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Does Business Ruin Art? UCSC’s Susan Solt Says No

Dean Susan Solt

By Wallace Baine

For a certain set of artists, money has long been the enemy of creativity.

Despite Mona Lisa, despite The Last Supper, despite Vitruvian Manand The Virgin of the Rocks, it’s possible that the most impressive creative expressions of Leonardo da Vinci have been lost in the mists of time.

In the late 15th century, Leonardo served as a producer of theatrical pageants in the court of the Duke of Milan. From set design to costumes to music, Leonardo did it all, creating phantasmagoric shows that we can barely imagine today. As related in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling 2016 biography Leonardo da Vinci, in one production, a mountain is cleaved in half to expose Hades where a dozen devils are making hellish noises with pots. As Leonardo wrote in his notebooks about the set piece, “Here will be Death, the Furies, ashes, many naked children weeping; living fires made of various colors. Dances follow.”

Because YouTube was 500 years too late to catch the moment, and because paintings generally last for centuries, today we tend to think of Leonardo primarily as a painter. But he could never be contained by such a limiting term. He was the ultimate hyphenate, a mind of astounding curiosity and resourcefulness who paid no heed to arbitrary lines drawn between art and science, aesthetics and engineering, or any other category of human endeavor.

UCSC’s Dean of the Arts Division Susan Solt would be the first to tell you that Leonardo is overused as a symbol for restless genius. But she’s using him nevertheless as a tool to reconfigure arts education. Solt has designed an approach that she calls the “Da Vinci Mindset,” that she hopes will lead to a revolution in how higher education trains creative people. The idea is not to sell students the ridiculous notion that anyone can become like Leonardo, but instead that Leonardo’s creativity was a function of his engagement with the world, that he was a creative entrepreneur.

Historically, the e-word doesn’t go down well with artists. Entrepreneur is too mercenary, transactional and commercial. For some, it derives from the French for “selling out.”

“Of course, I’m going to use the word,” says Solt, who had a long career at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)—and before that, as a Hollywood film producer. “That’s our word. I’m just taking it back.”

To drive her point home, she refers to the Oxford English Dictionary. Sure enough, there it is, the original meaning of entrepreneur: “The director or manager of a public musical performance.”

“That term might upset people,” says Solt. “But I’m using the word to subvert the word. Business entrepreneurs will say, ‘What’s an artist entrepreneur? What does that even mean?’ Well, that’s what artists do. We are serial entrepreneurs. Artists have always had to create their own opportunities. There’s nothing new in all this at all. It’s just owning what we do and getting credit for it.”

Calling Leonardo an entrepreneur isn’t some slick marketing metaphor. It’s the literal truth.

ART SCHOOL TABOOS

Whether you’ve been to art school or not, you know the cliché: Art school is a place that crushes idealism, rewards flattery and fetishizes commercial success while pretending to sneer at it. Even in the best case scenario, art school can often provide intensive training in technique and form while also leaving its charges ill-equipped to deal with the world after graduation.

Designer Shannon Scrofano got her degree at CalArts, and now teaches there. Her time as a student, she says, was often a kind of monastic deep-dive that ignored the world outside. “As far as I could see, it was, ‘come spend three or four years of your life hunkered down in the most self-absorbed but still productive process in doing what you do.’ But all you had on the other side was your portfolio,” she says. “Concrete professional development was not super present in art schools.”

Then she took a class from Solt in creative entrepreneurship, a pioneering course that violated a lot of art school taboos. It talked about jobs, the market, branding, careers. Solt asked her students to write letters to older artists that they would like to emulate, to look at the professional journeys of artists who have gone before them, to envision what the next decade of their lives might look like. “No one was even remotely asking those kinds of questions,” says Scrofano.

Inspired by the approach of a nonprofit called Creative Capital—which provides mentoring, project funding and other services to aspiring artists—Solt went looking to carve out a new path between hidebound art schools and the demands of the free market. And she was not shy about throwing elbows when she had to.

“There has been an antipathy to actually discussing art as a money-making enterprise,” she says. “It’s so frustrating, because there’s been this destructive linking between the notion that if you think about making money as an artist that you’re somehow compromising your integrity, and your artistry. That’s been perpetuated by a desire to stay pure and make sure we don’t train commercial artists or turn our art schools into vocational schools. There’s this built-in terror that it will subvert the vision of the artist.”

Solt’s credo is not to convince her students to create art that will sell in the market; it’s to figure out a way to sell the art that they want to make. It’s not how to appeal to mass, lowest-common-denominator taste, but how to find a sustainable audience for your idiosyncratic work.

“I have never tried to dictate content or aesthetic. You can have the most wild, out-there aesthetic. But you still have to have a constituency,” she says.

SHOW BUSINESS

Before coming to CalArts, Solt had built a fine career as a film producer, beginning with Sophie’s Choice—among her duties was to help Meryl Streep with her Polish dialect. After that she enjoyed a productive period working alongside director Alan Pakula. (Among the films the two made together was the Harrison Ford thriller Presumed Innocent).

In Solt’s view, the film producer is the ultimate creative entrepreneur, the person who takes a specific artistic vision and makes it work in the real world. Artists have to be their own director and their own producer. She figured that art schools were doing well in creating the directors, but were ignoring the producer part.

But in her role as dean at CalArts, she had come to a professional crossroads. Her plans, based on the Creative Capital model, were more ambitious than the institution was willing to support. With costs of higher education spiraling into the stratosphere, she also began to feel a moral pinch. “I could no longer justify to myself that I was the one out there hawking that education with the price tag that it had,” she says.

The job at UCSC came by happenstance. She saw an ad in an academic journal for the position of dean of the Arts Division. Feeling stymied at CalArts, she responded to the ad. She told herself, “If they have what I want, I want to go with them.” With tuition in the UC system about a quarter of what it is at the private CalArts, her qualms about student finances were quieted. In the hiring process, she pushed her convictions about creative entrepreneurship. She got the job. In the summer of 2016, Solt was introduced as the new dean of the Arts Division.

WINNING OVER CRITICS

Before and after coming to UCSC, Solt has been an evangelist for creative entrepreneurship and the embrace of branding and marketing that it entailed. She was recognized as a pioneer in the approach and may have been the first to teach a creative entrepreneurship class. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article by writer William Deresiewicz that Solt took to be an example of backlash to her ideas. “It’s hard to believe,” Deresiewicz wrote of creative entrepreneurship, “that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer; more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art.”

Solt rebuts that argument by pointing again to Leonardo: “[Deresiewicz] was instrumentalizing something that I think is a mindset, and I teach it as the Da Vinci mindset: be imaginative, be engaged in the world and see where your imagination has value. There are art critics who think that Leonardo did a terrible disservice to himself by being interested in science and engineering and doing all those pageants. They say, ‘Well, think of the paintings that were lost to the future because Leonardo’s time was squandered.’ Why instrumentalize a great artist’s choices and decisions by imposing our values on him?”

Deresiewicz is now writing a book about how artists make a living in the modern world. “My position has changed a bit since I wrote that article,” he says. “Among the many other reasons for that is because I had a good conversation with Susan Solt.”

Deresiewicz and Solt are not mutual antagonists when it comes to art. For example, they both seem quite happy to dance on the grave of the outdated notion of the artist as the divinely inspired solitary genius. But in his Atlantic piece, Deresiewicz copped to a suspicion that creative entrepreneurship was “the final triumph of the market and its values.”

He said that he really just wants to draw distinctions between artists trying to find their place in the market and cynical opportunists who might slap an image of the Mona Lisa on a Louis Vuitton handbag and call themselves artists. “We need to acknowledge the presence of money in art, so we can be vigilant about it,” he says. “And so we can tell the difference between work that has integrity but still needs to sell for something so that the artist can continue to make work, and art that is not art at all but just a surrender to the market.”

He admits now that “Solt’s position falls on the good side of this.” He cites her impulse to begin her creative entrepreneurship classes with lots of introspection, to get her students to address fundamental questions like “Who am I as an artist?” and “What do I want to say in the world?”

Last spring, Solt began her initiative at UCSC in earnest with a lecture series that brought in a wide variety of guest artists including Apple creative director Rick Vargas and arts producer Margaret Wolfson, whose lecture was titled Branding Matters. With Wolfson’s help, Solt has branded the new approach at UCSC as Artist21, and has created an internship program to create opportunities in entertainment, tech and other industries.

The lecture series was co-taught by Nada Miljkovic, a Crown College instructor who has begun an entrepreneurial initiative of her own at UCSC. She runs the Summer Entrepreneurial Academy and plans to teach an entrepreneurial class in the fall. “When I heard about what [Solt] was doing, I was excited because it’s totally in alignment to what I was pitching and creating,” says Miljkovic.

In the classroom, Solt draws lessons from Leonardo’s life as articulated in the Isaacson biography. They include curiosity, retaining a childlike sense of wonder, thinking visually, collaborating, indulging fantasy and going down rabbit holes. “Look, I believe in ‘Follow Your Bliss.’ I tell everyone, ‘start with your authentic values, follow your bliss.’ But have a plan. Learn how to write grants. Be curators. Think of other avenues where your values are enhanced. Find that person who shares your tastes. Look at yourself and create a career plan, apply those principles, whether you’re making art, or writing a book, or getting a job in the ballet. There isn’t an artist who has ever been successful who does not understand their market.”

“She has conviction and it’s contagious,” said Shannon Scrofano of Solt in the classroom. “She believes in you. If you work hard, show up and activate your brain, she’ll be one of your greatest champions in the whole world. And that’s really powerful.”

This article originally appeared in the August 14, 2018 issue of Good Times.