Special Business Degrees Mark Shift From Making Art to Managing It

By Daniel Grant

Historically, an art school was a place to study with a noted master. In time, it became an institution where one studies with a choice of teachers in numerous fine-art and design fields to obtain a college degree, then a master’s degree, and maybe even a doctorate. Evolving still further, a growing number of art colleges are now offering business degrees on the undergraduate and master’s levels for students seeking to work in management or, more generally, the business side of the arts.

The most recent example of this shift from making art to making art happen is the 14-month master in professional studies in the business of art and design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, which is set to take in its first students in May. This is a low-residency program, in which students will take 30 credits, mostly through online courses from their homes (there are three long-weekend residencies—at the beginning, middle, and end of the program). Students will study such strictly business subjects as traditional and social-media marketing, contracts and negotiation, finance and accounting, taxes, and public speaking.

Like many other independent art colleges, the Maryland Institute has a career-services office and provides professional-practices classes for students who want to learn what it is to be in the business of selling something. But, said David Gracyalny, dean of the School for Professional and Continuing Studies, “students found these classes to be an introduction to what they didn’t know. They learned enough to realize they were unprepared, but they hadn’t learned how to prepare themselves. What was missing were the skills to be small entrepreneurs, and that’s what we designed this program to train them in.”

The Maryland Institute program is intended for designers who seek to work in the corporate realm and fine artists who are looking to manage a nonprofit art gallery or organization or just their own careers. In contrast, the four-year business-of-art-and-design full-time undergraduate program at Ringling College of Art and Design, in Florida, which took in its first students in the fall of 2008, is aimed strictly at the design field. Students take a mix of liberal arts, studio art, and business courses (including accounting, economics, finance, marketing, psychology of marketing, statistics, strategic planning, and “entrepreneurship”) toward a bachelor’s degree that will put them in a position to “manage a design firm, work as a curator or administrator at a museum, open a gallery—any number of things,” said Wanda Chaves, director of the Ringling College program.

Chaves said the program grew out of the recognition that the people with business backgrounds didn’t understand how to work with creative types, while artists were generally unschooled in how to manage an organization. In the design and entertainment fields, “corporations and artists are often butting heads,” she said. “It’s left brain versus right brain. Artists don’t always work in a linear fashion; they don’t want to send e-mails to people down the hall; they may not get that every day past deadline you’re losing money.” A manager who understands both worlds is more likely to understand the value of a well-run business while providing artists freedom and a flexible environment.

At almost every college and university art program, students take a variety of introductory studio-art courses, declaring their major by their second or third year. At Ringling, applicants seek admission directly into the business-of-art-and-design program, and they begin a set curriculum from their freshman year.

That is not to say they are segregated within the college. Students in the business-of-art-and-design program take the same liberal-arts courses, apart from the business classes, as other design and fine-arts students at Ringling. They experience the same processes, frustrations, and critiques in their studio-art courses as other students. However, the studio courses are taken only with advertising-design majors and not the fine artists and illustrators, because they aren’t expected to have as strong an art background. “You can’t assume they will compete with students who have been doing art since the age of 4,” Chaves stated. “That wouldn’t be fair to our students or to the teachers.”

Higher GPA Standards

In fact, students looking to enter the business-of-art-and-design program are not required to submit a portfolio when they apply, but their high-school academic record needs to be better than those of most of their fine-arts and illustration counterparts. The incoming grade point average of the business-of-art-and-design student tends to be better than 3.0—or a B-plus—while the overall average of other students at Ringling is 2.5, or a C-plus. “We look for applicants who took math and had good grades in math, because our business courses are not watered down,” Chaves said. “We don’t want to accept students who won’t be successful.”

Ringling is not the only art college with a business-degree program, although it is only one of two in the United States that offers that on the undergraduate level. The other is Parsons the New School for Design, in New York City, whose design and management program began in 2004. Raoul Rickenberg, an assistant professor at Parsons who earned a B.F.A. in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design and later an M.A. and a Ph.D. in media studies and communication from Stanford University, stated that the program attracts a “broad range of students.” They include some who received a bachelor’s degree elsewhere but are looking for “an integrative approach” to design and business, some who “want to go to art school and see this business program as a way to sell the idea to their parents,” and some “who are interested in the arts and want to be involved in them. They may not have the technical skills themselves and don’t see themselves as designers. We teach these students that they are designers, working in a different medium.”

Parsons students in the design and management program often work in teams, sometimes even with illustrators and designers in other programs at the college. “They learn what kind of research a photographer might have to do, and how long it takes,” Rickenberg said. And their papers are not simply handed in and graded—as they might be in a traditional business school—but discussed and evaluated in a class critique. Cameron Tonkinwise, chair of design thinking and sustainability within the Parsons School of Design Strategies, described this as a “studio-based learning environment.”

Master’s Programs

Most other art-college business-degree programs are on the master’s level, primarily aimed at designers working in companies where they have “hit a ceiling. They want to get hired in upper-level positions or be more successful in their current roles, but they need to be able to articulate the value of their skills in a way that management can understand,” said Nathan Shedroff, chair of the M.B.A.-in-design-strategy program at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco. The two-year low-residency program began in the fall of 2008, and two-thirds of its students have undergraduate degrees in one or another area of design.

Shedroff, who earned an undergraduate design degree at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, and an M.B.A. in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School, in San Francisco, noted that, in most businesses, “design is seen as tactical, rather than strategic, and isn’t integrated into overall planning. It is difficult for designers to convince their peers in management that they have something to offer,” because they lack an understanding of the “language, processes and concerns of their business peers.”

He said a significant difference between a business-school curriculum at an art college and one at a university is the more hands-on approach that is encouraged for design students.

“We place a big emphasis on learning by making and doing in our program, and that’s an approach that comes from the design traditions. Traditional business schools have their students create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint plans and that’s it. Our students go out into the world and engage real customers, build prototypes of their solutions, improve their work based on critique, and often present their solutions in more innovative ways than PowerPoint decks.”

Critique, Shedroff said, is a concept specific to art programs and “only designers, artists, and architects learn to handle critique as a way to improve their work. Most others never have this experience so they come to view constructive feedback as negative feedback.” Artists and designers “learn to go into the process knowing that their work won’t be—and can’t be—perfect the first time. That’s a process most others aren’t familiar with and it’s a different expectation that leads to better innovation.”

Art schools and business schools have found common ground through a broadening of the meaning of design. A design is not just a picture of something to be made but “the experience of how people move through space,” said Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. For example, students at the dual degree master-of-design/M.B.A. program of the Illinois Institute of Technology design not just the waiting room at a hospital but the intake process; the “emotional experience of being in a hospital” is on the figurative drawing board, the institute says. In Andrew Taylor’s words, art-school business programs are producing “artists of social space.”

2 Different Destinations

There are far more university-based arts administration programs exist in the United States and Canada—most are members of the Association of Arts Administration Educators)—than hybrid art-school business-degree programs, but Taylor noted that there is a growing overlap in what is taught in the respective programs. The main difference is where graduates tend to go.

“Traditionally, most arts-administration programs prepare students to work in nonprofit and cultural organizations,” Taylor said, while art-school business graduates are more apt to work in the for-profit realm, such as running design and architectural firms.

For instance, Pratt Institute, an independent art school in New York City, has a two-year arts-and-cultural-management graduate program “designed to prepare arts and cultural professionals to assume leadership roles within the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit, public and private sector arts, and cultural agencies.” In contrast, graduates of the Parsons program primarily become business managers for, or partners of, design firms, Tonkinwise said, adding that some have become “strategic design” consultants for manufacturers.

Similarly, the M.F.A. in design management offered by the Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, has a for-profit emphasis: “the needs of the marketplace,” with a “focus on the bottom line,” said Tom Gattis, chair of the program. “Design thinking,” he said, evaluates “the context in which design decisions affect products and services used by consumers.” The approach also complements “traditional linear analysis, case studies and planning methods that business schools teach, in a way that will foster innovation.”
The ideal graduate of these art-school business-degree programs can think visually and communicate in the language of business. The older struggle to convince artists that art is a business has been replaced at these schools by the aim of giving business a more creative edge.

But what seems most remarkable is simply the fact that one may now go to an art school and never do any actual art.

“That’s true,” Rickenberg, of Parsons, said, “but now you learn the art of doing all sorts of things, including business.”

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006) and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (second edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users Jekert Gwapo and Poitin Jimmie)

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