The Business of Art: Making the Most of Professional Organizations
The creative professions tend to attract individuals with independent natures. Yet writers have affiliated with International PEN since 1921, and composers with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) since 1914. The College Art Association (CAA) came into existence in 1911 as a professional organization for both art historians and artists, in particular those who teach at the college level. What are the benefits to artists of belonging to an organization like CAA? And how have such organizations evolved to serve the needs of emerging artists and young professionals?
Professional organizations are an essential platform for communication within a field, on the one hand, and between a field and the outside world, on the other. Their conferences and publications enable members to share work, learn from one another, and stay current. The encouragement, criticism, and recognition one receives from one’s peers in these settings is extremely valuable, and very different from that received from the public. In the higher-education context, it is for all practical purposes the only kind that really counts.
Associations are an important vehicle for policy making. For instance, CAA has developed more than two dozen sets of standards and guidelines for artists and art historians. The guidelines on professional practices for artists, adopted in 1977, deal with issues such as safety, contracts with art dealers, and public commissions. The most recent, adopted in 2002, address the hiring by museums of guest curators, exhibitor/artists, and catalogue essayists as outside contractors. Eight others discuss practical career development topics such as the format of résumés and c.v.’s, and the handling of works in new media.
Advocacy is a way for a field to speak with one voice. National arts and humanities organizations advocate in Washington for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Part of this effort is the continuing push for restoration of the NEA’s grants to individual artists. Other key advocacy issues include censorship and freedom of expression, copyright law, and fair-market-value tax deductions for artists who donate their works. Furthermore, some artists’ organizations—such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the International Sculpture Center, and the Society for Photographic Education—sponsor exhibitions, fairs, and festivals for the general public. At the same time, the limited opportunities for artists to exhibit challenging and experimental work is a current concern, to which a number of artists’ organizations are responding.
The best place to see a professional organization in action is at its annual meeting. One of the largest is CAA’s annual conference, held every February, which features more than 150 sessions (including a “conference-within-the-conference” calledARTspace), member and student exhibitions, a Book & Trade Fair, and extensive career services. Whether an annual meeting draws 100 participants, in the case of a specialized or local organization, or several thousand, in the case of CAA, its lifeblood is networking, both formal and informal.
It can be intimidating to face a room filled with unfamiliar colleagues. My advice is to (1) come prepared and (2) don’t be shy. Many of the other attendees are in the same boat (and the rest once occupied a similar vessel). Introduce yourself—to your peers, to artists whose work you admire, to the field’s “stars.” Carry business cards, copies of your résumé, and slides or a disk of your work. If you already have a mentor, ask that person to help you meet the right people. If you don’t have a mentor, look for one. Often the most helpful critiques and assistance come from someone who, until recently, knew nothing about you or your work.
Don’t neglect the trade show. Here you’ll find (and often obtain at a discount) the most recently published books, the most specialized art materials, and the most up-to-date editions of software. There are also opportunities to meet authors and artists and to view demonstrations. Many vendors have been around a long time and are excellent sources of contacts and information.
Over the past few years, economic conditions and a rapidly changing work environment have led professional organizations to become more proactive about career development. This, for example, has long been a priority for CAA, which not only provides career services at its annual conference but also publishes a bimonthly positions listing and administers a fellowship program for M.F.A. and Ph.D. candidates that bridges the gap between study and work. In 2002, CAA took some of its career services on the road, co-sponsoring with the Getty Research Institute a professional development workshop and seminar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. More workshops of this type are being planned, and similar ones are available from other sources (some listed below).
Most artists will find it useful to become a member of more than one professional organization. There are about fifty organizations in art and art history that are affiliated societies of CAA. Many others exist that focus on a particular region of the country, medium, or member interest. It is a good idea to research as many as possible on the Internet and by speaking to colleagues, then determine which organizations are the best fit for your professional identity and personal goals. Don’t spread yourself too thin, but don’t pigeonhole yourself, either.
For further information, visit the College Art Association’s website. As a member, you will gain access to publications and members-only Webpages.
Susan Ball is currently Interim Director of Programs at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Dr. Ball holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University and has 25 years of professional experience in the visual arts—as a professor, scholar, museum professional, and nonprofit agency director. Prior to joining NYFA, she was chief administrative officer at the College Art Association, professor of art history at the University of Delaware, and the director of government and foundation affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also a former board-member of NYFA.