Written by Bethany Benson Burns Friday, 04 May 2012 06:25
Already present in many of my courses is the opportunity to create objects for sale. This is a concept that is introduced and experienced first-hand by any student enrolled in an art course at Juniata who chooses to sell their work at the bi-annual student sales. A registered student organization with an interest in ceramics, the Mud Junkies, is responsible for the advertisement and coordination of the events (reserving spaces, tables, obtaining a “bank” to draw from, etc.), while the artists are responsible for set-up, physical sales, and break-down. Participating artists retain 80% of their sales, the remaining 20% is given as a commission to the Mud Junkies for their efforts to facilitate and host the event (acting as any gallery/commercial space would).
To incorporate a more cohesive experience in Wheel Throwing (a 200-level, introductory course), I required students to create a singular piece or small body of work specifically to be sold at the Holiday Student Art Sale, held on December 9, 2011. This project was seeded at the beginning of the course, and formally commenced halfway through the semester. The assignment fell in conjunction with their final project: to create a personal place setting as well as a serving dish designed to provide a particular food. To fulfill the assignment, students were required to make a duplicate of either their set or the serving dish to sell at the end of the semester.
In late October a presentation from Juniata senior, Hannah Long (Accounting, Business, and Entrepreneurship, ’12), opened students’ eyes to viable self-employment, herself an owner-proprietor of a designer chocolate company. Hannah told her story, and impressed upon the students the importance of recognizing talent, determining need, calculating value, and professional presence. Ms. Long spoke at length about engaging with potential customers – how body language, speech, and eye contact are key tools in obtaining trust, a means of drawing in customers as well as maintaining a relationship with them for future sales.
After this presentation, students were required to submit various sketches for both the place setting and serving dish. Most of the students chose to replicate their serving dish – I suspect their motives were quantity-driven. In mid-November, ceramic artist Joy Bridy led a discussion that began with a brief synopsis of her journey to self-employment. From there, the topics ranged from start-up costs, becoming an L.L.C., and like Hannah, connecting with customers. Juniata’s Coleman Fellows Project Director, Nick Felice, attended this session, and was pleased with both Ms. Bridy’s presentation as well as the student participation. He told me, “Joy hit upon every aspect of self-employment in her presentation. Her talk was very informative and gave the students the joys and realities of business. In particular, she spoke to being financially disciplined and avoiding too much debt. She instructed them to make sure their investments have a timely and positive rate of return”.
The remainder of the semester was spent working on their final project; students were given a log sheet to monitor the time they spent on the various processes, learning curves, and materials they explored to complete the assignment. This part of the project became problematic, as the experience of entry-level students does not match that of a skilled artisan whose cumulative knowledge employs streamlined techniques to maximize their profit. An accurate equation to determine how much a given piece should cost based upon time investment could not be determined in consideration of this. Regardless, students became acutely aware of measuring time, as necessitated by quantity and reasonable quality.
As the deadline for the sale approached, students experienced an inverse of their expectations (decreasing monetary profit in light of increasing time expenditure due to natural learning curves). In addition, the inevitable nature of ceramic processes would not guarantee that each student would be equipped with a quality product appropriate for sale at this beginning level. To compensate the students that were able to produce for the sale, extra credit was given in the form of two extra points added the project grade, or ten extra points added to the participation portion of their final grade.
Overall, the more formal presentations and discussions of entrepreneurship were inspiring, and spawned stronger student participation in and commitment to the sale. At some point in each of the presentations, enrollment in business management courses was advocated, indicating that the earlier an artist is equipped with this knowledge, the more successful they will be.
A chief concern in my preliminary report of this project was proven true: while the course level is appropriate to add business management courses into a given students’ curriculum to supplement their education, the medium-specific curriculum at this level is fundamental, and requires full attention to form and technique for an average student to produce skillful work. The attention required to design an object, hone the process, and become proficient in manufacturing can be expected of students with prior experience of a particular medium and its’ inclinations.
In conclusion, I believe the more structured manner in which the students were exposed to self-employment was extremely beneficial at this stage. However, the technical tasks students are asked to master require much of their attention; contributions of an average student to the sale at this stage are 2-4 pieces, and are typically their best handled cups and bowls. Extending this experience into an upper level course by assigning a module dedicated to self-employment would not only be appropriate, but could also follow a slip-casting project (an intermediate-level technique used to create multiples), which would naturally enhance their ability to maximize their profit.
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