Visual Art

Sculpting a Future

graduating studio art majors face artful challenges

Trevor Kupfer |

We’ve heard the statistic before that only a fraction of art students continue creating after they graduate. If this is true, then why? And how does the Chippewa Valley compare to the nation? What can a community do about this?

When I agreed to tackle this story, I scarcely thought I’d have enough information to fill a book, but such is the case. Like a spectator trying to decipher meaning from an artwork, I found no simple, concrete answers or resolution; just thoughts, speculations and reflections that led me to a greater appreciation for the artist.

Five art officials (regional, national and worldwide) weighed in on the statistical inquiry. Though their answers on how many students continue creating art ranged from 2 to 40 percent, they all found truth in the assumption. 

“It is true that only a few art students continue creating when they leave college, but then lots of students don’t go on to work in the field that they study at college,” said James Hutchinson, an artist and art professor in England. 

Anders Shafer, an emeritus professor at UW-Eau Claire, said he once came across a study that indicated only 16 percent of graduates in all fields take jobs within their major.“This isn’t too surprising considering that most people change jobs two or three times in their life,” said Scott Short, program director for UW-Stout’s department of art and design. The era dominated by left-brainers (known as the Information Age) is over, according to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind. The future, he submits, resides in the hands of the right-brained creative class. Richard Florida, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, takes Pink’s assessments further by saying the creative class will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper and which cities will thrive.

Students that graduate with degrees in visual arts often travel to so-called “in cities” to make a living from their art, where collectors, galleries and curators congregate. But the Catch 22 that so many experts pointed out is that the competition increases, as does the cost of living and artists must find unrelated full-time jobs to live there and try to find a few hours to make art on the side.



That’s not to say artists can’t make a living in areas like the Chippewa Valley, as evidenced by Laurie Bieze, who has done so in Eau Claire since 1979 and in a half-dozen other cities for 16 years before that. “All of the people I know that make a living making art do it because they can’t see themselves doing anything else.”

Independent outlets such as art incubators, artist cooperatives and alternative galleries/spaces are “fundamental in helping foster a supportive environment,” said David Brock, gallery coordinator at Eau Claire Regional Arts Center. 

Susan O’Brien, an assistant art professor at UW-Eau Claire, said a community visual arts center somewhere in the Valley would “be full in a week with community members and recently graduated folks” and a “real asset to the community.” But even if a community establishes these, O’Brien added they need community backing, a building and group of leaders.

“You need an audience to support their existence,” Brock said.  “I do not believe Eau Claire is ready for this. There isn’t even a strong support network for the more traditional galleries we now have in this community.  Sure, we have a strong and active base of both area artists and willing patrons, but it’s not large enough to support all of the artists that the area universities produce on a yearly basis; hence why many flee.”

The Valley’s art climate could see some improvement, Shafer said, “though it’s probably not different than almost any place. Around the country, art seems to be mostly in the universities, which are patrons of art.” Eau Claire could, at some point, become an “in city” for art, Brock said. As the number of artists increase, a domino effect will ensue as patrons and galleries arrive. “But then the artists are no longer able to live there. This is a vicious circle of creating artists who end up not being able to create through a number of outside factors, whether that is time, money, family, ability or simply wanting to. The art world is not a nice place to set-up shop. It can be, but there is a long and dangerous stretch of water to tread through before finding the easier and more lucrative path. … It takes a special breed to be a professional artist.”