Go online and you will find much discussion about the need for today’s creative practitioner to be more entrepreneurial: advice on how to promote and market one’s work, how to create an effective digital profile, how to develop core business skills; in short, how to make a living as an artist. As the president of a college that educates young creatives, it is something I think about a lot.
Creative practitioners have long known the reality of a portfolio career, in which discrete professional opportunities are pieced together over a lifetime to create a viable and meaningful career.
The fundamental problem with that model is that it suggests that creatives have very little agency in the world – that their lives are defined by existing, limited opportunities and that their best bet is to figure out how to fit within them. This thinking underlies the prevailing skepticism about the value of studying the creative disciplines – too many graduates and too few opportunities.
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Columbia College Chicago, where I became president in 2013, used to describe itself as an arts and media college.
I reject this designation as it implies a traditional training model, which focuses almost entirely on skills development and proposes a direct connection between the quality of the skills acquired and the achievement of professional success.
Consider that our mission statement, rather than promising “to produce the next generation of…” (you fill in the blank), declares that we must prepare young people “to author the culture of their times.”
We want our students to understand that this is a lifelong endeavor and that success depends less on acquiring a fixed set of skills for a specific job, and more on the ability to think, to recognize and respond to opportunity, and to judge, change and adapt. The job they’re most qualified for may not exist yet; they may need to create it, and then be prepared to recreate it as they move through life in a rapidly changing world.
While we do not expect all our students to start and run their own businesses, we know they need to be able to take ownership of how they organize and live their lives and put their creative passions to work, whether they work for themselves, someone else or both.
For these young creatives, the need for business and marketing skills is of course a given. We have an excellent curriculum of business and marketing courses and entire degree programs in arts entrepreneurship. We believe strongly in the need to equip students with these practical skills, regardless of their creative passion and interest.
But there’s something else we need to teach our students if they are to imagine and invent a better future. They must learn to collaborate with diverse partners, and to explore, experiment and engage with radical difference. This requires a deep institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion, one that gets us beyond the celebration of the makeup of our populations and opens up our curricula to multiple perspectives and histories. In the end, those with the most authentic voice – and the clearest understanding of what they value and why – will achieve the greatest successes.
An example of the experimentation characteristic of my college comes from our dance department. Our dean of fine and performing arts, Onye Ozuzu, first came to Columbia as a consultant in the dance department because of faculty concern that white students were consistently placing higher than non-white students in entrance evaluations. Because the faculty were willing to question the root causes of this phenomenon, they worked with Onye to change our incoming student assessment tool – de-emphasizing ballet, which many students, particularly African-American students, had less experience with, and bringing into the core other less traditional, but equally important dance forms, such as West African dance and hip hop.
The result was an already diverse student body galvanized and engaged in a broad and dynamic manner. Students with many different types of previous experience found the training tapping into their strengths. Former gymnasts and tap dancers or basketball players might excel in a West African or hip hop class while dancers with a ballet or musical theatre background might shine in a ballet or modern class. Diversity in the curriculum provided a structure for a greater diversity of leaders to emerge as performance models, choreographers and breakout thinkers in the student cohort. The success of the model motivated the faculty to change core requirements so that all dance students were (and still are) required to take both ballet and African dance — not either-or — mixing and blending in a way they had not previously imagined.
We now have a richer, more interesting dance department, whose students regularly push themselves to look beyond existing boundaries and whose faculty embrace the notion that a department of dance can do more than train performers and choreographers – that for many students, the study of dance is not only about career training but also about learning to explore and think creatively about the world through dance.
I accepted the presidency at Columbia College Chicago because I wanted to lead an institution committed to the principle that every young creative can achieve real world success. Our future will be better if it is enriched by the creative passion and thought that I see daily in my students; their futures will be brighter if they graduate with the skills and mindset needed to take charge of their lives and create their own opportunities.
Kwang-Wu Kim is the president and chief executive officer of Columbia College Chicago.