Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation: Interview of Nicole Chevalier, Program Director

This foundation based in Meriden, Connecticut is funding professional practice training via its Marketplace Empowerment for Artists (MEA) Program in the US on a national scale.

R.J. Preece
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship

| 2 January 2010
Co-partner: Sculpture magazine (January/February 2009).


Professional practice issues often create the greatest challenges for artists. For a select few, resources are in place that enable the artist to concentrate on production in the studio. But for most, the practicalities of essentially running a small business— the communications, sales and marketing, financial administration and planning, as well as production— can be very challenging indeed. “Emerging” artists face the first hurdle, and “mid-career” artists face a definite second. Adding to the difficulty, many artists rightly feel they cannot talk about their practical challenges openly, as it may affect their careers, restricting public knowledge and professional learning

Fortunately one American organization, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, is leading the path to support professional practice training on a national scale, and pooling this knowledge for the benefit of artists. This “empowerment,” like any professional resources and training in other fields, provides an important reference for interested artists not just in America, but internationally as well. To learn more, R.J. Preece, interviewed Nicole Chevalier, Program Director of the Tremaine Foundation about their Marketplace Empowerment for Artists (MEA) Program.

R.J. Preece: I’ve interviewed over 300 artists working in various countries across the world, and I’d estimate over 90% are facing real professional practice challenges. Unfortunately, we often don’t read about this in print, or certainly not enough of it. How did the Tremaine Foundation come about deciding to fund professional practice training and learning?

Nicole Chevalier: Our board decided to start this in 2001. With a limited budget of about $300,000, we wanted to make a strong impact and contribute to “solving a problem” at a national level. We consulted with artists and other art professionals, and professional practice was identified as a key concern.

The lack of funding and support for professional practices for artists was also addressed in a Ford Foundation study. So our board decided to pursue the formation of the MEA program.

R.J. Preece: Was there complete support for this kind of programming in your information-gathering?

Nicole Chevalier: No. There was a lot of negative criticism from some institutions and from some older artists, those mainly above the age of 40. They felt it was “careerism,” that we weren’t helping the artists to focus on their “artistic practice,” and instead, we were aiming to make artists very commercial.

We thought this was a very interesting perspective, but we decided to work with people who felt differently. With our limited funding, we’ve focused on certain MFA programs and art organizations that we think will have the strongest impact and influence across the United States.

R.J. Preece: I understand that the program concept expanded last year…

Nicole Chevalier: Yes, we’ve added a third component. In short, the goal is to pool developing knowledge in the area of professional practices for artists. We plan to disseminate this knowledge via book publications and creating more web-based materials. We’re also looking at other ways to distribute this knowledge to artists.

One book project we’re funding is looking at the philosophy behind an artist’s career and an artist’s life, and what are the key components to helping them develop professionally. A second project is a very pragmatic book approaching artist professional practices.

We’re also developing advisory guidelines on which elements all professional practice training programs should contain. These guidelines will be available on our website in the fall of 2009.

R.J. Preece: Your site mentions varying career levels. In my experience, for “emerging,” they either make it quickly, almost like being on a magic carpet, or it takes time, or they don’t make it. But “mid-career,” well, I don’t think I really know how this works. “Mid-career” is a very challenging phase, isn’t it?

Nicole Chevalier: “Mid-career” as a concept has a range of connotations. I think it depends on the person. “Mid-career” can be artists that were really “hot” in the beginning, or whose careers never really took off, but they’ve been persistent over time. So they’ve learned how to manage their art in a particular way that works for them. And then some people say they are “emerging” when they’ve been active in the field for 20 years.

R.J. Preece: If a wider range of artists are better at professional practice, in other words, business issues, how do you think this will affect today’s art world?

Nicole Chevalier: I think it will give more power to the artists to successfully navigate the art world marketplace.

R.J. Preece: Yes!

Nicole Chevalier: I think it’s very important. So much of the money generated in the arts economy doesn’t go to the artists. It seems to go into so many other pockets, and not the artists’ pockets. I think that if they are able to see more of what their options are, then they can make better decisions, and even earn more money to support their practices.

For those that are not interested, that’s fine. But for those that are interested, I think they should be equipped with better tools: for example, to be wiser about the contracts they sign; to improve how they talk about themselves and their work; and to know how to find financial support.

R.J. Preece: We both see professional practice training as empowerment. But how are “the critics” seeing it? Are some trying to maintain power over others?

Nicole Chevalier: I think professional practice training is often unfamiliar. Many critics do not realize how many students are graduating each year with an MFA, and are $30,000-60,000 in debt as a result.

I think it’s important for artists to not necessarily create art so that it can be sold, but that they are creating art that they are passionate about. From there, artists need to learn how to build and sustain a career, however they define themselves. That’s where professional practice training comes in.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that it’s really about finding one’s tribe, whether that be across town—or in another country even?

Nicole Chevalier: Yes, I do. To use ways that get the work out there, and just mainly to see all the options, and then do what makes sense to them.

R.J. Preece: This is all very practical. Is this the ethos of the Tremaine Foundation?

Nicole Chevalier: Yes. While this is a family foundation, the board is very diverse in its thinking. One thing that pulls the board together is that the programming must be very functional and realistic. Half of our board is very business-minded, and they are passionate about things that are practical.

R.J. Preece: How can international artists benefit from this programming? I ask this because while you are focusing on America, professional practice can certainly be a challenge for artists globally—and there is a like-minded “tribe” out there.

Nicole Chevalier: Right now, the New York Foundation for the Arts is exploring on-line learning, and I think they are the furthest along. But they are working out issues of effective online delivery. So people should keep an eye on their developments.

Also, the Chicago Artists Resource is amazing. Half of their information is applicable to everyone, in certain ways. Also, we’re in the process of putting more information up on our website.

Plus if there are any program directors that are interested in the knowledge that we’re developing and collecting, they can contact me. I’ll put them in contact with our partners.

We are definitely interested in facilitating more knowledge-sharing. We think it’s important to achieving the integration of professional practices into the concept of being an artist.

R.J. Preece, who grew up in Meriden, CT, is a Contributing Editor of Sculpture based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In 1999–2002, he gave a series of professional practice lectures and workshops spotlighting media/marketing/communications opportunities in seven BFA/MFA and arts organization programs in the United Kingdom and Italy. He is also the editor of artdesigncafe.com, and it is from the real-life realities that Art Design Publicity magazine is based.