How did artists and designers feed themselves? In different eras, how did they find employers and customers, join firms, universities, artistic movements, trade associations, unions, or try to stick it out on their own? How have workflows and supply chains turned pen-and-ink concepts into satisfied patrons and consumers? How have gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, age, disability, and other markers of identity affected the careers of artists and designers? How have artists’ and designers’ control over the final product and its reproduction waxed and waned? Can a technical designer stay employed through middle age? Why are there so many job announcements in advertisements, sometimes from the same companies over and over, and is this level of job turnover a detriment to good work and profit?
With these questions in mind, we applied for a Humanities Connections Implementation Grant of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project planning took place in the 2015-2017 school years, as FIT Art History professors Dr. Kyunghee Pyun and Dr. Amy Werbel developed and introduced new courses in Asian American and African American art. In the process of developing and teaching these classes for the first time, professors and students began to discuss the importance of labor history in understanding the careers of many Asian-American and African-American artists, especially those who also worked as commercial designers—notably, as set designers in theater and film—to support their work in “fine arts.” Out of these conversations grew a desire to pursue greater understanding of the varied career paths of artists and designers, and the business practices that shape those paths. Faculty fellows, consultants, and co-directors will have completed the second year for the three-year NEH-funded project “Teaching Business and Labor History to Art and Design Students.” In the annual meeting of AHA, co-directors want to share with other historians what they’ve learned and accomplished for this model of applying business and labor history to a specific industry group to be replicated in other fields such as business history for medical professions or labor history for scientists/engineers.