Without dissecting my political views too obviously (although this admission will be kind of a dead giveaway), I will admit to being a consistent viewer of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Recently, he pulled out some college graduation statistics from 2009 that I found fascinating: in the past 25 years, college graduates have increased 50%; in 2009, we graduated just north of 37,000 students in computer science and engineering, and a staggering 89,000 in visual and performing arts.
To this, he stated simply: “A lot of people are going to college and doing bullshit.”
It’s worth pointing out that the panel, including CNN’s Chris Matthews, were in staunch disagreement with the humorist/pundit, but Maher could not be dissuaded from his perch. He goes further to say “I think the visual arts is bullshit” (this from a guy who makes his living in TV? Really?) and “this is one reason that America is in the crapper,” and that “this” (arts education at the university level) is the reason that one fifth of America’s graduates are currently living at home with their parents.
My reaction to this was as personal as it was visceral. In 1992, I was a graduating college student with a degree in performance arts (I studied acting at the University of Southern California) and while I could argue the personal angle of this—how it changed my life, how the people I met there are still cherished friends, mentors and colleagues and how being exposed to hundreds of other pursuant artists at that young age opened my mind in ways I could have never expected—I want to explore the assumption put forth by Mr. Maher, and the oft supported by clichés of artists in general: that we are an entitled and lazy lot, that we add nothing of monetary value to society and that, as a workforce, we are dragging down the U.S. economy, innovation and everything with it.
Back to me for a moment: yes, I studied acting, but upon graduation I immediately wrote and produced an independent film. Producing a film is tantamount to launching a business that you know going in will only last for about 6 months. I learned about marketing, fundraising, strategic planning, organization, management, and how to deal with mountains of pressure. When the film finished its festival runs, it was the year 2000, I was 30 (okay, so it took a little longer than 6 months), and I needed some cash so I took a job at a “dot com” where my skills were ideal for a start up. Not one of the MBA bearers from lettered universities I worked with had my savvy for project management, grace under fire, deadlines, multi-tasking and communication. My responsibilities grew there until, four years later, I was named the Director of Marketing for a company that, by then, had over 150 employees.
I moved on to work for two other start up companies (two out of three are still standing) where my skills were even further diversified into two other industries. Which brings us to the present moment when in 2010, I had the opportunity to work for myself in the solar industry.
I bring into my own business the hard lessons that I earned working for other small, bootstrap start-ups and, even more importantly, the blistering and defining experience that is making your own movie.
Where, exactly, is the bullshit in that?
The fact that I’m an entrepreneur isn’t so unusual, I think, as it is that I’m an entrepreneur AND I’m still very much involved in the arts. In fact, the very reason that these words are appearing on this very website is because its publisher and I performed together in a solo theater workshop in San Francisco in 2009. I’ve always been a prolific writer and performer and made money writing (freelancing here and there since college including a 10 year stint as a music writer). As I write this, I’m currently developing pieces for web distribution and a live performance piece that will debut in the New Orleans Fringe Festival next fall.
Most of the artists that I personally know are the most self-reliant people that I’ve ever met. One of my best friends from high school—a brilliant painter and visual artist who studied at the prestigious Kansas City Art Institute—has been a real estate agent since she graduated college, precisely so she’d have time to paint. A dear friend here in L.A. is not only a kick ass production designer for feature films, but also has some of the best carpentry skills I’ve ever seen.
My favorite example of the enterprising artist is my friend and neighbor Dean Haglund. Dean is a bonafide celebrity of sorts: he is known to most as the shaggy-haired member of the Lone Gunmen from the uber-successful television series “The X Files.” Granted, Dean has had a pretty high level of exposure and financial gain from his acting career, but how about his roots? How has he been supporting himself since that series (and its spin off, “The Lone Gunmen” in which he starred) went off the air?
These are my two favorite stories about Dean.
First: Dean was invited to an event at Apple where he was given a laptop for his own personal use and, as he said, “was then told by the Apple people the millions of things that would subsequently go wrong with it.” Sure enough, when he got it home, it started seizing up while he was watching videos on line. At the time, he happened to be icing his knee, and when he put the computer on his lap, the computer suddenly started running again.
Feeling how hot the machine was, he had an idea: he placed the laptop on his gel ice pack, and its performance was better than it ever had been. Weeks later, plans were drawn and he eventually sold the patent for his “chillpack” design to a large company.
Second: Dean has become a fixture, not surprisingly, in the science fiction convention arena. Fans were constantly approaching him and asking him one question over and over again: “Why did “The Lone Gunmen” get cancelled?” His response? To use the illustration skills that he used to pay his way through college to pen an original comic book called “Why The Lone Gunmen Was Cancelled” that he sold to each fan that asked him that same question over and over again.
“Artists make great entrepreneurs,” says Dean, “because, from an acting point of view, the emotional flexibility that you develop as an artist gives you the spontaneity to roll with the punches of the business world.”
In the improv world, Dean told me, actors are trained to say “yes” to everything another actor gives them onstage. “In the improv world, we call this ‘hustle muscle.’” It’s this “say yes” to everything that has shaped his thinking since he was a young man, giving him the kind of mind that could turn a knee injury and a sluggish computer into a business opportunity.
In 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts published a landmark study, using data from Census Bureau Data collected from 2003-2005 that studied the actual economic impacts of artists in the American workforce. Artists are, according to the study, second only to active military as the single largest class of workers in the country (nearly 2M in 2005). In the same study, they cited that artists are 3.5 more likely to be self-employed. In San Francisco, not surprisingly, artists represent 3.7% of the city’s workforce. California and New York collectively have well over a half a million working artists between the two of them.
I have spent most of my adult life living in or around Los Angeles and ALL of my friends have explored vocations that have allowed them steady pay with flexibility. Part of my motivation to remain self-employed has everything to do with controlling my schedule so I can continue to create work. There is something fiercely independent about the creative person’s spirit, as we know we are entering into professions—by choice—where the odds are heavily stacked against us.
Any idea who said this?
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
It was Steve Jobs, one of my favorite billionaires. Guess what he studied in school? Nothing. He was a college drop out, but cites that one of his greatest early inspirations was a calligraphy class that he took at Reed College in Oregon (which drove him to implement so many font designs for the Apple computer).
This, from one of the most prolific billionaires that our country has ever created, who knew first hand about the direct link between creativity and innovation. Artists, no matter the discipline, are innovators of another form. We are not a sign of our country’s brain drain; we are, instead, perhaps one of its greatest brain trusts.
BIO: Rachel Parker has been involved in the media industry and start‐up environments for over 15 years. She has worked in numerous fields ranging from film production and touring, to marketing and media relations. She has penned a screenplay, performed her solo work at the Brava Theater Center for Women in The Arts, and started her own business in the renewable energy space, Solar Energy Worx. When she’s not educating the masses about the benefits of solar energy (and trying to wean everyone and everything off of coal and fossil fuels), she’s usually writing something, laughing out loud at something her boyfriend said or enjoying the view from her downtown loft in Los Angeles, CA.
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