To a master's of fine arts candidate, there's no cliché worse than that of the starving artist. There is also no scarier prospect. It's a stereotype that a fine arts degree dooms the holder to years of low-income frustration, but it's one that is grounded in truth: Many emerge with multiple degrees to find few sources of funding, fewer jobs that utilize their degrees, and no idea how the art market even works.
Art schools want to ensure that their graduates can have their careers and eat, too. That's why an increasing number of programs are teaching graduate students practical business skills to help them manage a career path that can resemble a choose-your-own- adventure novel. Courses in professional practices, as many are called, are like a vaccine against postgrad artistic suffering. Taught by working artists or gallery owners, they give students a glimpse of the mechanics of the art industry and offer them the business and finance skills they need to survive. Professional practices courses vary, but most share the objective of teaching artists how to manage their finances, promote, write, and speak about their work, and find ways to support their art, such as grants, residencies, and fellowships.
It wasn't always this way. In previous decades, art schools didn't offer practical career-prep courses, preferring to have students focus on their art. They expected students to pick up the business of the art world once they were in the middle of it, learning from mistakes. "I've had professors say to me, 'Why do you want to give the secrets away when we had to work so hard for this information?' " says Cara Ober, an artist and professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. "Dealing with issues of commerce and business can be seen by some as crass or not worthy of academic study."