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So You Wanna Be an Artist?

Sculptor Bob Emser says embrace your inner businessman.

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Sculptor Bob Emser switched his college major from business to art 35 years ago but never left commerce behind. If you're an artist, you are in business, Emser says, and your success is likely to depend as much on your management and marketing skills as your talent.

Take the glossy, hardcover coffee-table book, Bob Emser American Sculptor. Published by Emser this fall with 60 full-color photographs, an interview, and an appreciative essay by art journalist Jeff Huebner, the book is available at local stores and on Amazon.com. But Emser's not thinking of it as a source of revenue. "I look at it as a very comprehensive, very expensive business card," he says.

It's hard to imagine anybody doing it today—the people I know who have jobs are desperately trying to hang on to them—but 13 years ago, with two kids to support, Emser walked away from a tenured professorship at Eureka College to become a full-time artist. The economy was friendlier then, Emser's wife was supportive, and, he says, he'd surmised that a faculty job was not the leg up on an art career that it had been: "With the explosion in how we communicate now in all the arts, the university connection is not that important."

Emser says he entered a lot of competitions and participated in a lot of outdoor art fairs. He also had a couple of major part-time gigs: he cofounded the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria and headed it for five years, then got himself a studio in Chicago and spent 18 months running the Pier Walk sculpture show, back when it was the biggest outdoor exhibit of its kind in the world. But it's easier to land commissions when that's your single focus, he says. These days most of his assignments are coming from colleges and museums, which have an appetite for his big, streamlined abstractions and "don't tell you what to do."

A consummate networker, Emser says he tells aspiring artists, "If there's someone you want to meet, call them. Ask for their advice." With people who can be helpful, he says, "I count the touches"—the number of interactions. "It's like a courtship." But the real secret of his success may be the series of life coaches he's hired, starting with the one who prompted his move to Chicago by telling him to "find your purpose and live up to your values." Since then Emser's had a coach who specializes in artists, another who's a marketing maven, and, most recently, a "visibility coach."

Emser follows a business plan and has analyzed the amount of time he spends on things like administration and marketing. The right balance for a full-time artist, he says, is 75 percent on managing the career, 25 percent on making the art. Does that sound inside-out? Emser says it's not. But "Inside Out" is the title of a show featuring his work and the rubber-tire sculptures of Chakaia Booker, running through January 11 at the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Artwork's Dosage Reduced

"The most important art school in Illinois is censoring my installation," says Jenny Ramos, one of scores of artists who've contributed work to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's "Department (Store)" show, at the Sullivan Galleries on State.

A doctor's daughter and Venezuelan citizen now pursuing an MFA at Northern Illinois University, Ramos says she suffered for more than two years with a painful, recurrent ear problem and was prescribed numerous drugs—including antibiotics and painkillers—before she found a doctor who knew what to do. The many treks she made to the drugstore heightened her awareness of "the commercialization of medicine in America," where drugs are marketed "like cosmetics or hair products." That's the story she wanted to tell with her installation, Pills, which displayed about 2,500 tablets and capsules, including some of those prescribed for her. "It was, she says, "my autobiography in medicine."

Ramos installed Pills on November 15; two days later SAIC informed her she'd have to remove any prescription medication or they'd confiscate it.

"Department (Store)" comprises more than a hundred locked glass display cases, with a different artist's installation in each. Ramos claims it wasn't till after she'd been told to alter her piece that the SAIC posted rules about what was prohibited.

Ramos removed 236 pills, of which she says only 34 were narcotics. SAIC spokesperson Caren Yusem says the school "was enforcing safety and security guidelines for the Department (Store) exhibition that were given to Ramos well before installation."

Ramos denies that, and says the changes compromised the integrity of her work.

Now That We've Got Racism Licked

"I'm glad Obama is president-elect," historian June Sochen remarked during the launch of Women's Media Group, Inc., at Evanston's S.P.A.C.E. last month. "But I always predicted that an African-American man would be president of the United States before a woman."

WMG, founded by producer Maya Friedler and promoter-performer Jamie O'Reilly, aims to "create film and multimedia for and with women." Its inaugural project is a radio talk show, Talk.in Feminism Today, modeled on Talk-In, which Friedler hosted in the 1970s. The first segment was taped at the launch.

The first wave of American feminism was the suffragettes, the second was the activist generation of the 1960s and '70s. But "feminism has been a dirty word with the next generation," Friedler said in opening remarks. "They thought it was irrelevant." Until now, that is. According to O'Reilly, "with Hillary and Sarah Palin, feminism is out on the street again."

The centerpiece of the launch was a panel with three prominent women from the second-wave generation: novelist Sara Paretsky, Women's Business Development Center founder Hedy Ratner, and Sochen. Paretsky observed that women still make only 77 cents for every dollar made by men, and Ratner noted that "we're dealing with some of the same issues we've been dealing with for 40 years. We haven't accomplished what we needed to around issues of reproductive rights, violence to women, and equal opportunity and wages."

The consensus was that sexism was rampant during the presidential campaigns and women's voices are still largely unheard. Paretsky said she counted 26 crime novels reviewed by the New York Times from September 1 to November 17, of which only four were by women. And cartoonist Nicole Hollander, chiming in from the audience, suggested counting the women in cartoon strips in the newspaper. Then, she said, "count the animals."

The discussion is expected to be available December 1 at wmgchicago.com. WMG—which got a $2,000 start-up grant from the Chicago Foundation for Women and wants to raise $50,000 in its first year—is planning a benefit for February.v

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