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Sunday Times STLive By René Vollgraaff, 2011-03-05

Career Advice: Art will put more than a crust on your table

TRAINING FOR THE FUTURE: Art teacher Dan Cook says he has to train pupils for careers that don't yet exist Picture KATHERINE MUICK-MERE
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Stereotypes intimidate many wanting a job in this diverse field, writes René Vollgraaff

Not all parents would countenance their child studying art rather than law, medicine or engineering. But in fact, the field offers a wide variety of career options for those who are prepared to work hard.

Kathryn Smith, senior lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University, says prospective art students are often unaware of how many diverse jobs are available in the field.

"They include everything from studio-based work; teaching at school or tertiary level; arts writing and journalism; publishing; curating for museums or galleries; initiating and co-ordinating arts-orientated social investment projects in the non-governmental organisational sector; arts administration for cultural agencies and festivals; working collaboratively with film and theatre; design and advertising; or simply using your creative talent to invent a career for yourself," she says.

Dan Cook, a teacher of art theory at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, says the field is evolving so fast that he often has to prepare children for jobs in art that don't even exist yet.

He says whereas many people still have a romantic idea of the arts - imaging creative people starving in garrets and dying penniless - this is not necessarily true.

"Think of William Kentridge," says Cook. "He is considered one of the top artists in the world and his earnings are in the millions.

"The whole La Bohème idea of struggling artists has been disproved over and over. Even some very mediocre artists have been making a comfortable living in the past years," says Cook.

Irene Botes, head of marketing and communication at the faculty of arts of the Tshwane University of Technology, says the notions of a career in arts not being a "real" job - and that artists are generally poor - have changed over the years.

"The career possibilities for different art programmes are only limited to a person's imagination, talent and work ethic."

Cook says when parents approach him with doubts about their children's plans to follow a career in art, he simply asks them to name one man-made thing that was not designed by someone.

"Children should look for themselves at the world around them," says Cook.

"People are ill-informed about the impact of design on their lives. There is always a designer at the base of everything we work with. The car that you drive and the pen that you hold and even the box of the computer you work on all had to be designed by an industrial designer, who is an artist and who had art training.

"The problem is finding the right niche, and that is where we as teachers are important, as we can direct people into what we think that forte should be."

But all is not lost for those who didn't study art from an early age at school, says Cook.

"With dance and music it is a little different, but training in visual arts is not always necessary to study art. Sometimes (early training in fine arts) is not even desirable, as it can create a sort of preconceived idea of what art really is," he says.

However, it is important for prospective artists to get some kind of tertiary qualification.

"The world is evolving so fast. A person needs some kind of formal access to those new ideas," says Cook.

"It is very rare for a good artist to be completely untrained, the kind of Mozart or Picasso syndrome. A child genius is very rare," says Cook.

Smith agreed that studying art at school wasn't necessarily an advantage:

"You have as much chance qualifying for a visual arts degree at Stellenbosch University without having taken arts as a subject," she said.

Although talent is important for a career in art, Botes says talent which is backed up by a tertiary qualification expands one's career opportunities and lead to more exposure, specifically with regards to how various disciplines in the arts interact with each other.

"A professional qualification also increases one's credibility," she says.

One area in which art training often fails at both school and tertiary level is in the provision of business and financial skills, which artists need if they are to market themselves and manage their careers.

"Business skills are a huge problem," says Cook.

"We artists often fall short on that, and although the school does offer business and administration as a subject, it is not part of the art department."

Although few South African tertiary institutions teach business or management skills to art students - apart from some optional extra subjects - this seems to be changing.

Botes says the subjects of entrepreneurship and arts administration are major components of all programmes at the Tshwane University of Technology.

Smith says the art courses at Stellenbosch University include training in designing and producing catalogues and websites; writing CVs and artist statements; loan agreements and exhibition contracts.

Not everybody who studies art at school or tertiary level ends up working in art.

Cook says only a small percentage of his pupils eventually follow a career in art.

Stereotypes - such as artists being poor - are partly to blame.

"There is also a feminist theory that artists ... are treated like women - whether they are women or men," he says.

"Another stereotype is that one has to be sloppy and dress the role to be an artist.

"But ... if you see people like Judith Mason or Kentridge in the street, there would be nothing to clue you in to the fact that they are not just artists, but reputable artists," says Cook.

"But you get these 'wannabees' who spend all their time trying to dress the part or act differently."

Cook says the essence of a career in art is hard work.

"It depends on yourself," he says. "As an artist, you are not like an office worker who can park off at your desk and not do any work.

"There is a relationship between your earnings. Talent is important, but I firmly believe in the saying of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration."

Apply early to audition

The NSA admits pupils based on auditions or portfolios, depending on which art direction a pupil wants to follow, as well as a test and an interview. This usually takes place in August, but prospective pupils should apply as early as possible. Apart from the regular school subjects, the school offers visual art, design, drama, dance, light music and classical music as subjects. About a third of pupils live in the school's hostels as pupils from throughout South Africa, and Botswana and Zimbabwe, attend the school. The school's annual Festival of Fame, which runs from March 14-19, is part of its recruitment drive and features performances and exhibitions from pupils and professional artists. Phone 0113396539 for more information.