Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Illuminate: The Association of Medical Illustrators meeting here in Toronto. In addition to astonishingly good illustrations - and we're talking about art that has the potential to save real human lives here remember! - what I found surprised me. Medical illustration as a discipline is in turmoil.

It shouldn't have surprised me. We live in times for great upheaval in the publishing world. Online, the current topsy-turvy economy consists of creators making less money than sites aggregating illustrator's work into curated collections. New models for a viable career in all levels of illustration are starting to emerge, tentatively, through crowdfunding and ebook sales. The problems medical illustrators face in their industry are no different than comic book creators, cartoonists, children's book illustrators, street artists, fine artists, sf/fantasy illustrators and concept artists. It's the same problematic turtles all the way down.

I was naive. Expecting a rich, serious discipline regularly employed by the always advancing worlds of medical treatment and pharmaceuticals, I found the illustrators present to be members of a serious discipline searching for new directions.

The Discipline of Medical Illustration

In the world of Science-Art that we cover here on Symbiartic, there are a lot of sub-areas that have their own habits and conventions. I find it useful to think of some of the areas of science-art as analogs to types of music: bioart is like dubstep, mixing tech and art in a raw way; paleoart is like rock music, overfilled with superstars and plenty trying to make it; wildlife painting like bluegrass, done almost for the love of the form alone. If those metaphors work, then medical illustration is a symphony, where every inked line or digitally highlighted hue matters essentially to the whole. If a medical illustrator gets a "note" wrong, it can affect surgeries, court cases, chemical information and training in issues of human health. Supreme skills in drawing from life, understanding anatomy down to the molecular level and knowing how to edit away extraneous visual information (like, blood around the incision in a surgical diagram), are day-to-day skills medical illustrators never stop honing.

The Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) is unique among art organizations in that they helped originally develop accreditation programs for the field to keep the standards at peak professional levels.

Conference Agenda

Toronto, my hometown was chosen to host this year's AMI meeting due to the fact it has one of only 4 biomedical communication degrees in North America, as well as a number of respected studios, such as AXS, Artery and Invivo.

The Illuminate conference agenda nicely shows how the medical illustration field stays on top of its game: talks and workshops ranged from fantasy illustration, to sculpted museum display to gaming. It also showed how as a discipline, many members are seeking to diversify their skill-set and portfolios in order to remain in business. Among the talks,

  • E.O. Wilson and Gaël McGill talked about their work developing what Wilson described as a private school-level quality interactive textbook for iPads and tablets, and how getting that level of education in the hands of as many children as possible has the potential to change interest and understanding in science.
  • James Gurney, noted illustrator, blogger and author of the Dinotopia series gave an engaging talk about the need to draw from life, and to do it constantly. He shared stories of building maquettes and costumes for things that don't exist, drawing fellow passengers on airplanes (and how to explain yourself when caught) and his standard plein air kit.
  • Hall Train, the breathtaking sculptor and artist responsible for 3D and interactive dinosaurs in many museums shared stories relating how getting the sculpture as realistic as possible revealed new findings to paleontology in more than one instance. Check out this video of a walking T-rex skeleton.
  • Teri McDermott and Marcia Hartstock led a group discussing the life cycle of art, and what will happen to your art after you die? They promoted the Vesalius Trust, a trust where medical illustrators can bequeath their work for preservation after they die. (Watch for my interview with members of the Trust in a future post).
  • Jeremy Friedberg of Spongelab talked gaming and education, and the growing field that medical illustrators could soon find themselves working with as textbooks make room in education for new ways of learning. (See Symbiartic's Spongelab post here.)

There were many more talks over the packed few days here in Toronto. A these few show, the medical illustration community knowingly draws on outside influences to improve their field, and I think, is also looking outside of medical and pharmaceutical companies in order to stay in demand and in business.

Art Groups Grappling with New Media

The last few years I've spoken to members of a number of arts groups, many but not all science + art related. It's a challenge for any arts group I think to grapple effectively with the new world of digital promotion, marketing, and especially community.

A large portion of the Illuminate conference was given to meetings discussing the future of the AMI. Topics ranged from allowing scientific illustrators from other disciplines, to spending and raising funds, and especially, to whether or not the Association of Medical Illustrators needs a name change. They've hired a branding company to look into how they are perceived, and what strengths they bring that are unique for clientele and members alike. I was tweeting these meetings on the #amimtg hashtag and was unashamed to complain that the branding company representative actually read the Power Point. Out loud. Word for word.

Members seemed less than impressed with the presentation, and there was a lot of anger, both from those who thought a name change was a good idea, and those who thought the AMI should not let go of its historical legacy so easily. Both parties agreed that the name change was less vital than changes to the organization itself: is a name change a starting point? They were assured studies would have to be done.

I spent a lot of my time between sessions talking to as many attendees as I could about how they felt about social media's role in promoting their work, and how the AMI did it. It seems they are making changes to catch up with social media, but I was surprised by a number of things.

  • I assumed there was no official Twitter for the AMI, or Facebook or blog/news page with an RSS feed, and tweeted about it. The official AMI Twitter (@AMIdotorg) assured me it existed, and a blog was coming soon. I responded I was surprised since neither the Twitter or Facebook can be found on the front page of their website. Or their Contact Us page. Or the About page.
  • Their official Twitter also follows ZERO other people. Not even their own members or clients. So it's not being used as social media; it's a bullhorn.
  • A member pointed out the popular LinkedIn group Science Artist Collaborations was "filled with fine artists stealing their jobs".
  • During the meeting, a member asked if a survey had or could be done of major clients the AMI members work with regarding feelings about a possible name change. The president responded, saying that it had been looked into but would cost upwards of $100,000.

As the second day of name change debate was winding down, I took a chance as a non-member to speak to the Board and the hundreds of members gathered in the room. A bit nervous, (the branding representative had been shouted down as a non-member taking too much time the day before), I introduced myself as there to blog for Scientific American, and that I am one of the scary fine artists stealing their jobs. Points I covered included (and this is not verbatim):

  • Surveys don't have to cost tens of thousands of dollars. SurveyMonkey is free, or inexpensive for a deluxe version and bam, it will be in the client's inboxes within seconds of creating one.
  • Creating an online community as rich and talented as this one is hard work. But more and more artists are able to network with each other without the aid of an organizations this large and expensive. Groups of some of the science-artists we've featured here on Symbiartic meet informally for chats on G+ Hangouts every couple of weeks. So large organizations need to be better at creating community than the artists are themselves.
  • Blogging, commenting on blogs, and being on social media (Twitter, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, maybe Pinterest and Tumblr) is more important than ever. So large organizations need to be better at promoting their members than the members are themselves. AMI (and they are not alone among science-art organizations) needs to catch up and start leading in this regard.
  • Bottom line is, their clients -universities, publishers, pharmaceutical companies, entertainment production companies, museums etc.- are all online. And they need to go where their clients are.

Again, these challenges are not unique to the AMI. And they are also not as one attendee suggested to me, age-related. E.O. Wilson sat and expoused the importance of iPad textbooks as next-gen tools. Guest blogger here on Symbiartic Jim Perkins is a longtime member of AMI and has set-up some of their private member's communication. And so on.

So long, and thanks for all the corpuscles

My sincere thanks for the AMI having me attend their meeting, and for the members from the President and Board on down to new student members and volunteers for being so gracious sharing their time and stories and the stunning, stunning talent that was everywhere on display. The AMI holds its members to incredibly high standards in their discipline and technical artistry - and this may be a group to crack the new media turmoil and find a way forward.


Expect some more posts on an ongoing basis about members and the AMI affiliates here on Symbiartic. My thanks to Melanie Bowzer for the press pass and my co-blogger Kalliopi for getting me in touch with AMI.