Maker City KC

The Kansas City Art Institute launches a new Minor program that will better prepare future Makers and Entrepreneurs

Starving artists will be a romantic embodiment of times gone by if Chris Chapin has his way. Chapin, Acting Product Design Chair at the Kansas City Art Institute, in concert with peers from UMKC, has launched curriculum that will enable students to earn a minor in Art and Design Entrepreneurship beginning this fall. The academic strand complements a Product Design Major also announced earlier this year at KCAI.

The new coursework fuels the growing interest in entrepreneurism while enhancing the odds for a long, productive art and design career.

Chapin shares his vision amidst early spring sunlight beaming through the overhead windows of the well-lighted Beals Studio for Art & Technology. “This new direction takes something that might otherwise sit in a student’s portfolio and makes it actually happen,” Chapin says. “Not only can students now make things that are functional, that improve lives, but can lead to (business) that is sustainable.

Indeed education is a necessary cornerstone in any economic ecosystem. Industry relies on a skilled, educated workforce to succeed. Likewise, makers, entrepreneurs, manufacturing and so forth all need trained skills -- and talent -- for fruitful careers. The blending of art and design curriculum with business classes is not just a natural progression of the project economy, but the subject matter innately overlaps.

”Design thinking itself is the very basis for the lean startup,” Dr. Jeffrey Hornsby, Executive Director of UMKC’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation says.

While most makers, designers, and artists identify with their creative pursuits and not necessarily those of entrepreneur, Chapin’s counterpart at the Regnier Institute, Andy Heise celebrates the differences, but contends they’re not mutually exclusive. “Our collaboration with KCAI acknowledges the fact that a designer with business and entrepreneurship skills has a higher likelihood of success in the 21st century economy. Through the program, students will learn to not only be great designers but also how to launch and position their products and services in the market,” Heise says.

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Fiona Dougan, a KCAI sophomore from Raytown, has opted into the new minor after getting a taste of the entrepreneurial mindset during an introductory course this semester. “I didn’t start college to be an entrepreneur, but I’ve really become interested in business and building that foundation. I can now definitely see myself owning my own business in the future.”

Back in the Beals Studio, art seemingly takes a back seat to science. A bank of 3-D printers complements computer work stations by the dozen; a laser cutter and a digital loom also call the three-year old architectural gateway to the Institute home. Artists from various disciplines collaborate among multiple media. What once would have been a professional oxymoron, science with art is as old as the development of visual arts themselves, Beals’ denizens contend.

To that end, courses in the Product Design Major will provide training in both digital and hands-on techniques for design and prototyping, preparing students to be well-versed in all facets of the product design process. “We want our design students to connect with reality, with business, with manufacturing, with the startup community. This is an area that doesn’t grade on final outcome, but rather on the ability for the students to merge themselves. It’s always about the process, never about the outcome,” Chapin says. That Dougan adds, is what attracts her to entrepreneurial pursuits as well. “I love the idea of creating your own path. You can do that as an entrepreneur, not predicting the path, but making your path... evaluating the world and then changing it to what you think it should be. It’s just like art that way.”

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Part and parcel to the design studies, KCAI hosts a Design Incubator Hub, which provides space and resources to help launch budding products into viable businesses and provide students access to mentorships and internships with partner corporations. “I wish they would have done this years ago,” says Kim Nakahodo, now the Assistant City Administrator for North Kansas City. A 1998 KCAI graduate with a degree in design illustration, Nakahodo recalls using a head hunter to help her find work as a freelance designer early in her career. “I would have stayed in the arts if I would have had a business background. I’m not alone. I’ve seen a lot of talented people who were not good business people. They’d eventually take a traditional job and never return to art. The closest I came to business studies was learning how to design commercial labels for packaging.”

Nakahodo has returned to her artistic roots, somewhat, launching a city-wide initiative that includes a call for muralists. “The biggest mistake I’ve seen artists make is not pricing their product correctly. They don’t understand how much to charge, balancing value and the costs that go into creating a piece of art.”

That will change Hornsby says. “We expect to see these programs morph and grow. We’re already seeing influences from social business with an art focus and the management of art enterprises. It’s clear there are deep relationships in art as business.

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