It is often a lonely endeavor for artists, even those who have college degrees, to map a successful journey through the art industry. This is the result of art departments facilitating art practices without producing viable workers; of archaic perspectives that do not classify many art practices as work; and of elitism in labor practices in the arts.

This week I spoke with professional artist Brent Fogt (MSFS ’85) in Chicago about his experiences in academics and the arts. Fogt’s story highlights the need for educational and professional programs that can help artists identify and pursue potential employment opportunities.

After graduating from Georgetown, Fogt worked at the US Department of Commerce under the Presidential Management Internship program. While working there, he began spending lunch breaks at various D.C. museums that were walking distance from his office. This unstructured exposure to art institutions eventually inspired him to shift focus from political science to the arts.

Fogt attained his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1997 from the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. He appreciated how the program exposed him to art history in addition to studio practices. Georgetown also recognizes the importance of both fields and merged the two disciplines in 2007, creating today’s Art & Art History Department.

Fogt subsequently pursued graduate studies at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design. His practice then took him to Jackson, Miss., as an Assistant Professor of Art at Millsaps College, and in 2010, he moved to Chicago.

The 21st century art world does not have clearly defined paths to employment, similar to disciplines like political science. Fogt and his classmates in the arts were encouraged to be entrepreneurial in order to succeed, even if that meant engaging with the work force outside of the arts.

Many university art departments do not describe themselves as pre-professional programs. Though they might include professional development components, many prefer to stay inside the ivory tower to facilitate individual insights and discoveries without the confines of social or financial realities.

This choice offers several advantages. First, creative practices benefit from an intellectual environment not shaped or evaluated by deliverables or political trends. Second, students need to establish a minimum level of personal awareness and priorities before accurately identifying their roles in the industry at large.

However, the confines of the ivory tower also impose certain limitations. The arts are one of many sectors in the economy where readily accessible paths to sustainable long-term work opportunities are both few and elusive. Even superlative academic training often leaves artists to independently build a functional career. The reality is that many give up.

This is not an efficient model. Resources are used to train and prepare people in the arts but not how to work in the arts. This problem is compounded by a cultural resistance to recognizing artists as workers and art as something of communal value. It would help if artists and academics worked to replace that narrative with one that duly places the arts alongside other professions that effect political, economic, social and communal lives and institutions.

One way to achieve this is to balance the ivory-tower environment with real-life training. Education for some professions already works this way. Pre-law and pre-medical programs pair classroom instruction with internships and residencies to facilitate the transition from the classroom to the workplace. Art departments should develop a version of this model.

Transitioning from the classroom to a job in the arts, however, hinges on a broader cultural recognition of the artist as a worker. Current econometrics fails to classify many art practices as labor, reflecting choices and traditions that need to be challenged.

For instance, gross domestic product growth typically infers improved well-being. However, treating victims of a train wreck or health problems caused by urban pollution increases GDP, without prompting a celebration of train wrecks or health problems. Artists are among numerous labor groups undervalued because excessive reliance on neo-liberal econometrics distorts the perceived value of their work.

Sustainable work options for artists are also limited because of the art industry’s winner-take-all mindset. Other industries, sports for example, also often reward only the most famous or highest-achieving. Though the quality difference between some artists’ work might be negligible, the difference in income or financial stability might be colossal. To redress this inequality will require a broad cultural shift from elitist to democratic practices and, again, the experts — artists and academics — should shape the campaign.

Fogt appreciates his time as a student of the arts because it pushed his work to new levels and taught him the value of being entrepreneurial in the 21st century art economy. He assesses himself by using both external and internal criteria. He considers participation in exhibitions, residencies and workshops as confirmation of his status as a professional artist. He also considers it affirming when working on his art brings him joy.

Fogt started a BOLT studio art residency at the Chicago Artists Coalition this July. This yearlong residency will allow Fogt to create new works and expose him to local critics and curators, as well as the work and processes of the other residents. This exposure will advance both his production as an artist and his career as a worker. Programs like these are important for helping those who work in the arts to find viable options for employment.

To learn more about Fogt’s work, visit his website.

bruceheadshotBruce McKaig is a professor in the Art & Art History Department at Georgetown University. 

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