I was just on a panel with some of my fellow MFA students at the University of Illinois at Chicago discussing life after undergraduate study in the arts. After writing up some notes to prepare, it turned into a manifesto of sorts. The benefit of a manifesto is that it kept me from rambling as much as I would have otherwise. I should say in advance that it is a bit more focused on having an “art career” than having a good life, so at some other time I will have to write-up “good life” proposals and see where they correspond or conflict with these. For now, I give you:
10 Proposals for Life After a BFA: These are not rules, they are proposals and advice based on my personal experience.
- Do not be afraid to know how things work. This applies to research in general, or to your life and career. For example, if you seriously want to be a famous rapper – learn how people become famous rappers and what systems they have to navigate to do so. Learn it all: learn about the PR agencies, the magazines, the unpaid interns, the talent scouts, the corruption, the street teams, the fans, and especially about the contracts. If you understand how stuff works then it is easier to make an informed decision about if you really want to participate in that system or not. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.
- Try not to go to graduate school until you have done other stuff (as in, think about a minimum of 5 years of other stuff). Do something impressive. Fail at something ambitious. This will help uncover the kinds of questions that are really best addressed in grad school. Actually learn how stuff works (see #1). Try not to teach adults before you are 30 (unless you are in a co-learning environment). College students are getting older and you want to be sure you actually have enough life experience to share with them. Surely there is something else you can do for money up until that point.
- Find or create a community that gives you support, helps you continue to develop as a person and artist, and that is critical. Support other people; there is much to be gained from being a good audience, and from being the kind of audience you would want to have for your work. It is a great learning experience to be intimately aware of how other people work and to collaborate with them. And the “critical” thing is important too. If you just hang out with people who think everything you do is great, then you will not learn anything from each other. This will help you avoid shelling out that grad school money too quickly, because these are the things most people go back to school for (community and critical dialogue). Then, if you end up going to school, you will either be a natural at the grad school community thing, or conversely, not need it too much. You’ll also be a productive participant in critical dialogue.
- Sincerely and seriously participate in “conversations” or fields outside of your job and outside of art. While some people can be fulfilled by solving artistic problems with art their entire lives, many more people get inspiration by being deeply aware of other aspects of the world around them (and their art). The sincere part matters – people universally hate tourists and fakers. Seriously consider getting a graduate degree in another field. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.
- Don’t let people scam you into thinking that their little project is the most important thing in the world. These people are like parasites and they prey on smart people who just got BFA degrees. They make you think that life will be better one day if you “get exposure” or “make connections.” Think long and hard about what you actually want to be doing. Remember suggestion #1. Participate in things you want to participate in (especially if they are unpaid volunteer work). Once people start paying you to do stuff, then you have to do the internal negotiation about what you will and will not do for filthy cash money. Also, don’t be afraid to get contracts if you are working with large sums of money (whatever that means to you).
- Consider what forms of labor and administration are necessary to do different kinds of projects. Don’t get into running a gallery or a collaborative art group or whatever without thinking about how you want to raise money and make decisions in a group, and if you want to do something like that at all. Just like you shouldn’t make videos if you don’t like editing them or shouldn’t make graffiti if you aren’t ok with getting arrested.
- Get internships or crap jobs that will give you resources or inspiration. Everyone does stupid stuff for money, but be a little strategic about what stupid stuff you do.
- Do not be afraid to talk honestly about your desire for work and/or financial situation. There is a tendency in art communities and when there is a power imbalance (artist talking to curator; unemployed teacher talking to employed teacher) to hide our desires and financial realities. But there is a recession going on and it needs to be understood that some people have jobs and others do not. If you need a job and someone can give you one, politely say, “You know, sometimes I teach art and I would be happy to work with you if there was ever an opening.” That way you will not regret it as a missed opportunity. Just don’t be tacky. After all, most people are in the same boat these days.
- Organize your stuff, answer emails promptly, and don’t be afraid of spreadsheets. Being a slacker on communication is not charming. Find a Getting Things Done system. Find a balance between self-promoting and self-marginalization. Figure out what that means to you. People hate people who talk about themselves all the time but people don’t even get the chance to hate people who self-marginalize because they don’t know who they are.
- Self-Care. Do not neglect your body/mind/soul needs. There is more to life than work and it is important to have boundaries. Smart phones and smart-phone-culture can make you feel like you do not know when you are “on” or “off.” For instance, the weekend is something that people died so we could have (and I mean organized workers died). So consider relaxing on the weekend or at least one day a week.
(Thanks to Liz Birch for copy-editing, my parents for their support during my own undergraduate experience, and Dianna Frid, Beate Geissler, and Deborah Stratman for the invitation to share this with their students)