How do today’s arts education programs prepare students to make a decent living in the arts? Jose Antonio Bowen, Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts and Algur H. Meadows Chair and Professor of Music at Southern Methodist University, discusses the topic on a recent episode of Think.
Think airs Monday through Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. on KERA (90.1 FM)
Dean Bowen’s comments are well worth listening to for their admirably sensible but still inspiring nature. The great majority of artists are local, regional artists. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of toilers in any art form gain (or have ever gained) national name recognition — for all of the good and bad reasons that fickle pop celebrity accrues to individuals. Yet our culture peddles such fame as the great and only prize. it offers us the famous as role models, and many art schools line up to sell themselves as gateways to such stardom, despite the fact that they are essentially shortchanging the majority of applicants.
This doesn’t mean Meadows students are discouraged from pursuing their dreams of the spotlight and the pot o’ gold. Rather, arts schools are presented with an ethical challenge to tell the truth, Bowen argues. The truth is that incoming students should be more concerned with the percentage of alums who are currently working in the arts. This is the true mark of success for an artist because simply making a living in the arts is so impossibly hard in America. This isn’t necessarily because of people’s lack of talent but because of a lack of jobs that pay a living wage. I know major novelists — writers whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker and Granta — and their real income stems from teaching creative writing. They couldn’t write a word without that. Even on the level of the ‘big time,’ this is the career artist in America.
But all is not so bleak — once we appreciate and define the realm of real employment in the arts. As Bowen notes, some 80 percent of those SMU grads who were polled and who are working for corporations (hello, singing waiter!), these grads claimed their job was only temporary, something they were doing to get by, to get to the next audition. Meanwhile, the reverse was true for those who were working for themselves in their chosen fields. Some 80 percent said this was what they wanted to be doing — this dance studio, this gig as a ceramic artist. That is the successful career artist in America. They felt fulfilled, they were happy doing what they’d trained for years to do.
Yet even Juilliard — perhaps the most prestigious performing arts school in the country, the school known for its ‘connections’ in getting students up the stairway to Hollywood — even Juilliard can claim only 48 percent of their grads are working in fields even remotely connected to the arts (hello, singing waiter!).
So the idea at SMU is to get that figure to 100 percent — and to train its students to work as artists, to find relevance in their community, to be creative, self-employed business people, and not simply to wait for auditions. The business end of an arts career is not selling out because it means, Bowen says, that “you not only eat, but you make better art, you make art that people want, that changes peoples’ lives.”
As I said — well worth listening to.
I take one exception to Bowen’s comments — in an answer to a caller late in the show. She wonders why there aren’t more buskers in Dallas like the ones she sees all over Europe. Bowen feels, yes, absolutely, more students should be trying street performances.
But the lack of street buskers (and street vendors) in Dallas has much, much more to do with the city’s dearth of pedestrian-friendly areas: It’s mighty hard to sell food or music on a freeway entrance ramp. And then there’s the punishing heat, our city’s tremendous lack of shade. DART could have made a substantial difference here. Mass transit is a natural congregating area for pedestrians (and for shade). But terrified that the homeless might actually enjoy its stations, DART deliberately banned water fountains and restrooms (we don’t want to encourage the homeless — anywhere in North Texas).
So try playing the sax in the Texas sun in August without water, with a bare trickle of listeners walking by (and mostly only at lunch), with restaurants and office buildings banning access to their restrooms — and you’ll understand why we see so few musicians on the streets. I’m not saying the students shouldn’t try to find those few places here where it might actually work, only that systemic changes — in areas like downtown urban planning — will have to happen before anything like a vibrant, artistic street life will spring up in Dallas. I suspect, for instance, that with the new Woodall Rogers Park that’s going up next to the Arts District, the city will eventually try to find ways to discourage street performers. As Jim Schutze has already noted in the Observer, the current landscape design doesn’t even provide much in the way of shade.
— Jerome Weeks