Arts careers are often non-linear with no one pathway to success.
Having multiple inroads to the arts is liberating, but can also be stressful. There are many options with opportunities that often lead to other opportunities, creating a career path that looks more like a maze than a road.
When you are just starting out your art career, whether you are fresh out of school or in a second career, the decisions you make shape your unique path as an artist.
One of the most exciting things about being an artist is that there is no one way to be an artist. There usually no direct footsteps to follow. Every path is different and paths are made where there previously were no paths at all.
The art world is changing rapidly as technology advances, giving artists more opportunities and ways to reach new and larger audiences.
But with all the possibilities and no direct roadmap, the decisions can oven be paralyzing for artists just starting out or forging a new path.
Here are just a few ways to decide what next steps are right for you in your art career.
Are artist residencies right for you?
Residencies give you the time, space, and funding to dedicate yourself to your art—and are pathways that can help shape art careers.
The beauty of residencies is that there is something for everyone. With hundreds of opportunities out there, there are countless opportunities to explore.
If you are an emerging or student artist, there are residencies for you. If you are established, there are residences for you. Getting back into an art practice? There are residencies for you too. Want to work on a farm or reconnect with nature? Want to travel the world or stay local? A solitary residency? A residency that fosters community? All of those opportunities exist as well.
Applying and cobbling together different residencies can feel like a hustle. But, patchworking together residencies takes the pressure off of you to support yourself and gives you some essential structure and motivation to create.
With so many residencies out there, you need to know how to identify the right residencies for you and then embrace a persistence when you start applying for opportunities.
Identifying the right residency for you (and eliminating those that aren't)
Finding the right residency will take time and some inward reflection.
What do you need to succeed in a residency setting?
Are there constraints that you will have to work with?
Are you willing or able to travel or accept an unpaid, partially funded, or an opportunity that requires you to cover costs?
Make a list of what you need to succeed and then make sure that the residencies you apply for will be able to cover at least some of your needs. This list could cover anything and everything from funding needs, residency structure, output requirements, housing options, to your availability with time.
One of the benefits of a residency is that it pushes you outside your comfort zone—whether that’s geographically, socially, or through the work you’ll take on. Be thoughtful in your application process, but also be open to opportunity.
Weigh the pros and cons of the financial commitment that comes with some residencies.
Some residencies are pie-in-the-sky opportunities that will help you put your name on the map with funding, connections, and prestige. These premier types of residencies are highly competitive. Don’t be intimidated. Apply anyway and apply again if you don't get it the first time.
Think of applications and residencies in terms of fits and reaches. Stretch yourself to apply to more competitive opportunities but make sure that you are also applying for residencies that are less competitive.
Even highly-known and competitive residencies do sometimes still charge residents (Mass MoCA, Skowhegan, etc.). Think through a cost-benefit analysis of opportunities. Costs may pay off for you in terms of professional development, exposure, and future opportunity.
A good rule of thumb is not to pay more than your cost of living to participate in an opportunity. If you can use a residency for food and housing and end up paying your same cost of living for that period, you are not losing anything from participating.
Make sure to research scholarship opportunities for residencies and to communicate your needs with the hosting organization. Ask for application fee waivers if necessary. If a residency is not fully-funded or requires you to pay, there may be workarounds that will allow you to still participate.
Treat applying to opportunities as a job in itself.
Take yourself seriously as an artist if you want to have a career in the arts.
Treat applying to opportunities like a job. Create a schedule of different residencies, call for submissions, and art job deadlines. Know sites that post these opportunities. Apply and reapply. Opportunities are always changing. While you might not be the perfect candidate on round one, you might be the next time.
Add professionalism to your persistence.
Learn from your experiences. Diplomatically ask for feedback as to why you didn’t receive an offer and then work to improve your applications or approach in the future.
Remember to follow up with your connections, thank people for their time, and make sure to send thank yous for any type of interview.
Supplementing your art practice with teaching
Other inroads to being a career artist?
If you have an MFA, you are qualified to teach art at a college level. One pathway to an art career is working at a university. Not only does teaching allow you to use your experience to inspire and collaborate, you have university resources on hand.
You can network with visiting artists, use studio equipment and art materials, and take advantage of opportunities for exhibiting at your university and in the community. As an art professor, you can create enrichment opportunities for you and your students like taking field trips to various art fairs.
Academia is difficult to break into for any field. Before giving you a fulltime job a university might want you to teach a course or two as an adjunct professor. What does this look like and what does that even mean?
Adjunct teaching: Adjunct teaching means that you will be hired on a part-time basis, often for one or two classes semester by semester.
Is it worth it?
Teaching one or two art classes at a university level will most likely not pay your bills. However, think through if there is a way to combine adjunct teaching with a different job. Teaching adjunct is a good way to get your foot in the door, get connected to university resources and networks, and try out teaching.
Teaching outside of academia: While teaching at a university level has prestige, teaching art in different capacities awards you the same perks as teaching at a university. If you are looking to make money teaching art, apply to teach at a community college, high school, or for a community art program.
Even if teaching is not a feasible way for you to make an income, teaching allows you access to spaces and materials for you to create and help other people to create. If teaching allows you the perk of a studio space or free equipment use, it might be something to consider.
Embracing a Day Job
It's important to love what you do and feel like your work is meaningful, but it's also important to pay your bills. A job can and afford you the time, space, and energy to pursue your passions.
Whether your day job is actively connected to the arts or is totally separate it's important to remember that jobs are not a necessary evil. Working allows you to interact with people, keep your mind busy, and ultimately is a boon for your art.
Working in a gallery, as an art handler or art consultant, or in a framing shop are ways to pay your bills and still be connected in your day job to the art world. Working in a gallery or as an artist apprentice allows you access to artist communities that can help support your own artist path.
When you are starting your art career, these spaces might allow you to focus on your art and learn practical business skills while still being able to support yourself financially.
Creative people need to stay busy, whether it's waitressing or a corporate 9-5, it's important to work. Working gets you moving, gets you social, and can get you inspired. Later, when you are looking to create, you have already been working from productive space, creating can become easier.
Also, let's face it. Working pays the bills. Dream, but don’t be stubborn. You can have a job and be a professional artist.
Volunteering and building your network
Make connections within art spaces and communities in addition to your day job.
Think through how you define being a career artist. Know that even if you are not paying your bills with your art, you can continue to create and be an artist while holding other jobs.
One way that you can make sure you are connected to art spaces and networks is to volunteer. Curious about your local art museum’s maker or artist in a residency program? Volunteer!
Volunteering allows you access to places and people as well as professional insight. Make sure that volunteer opportunities will be enriching for you. As an artist society generally underpays and undervalues you, don’t spread yourself too thin with volunteer labor.
Outside of volunteering, stay connected to spaces you are interested in being involved with. Go to gallery openings, introduce yourself to other artists, find your community and make sure to be active within it.
Finding balance and motivation in your studio
It’s important to remember that you are an artist. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t fully able to support yourself by making art. You innovate, you create, you are an artist.
So now, especially as you try to amp up your art career, you need to make time and find the energy for yourself to continue to create.
Do you have a space to create? Make sure that if it’s a studio, a section of your home, or a shared art space, that you keep your space organized and dedicated to your art. Having a committed space and time to create will allow you to see your art as a professional and serious undertaking.
Think about ways that you can motivate yourself and ensure that you put time into your art.
If you are balancing work and art, is there a system you use to keep yourself in check?
Building strong art career habits
Often when pursuing dreams we find ourselves caught between our aspirations and practical realities. Many new and early career artists ask themselves, “How long can I dedicate myself to my art before I need to find something else?”
Our answer to that question is that like becoming a career artist, an art career itself is not straight forward. Instead of focusing on a timeline and deadline for your dream work to steadily make your art career happen even if you do not currently consider yourself a career artist.
Embrace art career habits no matter where in your art career you may be. Apply, network, connect, volunteer, be active in your community, find balance and motivation in making your art. Put systems in place to organize yourself and your time.
Artwork Archive is proud to be not just a powerful toolkit and platform to help you organize your career, but an artist resource and community. Let us be a part of your art career habits. Whether you sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop with opportunities and art career articles or if you sign up for our platform. Get organized at the start of your art career. There is no time like the present to kickstart your art.