"So, how'd you get into the art business?" people often ask me.
As a former gallery owner, (and to some extent, now as a fine arts curator at the Indiana State Museum), I'm frequently questioned about how I entered this world of curating and what kind of training prepared me for the work. Unlike most careers, where you could probably draw a straight line between an academic degree and the particular profession, the gallery business trajectory is a bit blurry and winding.
To begin with, I started with art studio courses at Indiana University in the late 1970's, then finished with a degree in art education -- both disciplines that served me when I started Ruschman Gallery in the early 1980's. But actually, learning the gallery business and the business of art, well, that was pretty much on-the-job -- trial and error. I observed, listened and learned from more experienced art dealers I respected and did my best to emulate what worked for them.
For the most part, higher learning institutions do not do a great job teaching artists about this subject. Most of the courses offered that allude to the subject barely brush up against the edges of what it takes to make it in the art world, or the skills necessary to succeed from a business perspective. I think most artists who have managed to carve out a successful career would agree that success is the result of their ability to "figure it out," coupled with their ingenuity and perseverance.
To address this issue in my own small way, I teach part-time at the University of Indianapolis on the city's southside. In addition to coordinating exhibitions for the Christel DeHaan Fine Art Center Gallery, I also teach a course called "Gallery Studies," in which I give UIndy students hands-on experience in running a nonprofit university venue.
Fine Arts department Chair, Jim Veiwegh and I designed the curriculum to provide students with not only book knowledge, but the skills needed to stage an actual exhibit: designing a show, hanging and lighting the artwork and writing and placing labels. Students learn how exhibitions are chosen, what steps go into the planning, installing and promoting a show, along with the opportunity to work with an artist or artists to successfully stage an exhibition.
My students are currently working with Tamar Kander and Jamas Brooke, a painter and ceramic artist from Nashville, Indiana, for their upcoming show in the gallery, Clay, Form, Paint & Texture, which runs through March 14th. Much in the same way I chose my mentors in the gallery business, I believe there's nothing more valuable in terms of experience for a student or young artist than to observe and work with an experienced artist. They need to talk with them about their work and career path, see how they interact with galleries, customers and the press, and learn why they select particular works for an exhibit. The list goes on and on. Combine this with the university gallery and classroom setting and the student should begin to grasp the very basics of what goes into running a gallery and the fundamentals of a career as a professional artist.
From what I've witnessed and past students have told me, this course has been successful. It provides a balanced approach to teaching material that is not available in the typical classroom setting, and it helps prepare art students for opportunities as an intern and in the workplace. Former UIndy student, Emma Converse, went on from the class to first intern at the Harrison Center for the Arts, then to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. She is now earning her graduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Most of the skills learned are readily applicable to commercial and museum galleries, alternative spaces and temporary art installations. And while it's one piece of the puzzle, I believe the experience and lessons learned can instill confidence and proficiency where needed most -- the real world.