Convincing Duke students to work in arts-related fields after graduation can be a hard sell. Unlike consulting or finance companies, arts organizations often do not have the money or manpower to recruit. Furthermore, even the students who get hired in the arts are unlikely to get a big paycheck. There’s an even bigger disincentive in the long-run: Successful arts careers—think a big-time movie producer or acting agent—are characterized by unexpected and even risky turns. Duke students tend to love predetermined tracks, and there are few of those in the arts.
There is little that Duke as a university can do to remove structural obstacles to entering arts-related fields. But Duke can do two specific things to best prepare—and hopefully entice—its students to pursue careers in the arts: first, building interdisciplinary connections between the arts and other fields and, second, demystifying post-graduate arts opportunities by exposing undergraduates to real working arts professionals.
In true Duke fashion, the arts are beginning to be studied less as solitary disciplines and instead in tandem with other areas of study. This growing interdisciplinary approach to the arts is already visible in the school’s Visiting Artists program. For example, Dutch art restorer and historian Charlotte Caspers is visiting Duke this Fall to do collaborative work with Ingrid Daubechies, James B. Duke professor of mathematics. Daubechies uses mathematical analysis of digital versions of paintings to determine their authenticity. Other partnerships have occurred between dance and engineering as well as between law and art. Why is this beneficial for Duke students? Students devoted solely to art—an aspiring concert pianist, for instance—usually bypass Duke for a more specialized education. Duke students can add powerful intersections between the arts and other fields to the world’s increasingly diverse and fluid art world.
Second, Duke can connect scared or uninformed students with arts industry veterans. Although Duke students engage passionately with the arts on campus, few end up pursuing arts-related careers. The Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network weekend—a November event that connects students with alumni in the arts—is a laudable start, but we wish the program had a higher profile and more robust attendance. The Career Center will never fully cater to the arts community with a straightforward TechConnect-style career fair. Duke students interested in the arts will rarely benefit from a mass resume distribution. But they will benefit enormously from listening to the true stories of successful arts professionals, who often start as scrappers and gain very specialized knowledge and experience along their unconventional paths. Many careers in the arts take guts and improvisation, and Duke students should start taking notes from the best.
We commend Duke, particularly Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth, for pushing both these initiatives. The arts at Duke have flourished dramatically over the last five years as part of a University-wide strategy to prioritize them. Among its peers, Duke may not have the most money allocated for arts programs or the most illustrious tradition of art appreciation. Duke does, however, have its own unique strengths, namely a precedent of interdisciplinary innovation and a reasonably strong alumni arts network. Going forward, Duke should capitalize on both to improve the student arts experience and, for those who are interested, student job prospects.