The Professional Artist

by Claire Ruud January 31, 2012

When I ask Mark Goodman, Graduate Academic Advisor in the Department of Art at the University of Austin, what he wishes he could tell his 25-year-old self about a career as a visual artist, he pauses. In his early twenties, he wasn’t an artist, he was a photographer. It was the early 70s. Photography wasn’t part of the “art world” as we experience it today, and, as he puts it, he just opened the door and walked right in. “I just signed up for a workshop with Minor White, and there I was with Minor White.” He found Aperion Photography Workshops in Millerton, New York, and moved in as a kind of unofficial artist in residence. Then, he went to MoMA, talked to the assistant sitting at the front desk and said, “I have some photos.” The assistant called the upstairs offices and they said, “okay, we’ll look at them.” In his mid-twenties, he wondered whether he should go to graduate school, but then, why bother? He had found his subject, and found his place, and it was too exciting to stop. An NEA grant came in, then a Guggenheim Fellowship, and then the teaching position at UT Austin. Goodman never asked himself whether he wanted a career as an artist—he just became one.

Goodman and I are on this subject because we are discussing the new MFA course Professional Practices: Staying in the Game. The course institutionalizes professional development for its graduates, something that has, of course, always existed in the form of informal conversations and mentorships among professors and their students. Goodman sees a huge chasm between his own experience and the needs of his students today. “In those days,” he says, “you could say, I think I’ll sail west and discover America, and you could. But today you just might run aground.”

The professionalization of the artist has been much discussed from all angles over the past decade. The recently-published reading list on the topic is long. On the self-help side, there’s Jackie Battenfield’s The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, Karen Atkinson and GYST’s Getting Your Sh*t Together: A Professional Practices Manual for Artists and Bandhari and Melber’s ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career. There’s the volume on professionalization in the more academic direction, Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art edited by James Elkins. (Funnily enough, all of this literature came out in 2009, just after the financial crash. Surely, it had been in the works for a couple of years, fueled by the art market bubble.) Then, there’s the response to/critique of art school professionalization as embodied by the surfeit of artist-run schools that appeared in the late 2000s and the theorization of pedagogy exemplified by such publications as Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) and e-flux journal’s 2010 issue on the subject. Whew.

UT’s is by no means the first MFA program to put together a professional development seminar. The Tremaine Foundation’s Marketplace Empowerment for Artists awards, which enabled UT’s new course, have been funding similar programs at other art schools since 2002. Rather than develop curriculum based on previous models, UT’s faculty built it from the bottom up, and ended up with a course that roughly follows Battenfield’s How to Make a Living Doing What You Love. In recent years, UT tried out a related MFA seminar that was more heavily invested in theory—as I understand it, focused on enabling the artist to develop a deeply nuanced intellectual rhetoric around her practice. Goodman emphasizes that this new class is more practical, more hands-on. The choice of instructor for the course—this year, it’s former Arthouse director Sue Graze—was thoughtful. The faculty wanted a “gatekeeper,” as Goodman puts it, someone who spends a lot of time working between artists and publics, artists and donors, publics and the media, and so on, someone with an expansive perspective on the art world.

Goodman describes the course as an opportunity for students to decide whether their practice is a career or a calling. To me, it sounds a little bit like a splash of cold water in the face. How will you develop and maintain a flourishing network of curators, gallerists, artists? How will you find time to read Art Power and Empire after work? How will you sit inside on a Saturday and write that Creative Capital grant you have less than 1% chance of getting? How will you sustain a practice when no one’s watching you, when you have a day job, when your studio is a closet?

I guess that’s why …might be good’s Eric Zimmerman can wax poetic about residencies for 500 words. And he’s right. He probably hasn’t had a moment to himself like this since, well, graduate school.


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Janet Tyson February 6, 2012 - 10:21

Amazing that new artists even have time for making art. And yet, a lot of stuff still seems to be getting made.


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