Artists and Their Audiences-An Interview with Dr. Victoria Bryan
Updated: May 27, 2020
Over fifty students graduated with their MFA degrees at California State University, Long Beach this May 2017. I was able to meet six of them, along with Max Presneill of Torrance Art Musuem, during a culminating critique with the invitation of faculty member Victoria Bryan, Ph.D., who initiated a graduate class dedicated to artists and their audiences. With a growing trend in both the museum and gallery world to become more engaging and open to public participatory experiences, I wondered if the burgeoning artists straight out of college are positioning themselves for this exchange in order to be marketable in such a challenging field. After meeting the students and viewing their work, I was able to discuss further with Dr. Bryan how young artists today do or do not consider their potential audiences when creating their work and the challenges they perceive. Here is what Dr. Bryan had to say:
Karen Crews Hendon (KCH): What was the inspiration for you to create a class on artists and their audiences?
Victoria Bryan (VB): It’s a topic in which I have been interested for a long time. My dissertation (completed 2011) investigated the connection between theatres and their audiences: Listening to the Audience: An Examination of the Audience’s Experience of Theatre. I was the co-founder and co-director of a theatre company in 1979 that was closely connected to our audiences. During the 23 years that STOP-GAP existed, I talked with many people in the theatre community. Often, there seemed to be a disconnect between theatre makers and theatre consumers about purpose, expectations and experience. I also pursued those ideas through a grad seminar for the Theatre Department, CSULB, in 2009. When I was invited to teach the grad seminar for the Art Department, I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore the topic with visual artists.
KCH: There were six MFA students in your class, how did they approach ideas of audience relevancy?
VB: When I first raised the topic of artists and their audiences with my grad class, there was a wide range of responses. Some students had come into the graduate program with an existing network of contacts. Some students have no network and want to learn how to build one. Some students are resistant to the idea, believing that their time should be spent on developing their own artmaking, rather than marketing, networking, etc. There was even some aversion to an artist’s role being anything other than a maker of art – with the artist him/herself as the primary audience. We started in our first class meeting when I asked students to identify who their audiences might be. This is the list they came up with:
Gallery viewers/Gallerists/Curators/The opposition/Non-gallery goers/Marginalized people/Myself/Public art commissions/Children/Social media-internet users/Grantmakers/Co-workers/Peers-students/Other artists/Family-friends/Collectors/Media-critics/Committee members
KCH: What are their expectations after they walk with their MFA? Do they have a clear strategy or plan?
VB: I think there is a tension in any academic art program between students’ need/desire to develop their own art making and their professional practices—building the network that will sustain them in their practice after graduation. Many of our guests reiterated the need to begin focusing on professional practices before students graduate. It was a major topic in our conversation with Angie Kim. I had asked students to read the NEA/CCI report Creativity Connects prior to our meeting. This document had helped me shape plans for the class. I particularly like Ruby Lerner’s essay The Art School of the Future, (p57) from which this quote is taken:
“If I were designing The Art School of the Future, I would integrate art theory, practice and technical training with a professional development curriculum. This would start with strategic planning, goal setting, work/life balance, and time management. The Art School of the Future would also teach financial literacy, encouraging young artists to build good financial habits early in their lives and careers. And we would spend a LOT of time on communications — verbal communications, presentation skills, negotiating, marketing, outreach and PR. We would teach artists community engagement skills — how to reach the audiences they most want to reach, and who to partner with to make that happen. We would teach strategies for working collaboratively with other artists. These skills are powerful, not only because they will be useful throughout a working artist’s life, but equally because they will help artists take advantage of many other opportunities in creative fields, and beyond. The reality is that not everyone coming out of art school programs will end up as a working artist, supporting themselves full-time on creative work — and that is fine. So, art school graduates should also be able to teach, run an arts business, curate, produce, install work, raise money, do promo and marketing, and understand the technical aspects in their mediums. I believe that if all art schools integrated professional practices into their programs, graduates would emerge with greater control over their careers. They would be better equipped to achieve fulfillment in both their personal and artistic lives and to be generous colleagues and contributors to their communities.”
KCH: How were you able to get your students to expand their connections outside of the University audience? What was successful and what wasn’t?
VB: First, I invited guests to our class throughout the semester. They were chosen to represent some of the audiences that students identified during our first class meeting. Not only did the small group environment provide an intimate setting for in-depth conversations but the meetings also provided students with connections. All guests were generous both with in-class open dialogue and they also offered cards and access for future contact. Guests included:
Michelle Molina, Long Beach Arts Leader and Collector
Angie Kim, Executive Director, Center for Cultural Innovation
Sayon Syprasoeuth, Kendell Carter, and Angela Willcox, (MFA’s who graduated between 10 and 12 years ago.)
Ron Nelson, Executive Director, Long Beach Museum of Art
Eddie Hayes, Chief Curator, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach
Griselda Suarez, Executive Director, Arts Council for Long Beach
Carol Chech, Arts Writer
Lisa Marsh, Director of Education, Long Beach Museum of Art
(And, of course, yourself and Max Presneill, curators and artists.)
Second, I devised an assignment to have students expand their connections beyond the campus by interviewing a gallerist with the following guidelines:
After development of interview protocol in class, each student will contact a gallerist to request an in-person interview (if the gallery is local) or written response, if the gallery is out of the area.
Please include a brief description of the gallery, including mission statement (if available), location, number of years in business, and length of tenure of the gallerist.
What reasons cause you to select work?
How should an artist pitch work to you?
What do you do to actively build your collector base?
How has your relationship with your community changed over your time there?
What motivated you to get into the gallery business?
(Responses are to be captured either through video and/or audio recording or in note
form so that we can compile and compare information in class.)
KCH: As a person who represents artists and coaches them, the answers to these questions are pertinent and many desire this knowledge. So often, artists are told to not approach galleries with their own work and use the tactic of going through curators to put their work in front of the gallery directors. There is a lot of unspoken etiquette about how to approach galleries to get the work out. I imagine under the guise as a student, gallerists were more open to speaking to your students? What do you think was successful?
VB: I think the exercise was successful in a couple of ways: Students are often uncomfortable with making contacts and connections. This may be because of shyness, lack of confidence, or inexperience. They need to build a network of connections and learn how to operate within the art community was a major topic of advice by most of our guest speakers and so this exercise allowed students to practice the art of making connections in a less intimidating way than when they are out in the world. Being a student provides an easier entree to talk with professionals. Students brought their experiences back to class so we could de-brief and learn from each other’s interviews.
KCH: What fears do you think they have?
VB: I can speak to the experience of many MFA artist friends who describe the immediate aftermath of their graduation as like falling off a cliff. Once they leave school, there is no more access to studio space, equipment, their cohort, mentors, advisors, and a close knit community whose members care about art. Some students are positioned to build an external equivalent and some are not, so there is often a period of adjustment that can be emotionally traumatic and professionally unproductive. I’m interested in what we can do during the academic program to change this experience and help MFA’s graduate with more ability to sustain themselves and their practice, as well as move more directly into a successful career.
KCH: As upcoming artists, how do they define success?
VB: It varies and ranges from art as social practice to becoming an artist whose work is represented by a well-respected gallery. Some are interested in teaching as well as artmaking, while others are not. I appreciate the CSULB School of Art’s willingness to explore ways in which we can strengthen our students’ futures by considering professional practice during the undergrad and grad programs. I have been talking with Dr. Karen Kleinfelder, Director of the School of Art, about finding a wider audience for a follow-on class that addresses professional practices and look forward to continuing this conversation.
KCH: Dr. Victoria Bryan is a lecturer for the Department of Liberal Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She graduated from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with a diploma in Stage Management, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Design from Antioch, a Master of Arts degree in Art History from California State University, Long Beach, and her Ph.D. in Management from the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.