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How do you get a career in arts? And how do I know when I’m qualified enough to produce work that can sell? Also, what are some advice/unexpected things you wish you knew to get there?
If you are interested in having a career in the arts, I think it’s important to start out by figuring out exactly which field you want to go into. Every area of visual arts has a completely different set of requirements, so you need to research that first. For example, if you want to teach studio art at the college level, you need to have an MFA degree. If you want to do editorial illustration, you need a portfolio and you need to make contacts with art directors at magazines, newspapers, and publishers.
I will say that no matter which field you want to go into, it’s critical to have a professional website that is substantial and well presented, and also to make sure you network with the other professionals in the field. It is impossible to have a career in the arts and do it entirely on your own, you’ll need people who can mentor you, people who can refer you to others, and support in terms of sustaining your career. I can say that in my career the best professional opportunities I have had were because someone recommended me, not because I applied for something.
Knowing when you’re qualified enough to produce work that can sell is a very hazy line. I feel like it’s less about qualifications, and more about your intuition about what other people want and your ability to market it. There are artists I know with great educational and professional pedigrees that just can’t sell anything for the life of them. And then there are artists I know who are totally self taught and are just kind of winging it, but are able to make a living selling their work in their community.
Prof Lieu has a great article here on Art Prof on how best to go about selling your work. I would add that it’s good to keep track of all of your art expenses and revenue in several spreadsheets, as this can help both with keeping track of your finances, and your progress as you establish yourself. Also it may help with taxes if selling artwork becomes a big part of your life.
I wish I had been told when I was just starting out not to hold on so tightly to my very narrow career goals! It’s good to have a specific interest and to identify that early on so you can better focus your efforts, but at the same time you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you find yourself straying slightly – or even drastically! – from that path.
No artist’s career ends up looking exactly the way they imagined it at the beginning. The only way to be successful is to be adaptive and open; not only to the opportunities that come your way but also to your own artistic process and ever-changing interests! You have to learn when to be disciplined and stay “on task,” and when to take a risk and pursue whatever is inspiring you in the moment, and that’s a tricky skill to cultivate.
When I first graduated from art school I took on a lot of work that was outside of my realm (or maybe my depth!), but did so sort of begrudgingly… And ultimately did not enjoy myself, as a result, because I was worried all throughout that I was wasting my time by not staying true to my “personal vision.”
Looking back with a couple years hindsight, however, I can see that there is a direct relationship between what I am doing in my personal work now and the lessons I learned from those commissioned projects. I meandered from the path, but came back to it with an even greater depth and inspiration.