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Art students take on the working world

At universities and colleges across the country students are graduating, job hunting and getting jobs. Is it any different for students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago? Does being an artist make this process inherently different?

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How some SAIC graduates are seizing their futures with both hands

The end of the spring term is fast approaching and, for some of us, that means it’s time to find a summer job. For those who are graduating it could mean it’s time to find a this-could-be-for-the-rest-of-my-life job. At universities and colleges across the country students are graduating, job hunting and getting jobs. Is it any different for students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago? Does being an artist make this process inherently different? If it does make it different perhaps it is in the nature of being a creative person. Many SAIC graduates will want to continue to create their artwork and many won’t settle or feel comfortable with a nine to five corporate job.

The good news is that when you have the ability to be creative in your artwork, you have the ability to be creative in structuring your life. It is possible to use your creativity to make a work-life that supports you in all the ways you choose. Some graduates will go the route of finding a job that supports them financially, yet still fits into their personal aesthetic and allows time for pursuing their own creative endeavors. Yvonne Dutchover is graduating from the MFA Writing program this spring and has already secured a job as a grant writer at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. “I knew I wanted to do something with writing, and by working for an arts and cultural institution as a grant writer, I use my skills but also support an organization I believe in. I would say to students to try to find a “day job” that pays the bills, but also gives you some satisfaction since that’s where you spend most of your day. Grant writing is perfect for me because I write and edit, which keeps me sharp, but it isn’t so exhausting that I don’t have the time or energy for my own work. It’s also interdisciplinary, with visual arts, performing arts, educational programs, etc., so it’s interesting and fun to work there.”

Outside of her “day job,” Dutchover’s goal for her first year or two after graduation is to continue working on and finish writing her novel. It is fortunate that she has found a job that affords her the energy to put time into doing this, but even so she is planning to apply to short-term artist’s residency programs. “I am able to write sections of the novel while also working full time, but a couple of weeks or a month of uninterrupted time to work on my book would be a big boost in helping me finish.”

Odie Lindsey is also graduating from SAIC’s MFA Writing program this spring. While he says he plans to get a job, it is out of the necessity to generate income. “I’d like to teach, but jobs are insanely not-there for recent MFA’s. Too bad SAIC, being so culturally-forward, doesn’t offer more residency-type opportunities. Can you imagine what could be done if as much creative energy was put towards cultivating the work of just-graduating students [as] enrollment?” This desire to continue the opportunity to be in such a supportive environment as SAIC is born out of his previous experiences in the work day world. “I worked in music forever, which was worse than working in insurance—no matter how cool the clients were.” He adds, “May you artists and writers never have to work to promote someone else’s creative efforts—save in academia. There is no such thing as a day job without compromise, no matter how hard you try and justify it to yourself. Thus, please compromise on your own time, your own dime. Sell insurance, not yourself.”

While you’re still at SAIC, though, Lindsey advises, “take advantage…It’s a great forum for people to come together and present work: written, visual, other, all, etc.” Again, Lindsey is speaking from experience here. During his stay at SAIC Lindsey was one of the founding members of Telophase, a publication that organizes shows and performances. The publication was spawned out of the writing department by the hard work of a few individuals, a supportive faculty, and collaboration from many different artists. “The big difference between this and so many other potential arts-groups is that as opposed to just talking, we actually went out, found a space, worked the space, sent press releases, posted things at SAIC, edited submissions, put a book together, held a show, etc…it was certainly an amazing learning experience, alongside a great feeling of accomplishment.” Telophase has grown from focusing on SAIC’s writing department to reaching out to other artists and departments at SAIC. Now, there are current submissions are coming in from all across the country.

When Lindsey talks of his experiences with Telophase a theme emerges— much of the experience of being at SAIC comes from collaborative projects. “For me, it’s about the romance of working together…We [the co-founders] are all fairly different individuals, and the idea that our brains can come together to fight, fuck, live, breathe…create and melt into each other is the most rewarding part.” He goes on to add, though, that while “the business stuff, the press, etc., is all secondary. It’s a pain, but it’s also a reality. In fact, overall, the most important things might be the ‘un-fun’ elements: planning, press, marketing, binding, cleaning toilets at the space, meeting, making excuses, etc.” Given how important these elements are to making something like Telophase successful, Lindsey is concerned that “most of us aren’t given the opportunity to experience and learn about this while in school.” He’d like to see this practical side emphasized a bit more by the administration at SAIC.

Other SAIC graduates also have managed to find their own ways to learn these business skills and bring them into the work they do post graduation. Shannon Stratton (MFA Fiber and Material Studies; 2003), Sonia Yoon (MFA Sculpture; 2002), and Jeff Ward (MFA Sculpture; 2002) all work at Three Walls Gallery ( which is a not-for-profit artist-in-residency and art center in Chicago. All of them had some sort of arts administration or management experience before coming to Three Walls where each of them is currently an unpaid director. Both Stratton and Yoon gained management experience while at SAIC by working as gallery managers of 1926. Each of them also worked on other projects before coming to Three Walls. Ward began The Pond, a curating collective and exhibition site, with his classmates David Coyle (MFA Painting and Drawing, 2002), Pete Fagundo (MFA Painting and Drawing, 2003), and Howard Fonda (MFA Painting and Drawing; 2001). Ward explains: “My transition from student-hood to civilian life was largely already made through The Pond. That project was started while I was still in school to advance a conversation wherein art and artists’ practice was seen to be both an inherently noble and valuable contributor to culture and worthy of rigorous critique and loyal championing. Taking a position at Three Walls, I spied a similar fidelity to art as well as a forum to continue the kind of work I had been doing in an also worthwhile and more community-oriented venue.”

While each of them still has to find other ways to support themselves financially, Yoon says: “I earn my living using self-taught skills to do what I have been privileged to gain from going to art schools. Each, however, mutually generate skills and motivation for the other…Some of us still produce our own artwork. Although challenging, we manage to succeed in presenting our work frequently through other venues.” When asked for advice Ward says, “I find I am loathe to give practical advice…My only real sage-like wisdom would be to find a Team: Everyone should get together with some people with whom they think they can make something work and set about doing it. The most difficult thing I found after school was finding an indicator for success. Teammates can help one another arbitrate the merits of an undertaking.”

Yoon adds, “I believe with certainty that individuals are naturally drawn to each other to do things, share vision and converge endeavors. While I enthusiastically advocate teamwork, I also know that some tend to excel or manage to patch a path on their own. People seem quite clearly either to know or not know what route to take or what their dream job could be. There are valuable seeds to germinate for those not yet made aware of what they are drawn toward. I feel the best decisions that I have made were those that put me in proximity with trusted others.”

And about those business skills? Ward says they’ll come. “In my life, I have found that academic studio study is just as much training in creative problem solving as it is learning the techniques and history of crafting art objects and actions. Artists are, I believe, among the wiliest, willful and adaptive of people. In as much as this is true, the business skills come.” Some SAIC graduates have even found enjoyment in developing their business skills. Marc LeBlanc, BFA, sculpture, 2003, co-creator of 1R Gallery ( in Chicago says, “I have found that I love business as much as I love art…I still make my own work, I’ve created a balance. My luck is twofold in this regard, I make work about experience in an art community and my work is not incredibly labor-intensive. The majority of my time is for the gallery, promoting artists and working with Van [Harrison, co-director of 1R Gallery] to insure that it will all bear fruit. Running the business has certainly changed how I view art and create it however, it has not altered my ability to create and exhibit.”

1R Gallery had their first opening in November 2001 and already it is a self-sufficient business. LeBlanc notes, “Speaking as a business, we are extremely young and this is quite a feat. However, there is always room for financial growth. Choosing to do my (our) own thing has its great benefits and its awful downfalls. We make our own hours, we are the decision makers, I only answer to the IRS. Things like that. However, there are no promises, if it all comes crashing down, well you can see the pressure I’m sure.” One of the things that has helped insure the success of this and many other successful businesses is the willingness to make a plan and do the daily work. LeBlanc’s advice is “Research, plan, make sure you realize all the implications of running a business, the demands and setbacks.”

Certainly not all artists who are out there carving their own path like having to handle the business side of their ventures, but they do it anyway. Idris Goodwin, MFA Writing 2003, playwright and hip-hop artist and co-founder, artistic director, and board president of the not-for-profit Hermit Arts ( says, “I am very much a believer in the D.I.Y.D.S. (do-it-your-damn-self) approach. Most of the film makers and musicians and artists I admire all started out with self-financed product until someone took notice. I think this approach is best because it allows for the artist to perfect their craft and grow…I would much rather have someone else running the business…Eventually I’d like to be chilling out, drinking wine on the porch, and painting bad portraits of my wife. For now I just want to do my work, my way, outside of LA or New York, which means I gotta work harder than they do. It means I have to press my fingers in a lot of different soil. It means I need to attain new skills quickly. It means I need to work with others to create an infrastructure to make sure my work gets completed and promoted properly…It goes back to personal goals. What am I doing? How am I gonna do it? And when one plan fails I devise another one. I make about 100 mistakes a week, but I try to learn from all of them.”

Goodwin also emphasizes the importance of the connections made while at SAIC. “All the significant things I’ve accomplished have been the result of personal connections, but many of those personal connections came through the creation or presentation of my work.” And what are those accomplishments? “Most significantly I won a 2004-2005 NEA and Theater Communications Group playwrighting residency grant allowing me to develop a script for Freestreet Theater. I finished a full length album with my hip hop group Farm Crew called Some Other Now. We got it in to some stores here [in Chicago] thanks to a small label we signed with called Naivete Records started by an SAIC student, Emily Evans. With Emily we put together a compilation of Chicago Spoken Word Artists called New Skool Poetics. It’s a mix of teenagers, twentysomethings, and grown-ups. It’s 24 tracks: some live recordings and [some] studio recordings accentuated with musical accompaniment. Beau O’Reilly [playwrighting teacher in the writing department]…introduced me to the world of D.I.Y.D.S. theater. While at SAIC I put up three plays [one at Curious Theater Branch, O’Reilly’s theater in Roger’s Park] and after I graduated I figured…’why stop?’” And he hasn’t. Check out Goodwin’s current plays at or his CDs at

So, in closing, know what you want, and go for it, but be realistic about it. Start now, whether you’re a first year student or graduating, get out, meet people, get your work out there anyway you can. Get a day job if that’s your style but don’t forget to make time for your art. Or blaze your own trail, alone or with a team, and either figure out the business stuff or partner with someone who can. And despite saying he doesn’t give advice Ward says, “Ask questions. Dream magnanimously. [And develop a] humble ego.”

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