater Studies professor Deborah Margolin faced few difficulties in developing her career. There were many successful regional theaters and it was easy to put up a show, she explained, recalling a time when she wrote a play’s opening monologue while customers filed into the theater on the night of its premiere.

But that was 30 years ago. Today, Margolin noted, there aren’t many artists who make a lot of money — and those that do are exceptions.

Every year, over 100 students graduate with a degree in one of Yale’s seven arts-related majors: Art, History of Art, Music, Theater Studies, Film Studies, Architecture and Computing in the Arts. But while this level of interest in arts disciplines has remained consistent over the past decade, none of the 11 alumni artists interviewed said they think the University had a formalized process of preparing them for careers in the arts while they were at Yale.

“The arts just get lost in the shuffle, but it seems that there are a lot of resources for people who are pre-med or thinking about going into law,” said Taja Cheek ’12, an artist and arts administrator based in New York.

Yale Office of Career Strategy Director Jeanine Dames said that when she assumed her current position in January 2013, she immediately noticed the potential for the University to play a larger role in assisting students preparing for careers in the arts.

Under Dames’ leadership, OCS launched a four-year initiative during the spring of 2013 that aimed to strengthen the campus resources offered to aspiring artists. For the 2014-’15 academic year, OCS is set to host a number of new events including workshops and panels given by professionals in the arts, with support from Yale’s various arts departments and the Yale College Dean’s Office. OCS also plans to improve its network of artists and organizations in order to identify sources of employment and internship opportunities for students.

Overseeing OCS’s initiative is its Associate Director Katie Volz, who was hired in the summer of 2013 specifically to provide career services to students in the arts. Dames said that Volz is the first OCS career adviser ever to specialize in the arts disciplines.

But students, faculty and alumni highlighted a few limitations to the University’s efforts to prepare students for becoming professionals in the arts. Yale does not offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in any discipline, and its liberal arts structure has left several arts departments with a shortage of technical classes geared towards helping aspiring artists develop their craft. And artists today are facing more challenges in securing employment than ever before. But while Volz noted that the University cannot guarantee success for its aspiring artists, she remains optimistic about these students’ chances of building a fulfilling career in an increasingly difficult field.

“It’s always hard as a career adviser to talk to someone about a career that may not work out no matter how much effort one may put in,” Volz said. “But I really feel like these students have a shot.”

TOO UNPREDICTABLE TO PREPARE FOR

As the initiative to improve resources for aspiring artists has only recently been introduced on campus, OCS is faced with a myriad of challenges as it attempts to prepare undergraduates for what students, faculty and alumni have described as a highly unpredictable field — even for well-trained professionals.

Yale School of Music Deputy Dean Melvin Chen ’81 said that changes in the arts fields over time have raised new obstacles for students preparing for careers in such disciplines. Using the music profession as an example, he explained that 50 years ago, the archetypal aspiring musician practiced all day, won an international competition, became employed by a professional orchestra and was “set for life.” But in recent years, Chen added, the level of competition for musicians has made it difficult to secure employment based on musical skill alone.

“Someone could play some pieces in a recital and 50 other people can play those pieces just as well,” Chen said. “So how can one stand out?”

David Warshofsky, an assistant professor of theatre practice at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts, said that while theater actors used to be able to financially support themselves solely through acting, they can no longer earn enough money to support even a basic lifestyle, with the exception of those who are continuously employed by Broadway productions. But Warshofsky noted that it is now very rare for an actor to be employed in such a consistent manner by a well-paying organization.

Dames attributed the lack of predictability in professional arts fields largely to the absence of a pre-determined ‘track’ for students in the arts, which she said exists in disciplines such as medicine and law.

Rochelle Feinstein, a professor of painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art, said that the majority of School of Art students have worked in positions ranging from artist assistants to bartenders before applying there.

Andrew Sternad ARC ’16 said that between 2009 and 2013, he worked in the urban planning sector of neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, adding that he did not know he wanted to continue his education at the time of his graduation from college. He explained that his work experience did not prepare him for architecture school so much as help him realize what his interests were, adding that many other architects he has talked to believe it is not necessary — or even preferable — to exclusively study architecture as an undergraduate if one wants to eventually pursue a graduate degree in the field. Administrators, professors and alumni interviewed agreed that a combination of competitiveness, unpredictability and the absence of a consolidated academic track make arts-related careers difficult to enter.

THE COST OF LIBERAL ARTS

For aspiring artists, a Yale education is an alternative to arts conservatories and B.F.A. programs, which would require them to practice and perform their art more rigorously than Yale does. Students in several of Yale’s arts majors said they think that while artists in liberal arts programs graduate with a broad base of knowledge in different disciplines, such knowledge may come at the cost of technical expertise in their field.

Not all of Yale’s undergraduate artists receive the same type of education from their major. Lisa Kereszi ART ’00, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art, said that the Art major consists of primarily “hands-on” training. The major only requires students to take three courses that are dedicated to art theory and history, she explained, adding that the majority of available classes are all focused on art-making.

But students in other majors said they have found a lack of practice-oriented courses that would prepare them to produce art at a professional level.

Yuxi Liu ’16, a Film Studies major, said that only a few courses in her major teach film production. Most of the curriculum is focused on film theory and history, she added. Film Studies major Christian Noel ’15 added that while Yale may develop students’ theoretical knowledge of the craft more effectively than other arts preparatory programs, students who plan to work as professionals in filmmaking will most likely need to pursue a graduate degree due to the shortage of practice-oriented classes within the undergraduate curriculum.

“The theory stuff is definitely helpful but at the end of the day, you need more production experience,” Noel said.

Ariadne Lih ’17, a Music major, said that most of the performance opportunities that aspiring musicians and singers have at Yale come in the form of extracurricular organizations. But balancing one’s academic schedule with extracurricular commitments can be difficult, Lih added, noting that her music practice schedule is not as rigorous as it would be in a music conservatory.

But other students, faculty and alumni argued that the liberal arts are not always an inferior form of artistic preparation compared to conservatory training programs.

Cheek, an artist and arts administrator based in New York, said that she thinks learning the theory and history behind the arts can be extremely important to students who wish to become professionals in those fields. She explained that employers in the arts are hesitant to hire those who have not studied the work of well-known artists and writers in college, which she said adds value to the liberal arts curriculum that students are exposed to at Yale.

Film Studies professor Marc Lapadula added that certain arts fields, such as film, are heavily dependent on areas outside of film for inspiration, which requires aspiring filmmakers to diversify their academic pursuits and not overemphasize film studies alone. Lapadula said he believes that because filmmaking is influenced by such a large variety of subjects, students that take classes in a broad range of topics will be better prepared to enter the film industry than students who only study film.

“If you’re going to go into film, you have to be immersed in art, literature, politics and even finance, since you need to get your film out there,” Lapadula said.

Associate Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan said she believes that the liberal arts are invaluable to aspiring artists because success in arts professions today requires more than technical ability, which can make it advantageous for students to develop the sort of broad knowledge base that a liberal arts program offers.

“A person with a liberal arts education and excellent arts training is going to make more interesting artwork and will understand the meaning of what they are doing at a level that is beyond what is possible in a program that is more skills oriented,” Cahan said.

OCS: A GROWING PRESENCE

While the liberal arts model does not allow most arts majors’ curricula to put a primary emphasis on students’ careers, OCS has been trying to guide students in ways their academic programs do not.

Career advising for aspiring artists at Yale has existed for decades, but the resources available to students planning for careers in the arts have traditionally been scarce. Some students said they used to rely mostly on individual conversations with professors and peers rather than consultation with offices such as OCS.

Kate Pitt ’12, a humanities program assistant at the Folger Shakespeare Library, said that when she was an underclassman, looking to fellow students and alumni was the most common means by which aspiring artists sought advice on professional life. She  said she thinks there is a greater concentration of career advising resources at OCS now than there was before.

Dames said that with its new initiative, OCS hopes to simultaneously construct a central database of online resources for aspiring artists as well as support the individualized career counseling that the University’s various arts departments have been offering to their students.

“Our role is to make sure students know all of the opportunities available to them,” Dames said.

Among the new services that will be offered to aspiring artists is an overhaul of the OCS website’s arts section. Dames said the office plans to add a host of features to its website, which may include recorded alumni presentations, online seminars and an online chat system in which students may interact with arts advisers.

Over the past three years, OCS has also increased its funding of arts related ventures. Michael Protacio ’14, an actor and singer based in New York City, said that during his years as an underclassman, there was one event per year that dealt with careers in the arts — an event that usually attempted to cover many different professions within a single workshop. By the time he was a senior, Protacio observed, the number of such workshops had increased and they were more specialized toward various disciplines within the arts. During the 2014-’15 academic year, OCS plans to work with arts departments across the University to add more career-oriented events.

BEYOND THE YALE BUBBLE

But there is a limit to what OCS — and Yale — can do to prepare undergraduates for the challenges faced by professional artists.

Timothy Cooper ’02, director of the Creative Yale Alumni Network, noted that many financial and logistical obstacles that working artists face do not exist at Yale. While booking a theater for a show at Yale can be easy and inexpensive, he explained, reserving venues outside of Yale requires purchasing insurance, gathering financial backers and presenting various forms of evidence that demonstrate the profitability of the production one is hoping to stage.

Current students and alumni suggested that undergraduates looking to pursue arts professionally should look outside of the University for a taste of such challenges. They noted that aspiring artists should seek exposure to the realities of the fields they are trying to enter through summer jobs and conversations with alumni in addition to practicing their crafts at Yale.

Liu said that many film majors like herself participate in extracurricular groups such as Bulldog Productions or the Yale Dramat in order to receive more experience in film production, but noted that she did not feel that these experiences adequately prepare aspiring entertainment professionals for the industry. She highlighted the importance of internships in helping students receive the practical training that they do not necessarily receive at Yale.

“Internships are the most important thing, especially at a place like Yale where everything is so academically and not practically oriented,” Liu said.

John de Mita ’81, a professional actor and Professor of Theatre Practice at the University of Southern California, noted that the experiences he gained from working in regional theaters during the summers of his undergraduate years at Yale were extremely useful to his professional development.

OCS is also trying to help students learn about the challenges faced by working artists through alumni panels and workshops, at which undergraduates can connect with current professionals in their fields of interest. Dames said she believes that speaking with alumni in the arts is one of OCS’s most effective means of preparing aspiring artists for the future.

“We can give advice, but there’s nothing like hearing it right from someone who is actually working in these disciplines,” Dames said.

But alumni who currently work as arts professionals expressed mixed opinions about the effectiveness of these events.

Cooper, director of the Creative Yale Alumni Network, said he attended numerous alumni panels and master’s tea events during his undergraduate experience but never felt like he thoroughly understood what life in the arts would be like until after graduation.

Actor Adam O’Byrne ’01 DRA ’04 noted that he believes academic institutions are limited in their ability to fully prepare students for careers in the arts because hearing professionals talk about such careers does not serve as a substitute for experience in the field.

“Even if you have people tell you what the business is like, you have no idea what that means until you get out there,” O’Byrne said.

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