The MBFA — the New and Necessary Degree I Just Invented to Save the World

The MBFA — the New and Necessary Degree I Just Invented to Save the World

Repost from the Medium @dylankendall

In 2005, Daniel Pink wrote The Coming Right Brain Economy, an article in the Harvard Business Review, where he declared that MBA graduates are becoming this century’s blue-collar workers — people who entered a workforce that was full of promise only to see their jobs move overseas. He stated that the MFA is the new MBA.

“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people — artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

I believe that in the 15 years post Pink’s article, and with the rise of DIY entrepreneurialism aided via new technologies, the change we need to save the world is found in the intersection between MBA and MFA graduates — the MBFA — a new type of graduate degree.

In my 20s, I was a working ceramist with a full studio and gallery representation. In my 30s, deeply affected by the state of poverty in which my live/work studio was located in Oakland, I decided to forego being an artist to save the world.

I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what that would look like. Instead, I packed up my studio, wrote a compelling essay to UCLA, was surprisingly accepted (my 8th college attempt) and then majored in arts and culture.

Influenced by my mentor Doran Ross, head of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and having spent most of my late teens and early 20s traveling the world, I first took on the state of institutionalized “other” by creating a new curatorial process which disrupted conventional approaches to how we learned about different cultural groups through museums.

After some success there — including laying the foundation for what is now called first-person curating in anthropology museums — I became interested in homelessness. I discovered a group of people living on the streets of Hollywood who were basically invisible, yet, without help, would become quite visible as they matured and grew older on the streets.

I’ve always been solution-driven, challenge-inspired and goal-orientated, so I found myself building the only art school in the nation for homeless young adults. My background is clearly in the arts, as a practitioner, an appreciator, a participant and a curator. Among my 8 colleges, half were arts focused. I have made money as an artist.

However, when I wanted to save the world, I became ashamed of being an artist and refused to use that word to describe my past. If pressed I would say “ceramist” but never artist. That word felt disgraceful to me.

When I built my first business, the Open Museum of Los Angeles, I didn’t see that the vision I had to break through an antiquated and outdated curatorial practice was the result of the way I had been trained to see as an artist.

Trying to prove my worthiness in the world of business, I devalued my arts background. The arts were for people who couldn’t get a job. The arts were indulgent and not serious work.

How wrong I now know I was.

When I built Hollywood Arts, I built it knowing intuitively that experience with the arts and arts-related programming could be a tool to reshape the emotional capacity of young people struggling to grow up as well as teach some very practical vocational skills that could transfer both into the creative and non-creative professional sectors.

I also hypothesized that a very hard-to-reach group of young people, the homeless, would show up because the arts are fun. I was right there.

However, I never assessed how my own exposure to the arts helped me conceptualize the school in the first place. As the founder of the school, I wasn’t focused on the arts for their own sake I was focused on the arts as tools to reach a goal — helping young people get off the street and take charge of their own lives.

Yet it was my exposure to the arts that allowed me to build Hollywood Arts just as that exposure helped me launch the first museum agency I built while in college.

I don’t have an MBA — I have something better. I have the freedom to think out the impossible and rework purpose comfortably knowing that iterations aren’t failure but rather part of the journey.

When I built Hollywood Arts, I built the agency with a team of invested volunteers I motivated because I was passionate about the solution I envisioned. That team included finance and human resources, black and white skills which can be taught. By now, a decade later, I have what would amount to an MBA via the objective skills found in management and accounting curricula. I’ve also read a lot of books.

However my core skills sets are the ones nurtured and developed via my time in art school. I, and my fellow art students, are positioned to drive change.

1. We embrace risk. Being an artist is inherently risky and not just because its financially unstable but more importantly because being an artist requires vulnerability — vulnerability to show your real self to the world — be this in the form of a painting, performance, song or poem. Accepting vulnerability is one step in not running from risk.

2. We develop resilience. Art school is about taking risks and then testing. Testing in the form of group critiques which are a mainstay in matriculating through art school.

3. We learn to motivate and support teams. As a participant in group critique, empathy is pervasive, and diplomacy is key. Art students are taught to think of the classroom as a lab with all students, while working independently, as part of the group or lab culture — what art schools often call a learning studio.

4. We see the world without boundaries. Art students are taught to find the beauty in the unexpected, to ignore the constructs and to challenge the status quo. Through studying art history and trying to create our own mash-up, we are taught that there is no wrong approach. Only better versions or solutions. And we are rewarded when we do this successfully.

Recently Bloomberg Businessweek ranked B-schools for 2020 noting which ones now offer entrepreneurial trajectories. The focus was on an entrepreneurial track which nurtured start-up thinking and taught both soft and hard skills. The soft skills? See the list of 4 above.

I’ll lean on the Hollywood Arts business plan and our work with Harvard’s Project Zero to unpack the benefits of studio classes. Via studio learning in any of the arts disciplines, art students are taught the following:

  • How to engage with an idea or problem, develop focus and persist in finding solutions or successfully complete the work;
  • How to stretch and explore beyond one’s capacities or comfort zones, how to explore playfully without a preconceived plan, and how to embrace the opportunity to learn from mistakes and accidents;
  • How to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and how to imagine possible next steps in making a piece of art;
  • How to reflect via questions and explanations. Art students are taught how to think and talk with others about an aspect of one’s work or working process as well as how to evaluate one’s own work and working process in relation to standards of the field.

Similar to learning how to engineer numbers in an Excel file, the above habits of mind, after frequent exposure, are mastered and become instinctual.

I’m not naive to believe that all MFA candidates will save the world, nor do I believe that most MBA graduates will either — but I would like to endorse that the gray space between teaching the arts and teaching business skills be better exploited.

We have seen historically that most of the world’s game-changing innovation comes from thinking without boundaries. And for that I believe both that we need to destigmatize the arts (of which I am personally guilty) and introduce a new graduate course of study: the MBFA.