“Why would anyone need a class on this? This is real life.”
Teaching workshops for artists, and most recently full semester courses at MICA in which we cover how to host a studio visit, write a CV, and create a portfolio website, among other skills, this is a comment I hear with some frequency. I must agree that this field of Professional Development, often referred to simply as “PD,” has sketchy borders between what should be common sense and what are specialized skills that must be learned to actually make a living in the arts.
There are as many ways to be an artist as there are people pursuing our profession. Since no size fits all, every book, workshop, seminar, and essay I’ve read by others about how to be a professional always lacks something of what I specifically need or want. I’m teaching the class I wanted to attend as an undergrad, but I know that we are all seeking answers to a test that will not come because, well, this is real life. I imagine that I am teaching a raft-building class, trying to prepare my classes for uncharted waters ahead. The trick is that every raft by design and function needs to be different. Everyone wants to live a slightly different version of life—my goals for my career are not my students’ goals and vice versa. Not every artist wants to make a living off selling their work or skills.
Despite this, and despite how few artists support themselves completely on sales of their work, the perceived default ambition for creatives in the United States is that professional vigor is tied to economic success. Hustle and girl-boss cultures have dropped us at an intersection where anyone can make a living selling the fruits of their creative labor if they just side-hustle long enough. That feels uncomfortably close to the idea of the pulling oneself up by the bootstraps of a previous generation. Anything and everything in the realm of PD is inherently hit or miss depending on application, just as certain barriers and privileges impede or allow certain people to achieve some version of success. When we’re talking about business, we really can’t say every person starts with the same opportunities. Yet there are some things within our power to recalibrate and strive for.