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The art of business

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 11, 2009
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Devin Ostertag is one of six students who will graduate in 2012 with a business degree from Ringling College of Art and Design. That’s right, an art student with a business degree.

When Ostertag, 19, arrived at Ringling in 2008, she was torn between the college’s renowned illustration and fine-arts programs and its new four-year Business of Art and Design major.

A graduate of Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts, in Fort Myers, Ostertag had been drawing since she was old enough to pick up a pencil and painting for just as long. Despite bleak economic forecasts, she was determined to pursue an artistic career. Majoring in business at Ringling College seemed like a practical solution to a creative problem.

“The program connects the stiffs of the business world with the creative thinkers in the art world,” says Ostertag, now a sophomore at Ringling. “When I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I realized I wanted to lead a creative company, help move it forward by linking business and innovation. The more I got into the program, the more I realized it’s a perfect fit.”

For Ringling students, the program, which launched in 2008 and now has 21 majors and 81 minors, means double-whammy training — the marriage of artistic impulses and logical sensibilities — a combination that, according to the program’s lead faculty member Dr. Wanda Chaves, is exactly what today’s companies are seeking.

“Businesses are looking for people who don’t just understand business, but who have highly creative skills and understand the creative process,” Chaves says. “In the last 10 years, with the boom of the Internet, many jobs are being sent overseas. The ones remaining are with companies which are trying to reinvent themselves, come up with new ideas and new products. It’s gotten to the point where many companies are choosing to hire people with MFAs over MBAs.”

Ringling’s business students take classes in entrepreneurship, marketing, accounting and management, in addition to the usual battery of art electives.

This fall, an executive from Cirque du Soleil visited Chaves’ leadership class to discuss the company’s hiring and training processes, as well as its marketing and innovation challenges. Students followed up the lecture with a trip to Orlando last month to see Cirque’s “La Nouba” production.

“I think we’re different from other students,” says Ostertag of her fellow business majors. “I think everyone at Ringling is driven and motivated; we’re just going in a slightly more business-y direction. We’re learning how to be more professional, whereas other majors are focusing on their craft.”

Chaves, who was hired in August 2008 to head up the new program, taught for six years in the MBA and undergraduate programs in the management department at the University of Tampa. Prior to that, Chaves worked in Disney’s training-and-development departments, facilitating leadership changes inside the corporation’s executive offices.

By bringing her real-world experience to the classroom, Chaves says Ringling students are learning how to bridge the disconnection between suit-and-tie executives and jeans-and-T-shirt creatives.

“A couple of things have happened that have encouraged us to move in this direction,” says Ringling President Dr. Larry Thompson. “In the past, we, as a society, have primarily valued analytical left-brained thinking. We have focused on the end product, productivity and efficiency. Now the question has become, how do you differentiate yourself from other companies? What does a company look like and feel like? How do you incorporate creativity into the development of your business? The answer lies in design.”

Companies such as DreamWorks, Pixar and Nickelodeon, which usually recruit Ringling students for art department positions, have now expressed interest in placing grads in business, finance and management positions. Even less typical Ringling recruiters have begun scouting the college for new hires; among those are the CIA, FBI and IBM.

“There’s much more fluidity in the arts world now,” says Ringling instructor Mark Ormond, who for 10 years has taught a course on the introduction to the business of fine arts. “I think smart businesses understand the stratification in their own administrative hierarchy. They understand the value of hiring a 24-year-old with an artistic background. Organizations like the CIA and FBI are looking for individuals who are creative problem solvers and students are looking for an education that will give them a leg up.”

The program is also creating a new class of business-savvy artists looking to stay in Sarasota, which is another reason why Thompson wanted to launch the program. Roughly 90% of Ringling’s graduates seek employment outside of Sarasota. A business degree makes students more marketable to local businesses that have become increasingly focused on re-branding their image.

Take Anita Gingerich, for example. Gingerich owns Sarasota Futures, a commodity futures and options brokerage company in downtown Sarasota. When Gingerich’s 29-year-old daughter, Wendy, graduated from Ringling in 2008 with a graphic and interactive-communications major and a business of art and design minor, Gingerich’s first thought was to hire Wendy for design work.

“The next thing I know she’s asking questions and making suggestions about the business,” says Gingerich, 60. “The stuff she brought to the table was something neither of us planned for.”

Students like Ostertag are hoping for that kind of reaction.

“There are hundreds of talented illustration majors at Ringling,” Ostertag says. “I think, career-wise, majoring in business will be more valuable to me in the end.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]

What makes Ringling’s business program even more vital is the fact that the college, together with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County (EDC), has begun courting executives from major, creative industries.

“Creating job opportunities for graduates and young professionals is a key component to economic growth,” says Emily Sperling, EDC community-relations manager.

The EDC is encouraging digital arts and other creative services to relocate their headquarters to Sarasota, in part because Ringling yields such a high number of skilled graduates.