Syllabus for Artist Lectures

Syllabus for Artist Lectures

by Marc Fischer

Recently I was invited to teach a graduate-level class around the visiting artist lecture series at a college where I work as an adjunct in the Art and Art History department. There were only 6 lectures in this 15-week class and it was during the COVID-19 pandemic so everything happened online. Normally we might have used the other 9 weeks to take field trips and do interesting things in person together but the pandemic wasn’t having any of that. Instead, in addition to the series organized by the school, everyone attended live lectures happening all over the place — online — or watched archival lectures on various websites and then the students wrote about or discussed what they experienced. 

In creating this college course, I wrote this text that I added to the syllabus. I’ve adapted it a little for this project. By attending lectures in person and online, anywhere you live, you could use these notes as a framework for how lecturing might be useful for your own art practice, or this might serve as a guide to things to listen for when you attend other people’s lectures. 

Thoughts on Artist Lectures

Being able to speak effectively about your creative work is perhaps the most important skill an artist can develop. While no one is required to give lectures on their art, these are some things I have learned over the years:

1. For artists, lectures are an opportunity to organize documentation of your work, create new documentation, try out different ways of telling the story of your work and ideas (perhaps changing your approach depending on the audience) and even to talk about new work before you have exhibited it. 

2. Lecturing on your work is a way of being publicly accountable for your ideas and taking risks by being available to a larger audience that may disagree with your work. How do you want to be — not just as an artist, but as a person who participates in the world? How will you handle debate and critique or difficult questions in a lecture setting?

3. Being able to give an artist lecture to strangers makes teaching more comfortable (and vice versa). Public speaking is hard. It gets easier when you do it many times in many situations. 

4. Visiting artist lectures and class visits are an excellent source of additional income. Once you develop ways of lecturing on a variety of projects, there will be less prep time. A class visit to a small group of students often pays $100.00 to $500.00 depending on the school and a department’s resources. $150.00 for a one-hour talk is perhaps the most common fee. Lectures that involve travel and are part of a department or school-wide lecture series may pay $500.00 to $1,000 or more. If you are willing to do studio visits or lead a workshop on top of giving a lecture, you can earn more money. 

4a. Giving lectures can be a way to fund art projects that do not normally have a sell-able outcome.

5. Lectures (during non-Covid times) provide opportunities to travel. I have seen many parts of the country and world because of my willingness to travel to talk about my work. Other important experiences happen because of being able to visit other places, and more opportunities open because of this. It’s sometimes possible to get an extra day of free hotel or lodging so you can see more people or see more of a city that you only visited to give a one-hour lecture. Ask the organization or institution that invited you if you can stay a little longer. Sometimes they have lodging arrangements where it doesn’t cost them anything extra to extend your stay, or if you have a friend you can stay with, that’s another option. 

6. Lectures are a way to develop relationships with the people that invite you, students or others in the audience, and even administrators that coordinate your talk. All of these people can become part of your artistic community. Students often remember the work of people that visit their classes and sometimes seek them out later on. Five years later, some of those students may become curators or others who might be in a position to work with you. I have done studio visits with students where we connected in some way, stayed in touch, and remain friends over ten years later. 

7. For audiences, lectures are an opportunity to hear artists speak about their work in their own words. This is often much different than critical accounts. Artists also frequently share anecdotes about their development, key life experiences, and other things that don’t make it into more formal histories.

8. Watching artists figure out how to structure a lecture is informative. What do people do with that 45 minutes or an hour of speaking time? Do they try to show their entire body of work? Do they focus on just a few projects in more detail? Do they treat the lecture more like a performance? How does the artist manage the time constraints and dynamic of the lecture format? What do they do online that might be different from giving a talk in person?

9. Artist lectures have the potential to be solid learning experiences even if you have no interest in the lecturer’s art. Perhaps an artist overcame a similar creative problem that you are having, or encountered a similar life challenge? Maybe they got sick but had to figure out how to keep making art? Maybe they had to figure out how to keep making art after they had a child? Maybe they had to figure out how to keep making art when they had very little money or had to care for a family member? Maybe the artist experienced censorship? Lectures can be an opportunity to benefit from hearing about these kinds of experiences regardless of what kind of work you are looking at.

10. Thanks to high speed internet and COVID-19, it is now possible for you to attend countless lectures happening all over the world, live, for free. This is a new reality. Take advantage of it. Want to engage with a school or exhibition space? Attend their online events. Demonstrate interest in the work these organizations are doing from the comfort of your Zoom room. Attend an artist’s lecture and try to connect with them later if you think that doing so might be mutually beneficial. 

11. Thanks to YouTube, Vimeo, and platforms like these, you can now watch thousands of archived videos of lectures that you missed. This also means that lectures you give might be archived, for better or worse. 

In 2020, the artist Jesse Malmed created a Google doc that compiled upcoming online artist lectures, allowing others to add online talks that they were aware of. The file continues to be updated as I type this in 2021. I leaned on this doc heavily when I was teaching my lecture series class. Many of the past lectures have been archived online (do some YouTube searches or check each institution’s website). For anyone looking to survey a range of contemporary artist talks, this list would be a great place to start:

In the end, everyone in my class attended a lot of artist lectures. A self-motivated artist could have attended all of the same talks for free without going to art school and might have gathered a group of peers together to discuss the lectures outside of an institutional framework. This was originally written for people who intend to pursue art and possibly teaching as a career, but I hope some of these ideas are applicable for others as well.