At a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a lovely and gracious couple here in Shorewood, Wisconsin last night, I met a grad student from Bangladesh who attends the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She’s in one of the sciences but started a conversation about the arts after dessert. At the table with us sat another student from Bangladesh and three from India, all earning degrees in the sciences for a distinct reason that quickly would be revealed.
As each one of these students shared, a career in the arts is not usually considered an option by international students in the U.S. because there is no clear track to earning income that way. Even if they don’t like the direction/major/degree/career they choose, personal enjoyment is irrelevant. Being able to support oneself is all the matters.
The chat about arts versus sciences is especially relevant to me right now, a week before I host a workshop in Milwaukee about making better business decisions as an artist. Perhaps it’s not simply “better” decision-making we will discuss. It will be about expanding our options as artists by layering a business perspective onto it, making decisions that lead to income, and creating a new belief system about income and the arts.
During last night’s discussion I explained to these international students how many U.S. born students who choose to study the arts and start a career often miss getting practical information and insight about their field of choice. When I studied Speech & Theatre as an undergrad, I didn’t take any business courses or consider myself a small business. Later when I began my acting career after stints in radio, TV news, and TV programs, I didn’t bring a business approach to the work. I said yes to virtually every audition, even if it meant spending hundreds of dollars in a month for fuel and not generating a steady income to support myself.
I’m older and wiser now and using that experience to save others hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in the pursuit of their career in arts and entertainment. Next weekend’s workshop is a mix of friendly advice and tough love I wish I had in 2004 when I lost a job in TV news and decided to start acting. I came up with a list of 10 key decisions every aspiring and working artist must ask themselves and believe me, I am asking myself all the same questions again.
So to the students—high school or college, international or U.S. born—who choose to bypass a career in the arts for the reasons mentioned above, I say let’s rethink how we limit our career choices. As an advocate of the arts, I feel we owe it ourselves to explore acting, painting, photography, or any art form while we’re 16, 18, or 21 rather than choose a career we may find lifeless and uninspiring.
If you’re in the Milwaukee area or know someone who is here, click on the link below for the workshop, share it, and consider attending. You just may see one of the international students there discovering there is a whole lot more to the arts than serving as something to observe from afar.