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Groundbreaking Artist Education Program at BX Museum Marks 30 Years

When Hunts Point native Luis Cancel graduated from Pratt School of Design in the 1970s, he felt as though he had learned the design skills he needed to work as an artist.

Cancel didn’t know the business side of the art world, so in 1981, when the then 28-year-old was named director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, he started a program to make sure other young artists would gain those practical skills also.

Thirty years later, the program, called Artist in the Marketplace, is still going strong. The museum is marking the anniversary by presenting two exhibitions with works by 72 artists who graduated from the A.I.M. program. The exhibition opened on Monday, June 26.

Cancel was recently named as director of the San Francisco Arts Commission three years ago, and wasn’t able to get back to his home borough for exhibition.

“It’s really frustrating for me because creating AIM was one of my big legacies for the Bronx and the museum,” he said.

When Cancel started the program, he wanted to make sure young artists had the chance to learn skills like writing press releases, managing their studio and negotiating contracts. These were things that he had to learn on the fly.

“I hadn’t the foggiest notion what a contract with a gallery would look like, or how I needed to prepare my taxes as a professional,” Cancel said.

There are two A.I.M. classes each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Cancel ran the program until the mid-90s and each class had about 15 students. Class size has grown to 18 and about 800 artists apply each year.

In the early days, most students were Bronxites but this year’s classes had people from all over the city. Sessions often consist of art-world professionals, such as gallery owners or critics, visiting the museum and meeting with students to explain their side of the business.

Since the art business has changed a lot over the past three decades, A.I.M.’s curriculum has changed a lot as well.

“Until a few years ago the program was sort of along the lines of what Cancel planned,” said current program director Sergio Bessa. “But we’ve moved away from that. For example, today many artists don’t have a studio, they just work from their laptop.”

Even the people running A.I.M. are learning to navigate the changing art business.

“Now there’s social media. We are still trying to figure out how artists can use social media to their best advantage,” said Bessa, who believes the foundation laid by Cancel is still strong. “He is a visionary, and to think that this program has survived 30 years is a measure of how strong his vision was.”

Woodlawn resident Monica Moran participated in the 2010 A.I.M. class, and several of her pieces are in the anniversary exhibition. She said that although the business in a state of flux, the class was a useful experience.

“I think what A.I.M. does is help artists become more objective about how to approach a gallery,” Moran said. “We talked about some of the more esoteric parts of working as an artist and making a living. I have a lot of respect for their program.”

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