Animatronics, Virtual Reality, and Robots: Behold an Alternative Career Path for Art Students

We've seen many examples lately of grantmakers like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funding programs to help liberal arts students find meaningful employment upon graduation. 

Meanwhile, funders like Creative Capital and programs like the Clark Hulings Fund help aspiring artists navigate the complex professional art world. But these programs exists for graduates who want to be successful artists. What's an art student to do if he doesn't want to, say, become a contemporary abstract painter?

A new program at the University of North Carolina provides an intriguing alternative career path.

The UNC School of the Arts (UNCSA) received an anonymous gift of $10 million—the largest gift the school has received from an individual donor—that will be used to establish the Institute for Performance Innovation.

The Institute for Performance Innovation, you say?

Upon reading the name, I immediately tried to predict its charter. Perhaps it aims to revolutionize an aspect of the performing arts like the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's work in the field of dance? Or maybe it resembles Mellon's Arts on Campus, which brings together humanities students and performing artists?

Nope on both counts. Not even close, in fact.

According to the school, the institute will support the creation of a graduate animatronics program in UNCSA’s School of Design and Production and advance a graduate program in gaming and virtual reality in the School of Filmmaking. (And yes, I had to check the definition of "animatronics." It's "the technique of making and operating lifelike robots, typically for use in film or other entertainment.")

According to Michael J. Kelley, the dean of the School of Design and Production, the gift will prepare the next generation of artists for leadership-level positions in the fields of "creature/animatronic design, sound design, sound engineering and mechanical engineering for the broader entertainment industry."

The catch-all buzzword for this type of work is "entertainment training," and the program is a philanthropic perfect storm: new career paths for artistically inclined students with a focus on the increasingly popular field of virtual reality, a technology that has made significant inroads in the fields of journalism and, most obviously, film.

"This gift will provide tremendous momentum as we build partnerships that will keep the School of the Arts at the vanguard, leading the way in how artists of the future will learn, hone and expand their craft," said Edward J. Lewis, the university’s chief advancement officer. These partners include Disney, Cirque du Soleil, DreamWorks and Universal Studios.

Not too shabby.

We've been following higher education trends in the arts space for a while now, and while funders continue to carve out alternative career paths for graduates, the running joke hasn't changed all that much: If you have a degree in art you should get used to making cappuccinos.

News out of North Carolina, however, shows how just one anonymous donor—maybe it's... George Lucas?—can help change the narrative.