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From job opportunities to studio space, a creative spirit will be key for art school graduates in the coronavirus economy.

There can be opportunities in disruption. That’s an important piece of advice that experts have for this year’s class of college graduates, and it is especially true for the thousands of young artists and artisans who will be leaving art school and looking to establish themselves in the workforce in the coming months.

“This is an opportunity for really young, untested people to be the greatest generation,” said Belena Chapp, director of the Locks Career Center at Moore College of Art and Design.  “It really is.”

Even before the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 began to shut down industries across the country, transitioning from art school to the real world could be a daunting task. With an unprecedented crisis now forcing employers and consumers to alter their behavior in previously unimaginable ways, artists and artisans will need to be similarly adaptive as they look to begin their professional careers.

With that in mind, we here at NextFab decided to spend some of our quarantine time reaching out to several veteran members of the creative community to solicit advice for this year’s crop of graduates as it attempts to find its place in the coronavirus economy.  

The consensus opinion: now, more than ever, diversification is going to be key.

Image courtesy of member Engrave My Achievement Personal Laser Art

Diversify your skill set

Growing up, Wilfredo Hernandez hated math. He wasn’t good at it. He didn’t like it. And because he planned on becoming a professional actor, he decided he didn’t need it. One day, during an argument with his father, he shared his view.

“I said, ‘I’m going to be a theater artist — I don’t need to know anything about math,’” recalls Hernandez, who now advises artists as the consulting and community coordinator at CultureWorks in Philadelphia. “My dad said, ‘You couldn’t be more wrong.’”

Turns out, father knew best. After founding a community theater company in high school and running it throughout college, Hernandez realized that he was more interested in management and production than he was in acting. In 2007, after graduating from SUNY Empire State with a degree in Theater Arts and Administration, he entered a labor market that was about to enter a recession. As he bounced from one job to another, he realized that the skills he needed to survive were those that transcended art.

“Organization, communication, team building, managing — just a solid understanding of project management,” Hernandez says. “I knew that I needed to develop these kinds of skills to be employable. Taking an idea from concept to execution is what theater, and art in general, are all about. You envision something and you materialize it.”

Hernandez’s advice to young artisans and artists is to invest in the development of those skills. Take an online business class. Learn about marketing. Try to gain some experience with budgeting and non-profit management.

That’s a view shared by Belena Chapp, the director of the Locks Career Center at Moore College of Art and Design

“Information right now is kind of a currency,” she says. “Knowledge is kind of a currency.”

Diversify your revenue streams

According to Chapp, who spent 17 years as the director of museums at the University of Delaware before moving on to Moore, one of the biggest mistakes that a young artist can make is to become too narrowly fixated on a specific goal.

“We are particularly inclined to tell people that you get to follow your passion,” she says “Discipline, hard work, commitment, resiliency, practice, practice, practice. You create skills that are valuable. When you are valuable, your passion will come. And that is a really important lesson to younger people.”

Instead of applying for jobs and waiting around for responses with the hope of finding “The One,” artists should consider a variety of gigs where their skills might express themselves. That could mean freelance opportunities in graphic design or marketing. It could mean community-based instruction in museums or art centers. It could mean teaching an art class at a senior center. It could mean selling creations on Etsy, or building a social media following, or pitching your illustration skills to a website that is not visually compelling. 

“If you’re looking for your dream job, you’re having a difficult time facing this shifting landscape,” Chapp says. “I feel like the investment of my time is wasted if I apply for 75 jobs and hear back from none versus taking the time to think about how you are going to diversify your income stream.”

Diversify your worldview 

Neil Kleinman often asks his students to participate in a thought exercise. 

“Imagine a future where you can’t make a living doing what you do as an artist, where nobody values what you do,” says Kleinman, a longtime professor at the University of the Arts and the director of the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy. “What would you do with all the skills you’ve acquired? Your physical skills, your artistic eye, your ability to distinguish color, your creativity — how would you use them so that they are of value to you and to the community?”

That might seem daunting for artists and artisans who entered school with the thought of making a career out of their specialty. But some of the most famous artists in history were those who refused to pigeonhole their talents. 

Leonardo DaVinci may have been one of the most talented painters and sculptors of his age, but he also leveraged his artistic talents into commercial jobs that ranged from mapmaker to engineer. In short, there is nothing unartistic about monetizing one’s abilities through more practical applications.

“What we discover any time there is a (financial) crisis, is that you don’t have a choice,” Kleinman says. “You’re not selling out. You’re surviving. You learn how to transfer the skills that you have into other opportunities. And that can be really exciting.”

Become part of a community

When we opened NextFab’s first facility in 2009 in University City, our vision had as much to do with the people who would utilize the space as it was with the space itself. In addition to providing makers with access to the tools, technology, and workspace to pursue their artistic visions, we wanted to create a community where artists from a wide array of disciplines could learn from and grow alongside each other. 

On art school campuses, that sort of community exists by default. In the real world, it is important for artists to build their own.  

“Young artists just need help, and they need compassion, and they need generosity of spirit amongst themselves, as well as people in older generations,” Chapp said. “This is a time to share what you know. This isn’t a time to build a wall.”

NextFab is pleased to offer recent art school students and graduates a 20 percent discount on our Standard Membership levels for up to one year past graduation at our makerspaces in South Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and downtown Wilmington. Contact us here for more details.