Will starving artists turn to coding instead of waiting tables?

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on April 11, 2014

From The News Desk

In the Olden Days, New York was the place for young aspiring artists to find their dream, all while making ends meet via its venerable service industry. To this day, twenty-somethings wear their past waiting traumas on their sleeves to prove their worth as professionals today (myself included -- I was a barista). But the tech industry is now a mainstay of New York's economy. This means there is potentially a new type of entry-level position to help upstarts pay their far-too-expensive rent.

So why aren't artists coding? (Quite honestly, this is a question I never thought would enter my vicinity -- I still feel somewhat uncomfortable with it.)

Well, it turns one man is asking that question. And let's rejoice in the fact he actually is (or was) an artist and not some rich investor waxing philosophic about why everyone can't code.

This man, Adam Huttler, is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Fractured Atlas, which aims to empower artists and their attendant organizations to become successful entrepreneurs. His organization is not some new upstart either; it's been around for nearly 16 years. But it is introducing a new fellowship aiming to teach young artsy-types how to code as an alternative to the late-night hustle of the service industry. At its core, it's a bootcamp that teaches professional-level web development.

What's perhaps most ironic is that Fractured Atlas actually started as a barebones New York theater company. This dream, however, only lasted one show. "While I was not without talent as a theater director, I am far more useful on the business end of things," Huttler said.

What started as a theater company then became a production company. That didn't quite work either, and after opening a show a few days after September 11, 2001 (a time when few New Yorkers had the theater on their minds), the program decided to once again transform as an advocacy organization. Perhaps unknowingly, Huttler operated his organization very much in line with the lean startup methodology of trial and iteration.

Fractured Atlas officially became a non-profit advocacy outfit in 2002. Today it reaches over 250,000 artists and organization throughout the US. According to Huttler, it's now the "largest organization in the field," operating a fiscal year 2013 budget of about $21 million.

He explained that this software fellowship grew out of his realization that the arts can thrive through entrepreneurial tactics. "There are many hundreds of thousands of artists out there who are working day jobs as temps, waitstaff, bartenders," he said. "But it doesn't complement their artistic work very well."

He posits a world where artists could learn and thus be given freelance opportunities galore. As he put it, these creative people could make "a shit load more money."

Of course, not just anyone can code -- especially to the level necessary for proficient web development. When I talked with Pando's illustrator Hallie Bateman about this program, she laughed at the mere thought of an artist coding as a side project, foreseeing that her code would bring a complete and destructive end to the Internet as we know it.

Huttler is aware that the idea of a nerdy math-type code bro probably isn't mentally synonymous with a free-thinking Brooklyn artiste. But he also believes that some artistic talent is necessary for a coder to be successful. "Web application in particular is a very creative activity," he says.

At the same time, the requirements for this program do require some pre-knowledge. "We have to have a high level of confidence that the person has the basic cognitive capacity and inclination to be teachable as  software developer," Huttler explained. That is, he isn't taking some random puppeteer off the street and giving them a crash course in Python.

Instead, the program takes people with some prior knowledge and gives them a few months-long course in how to make and attend to a website. The first few weeks teach the nuts and bolts of developing, the next section introduces them to a dummy project. Following that, they present their prototype to a group of advisers.

The overall idea, as Huttler put it, is to "get a feel for what it's like to work when there are higher stakes."

The fellowship ran a quiet test run last fall with three participants. This time around, Huttler is keeping it at three, but hoping to get the word out more. He also says that last year's trial worked quite well -- one graduate even works for Fractured Atlas' development team now.

At the same time, the fellowship is still a pilot program, thus Fractured Atlas isn't enlisting the ranks of larger donors to fund it just yet. While Huttler is happy with the current trajectory, this second -- what he is dubbing 'beta' -- program will really seal the deal for whether artists coding is actually a 'thing.'

And despite my early reservations, it does somewhat make sense. Being a struggling anything in New York is tough -- to have a truly lucrative freelance skill would be quite useful. Although, I could see artist developers bringing their work home -- and the real beauty of service life is that once you're done, you're truly done.

Even so, I'm still happy to claim my early New York experience gave me immense "coffee experience." It may not have the same ring as "developing," but it's probably a better cocktail conversation.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]