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Life After Art School: What’s Next?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu

Art Prof & Partner

“There are many ways to be an artist.”

In the summer and fall after graduation season in June, I frequently get messages from former students who are in a frantic panic about what to do professionally. The messages go something like this:

“How do I get parents to not have a mental breakdown over my lack of a career?”
“I’m in a rough place at the moment; I’ve been applying to jobs and I haven’t had any luck.”
“I’m basically stuck at home shooting resumes into the void. “

“I feel so lost as to what to do.”
“How do I not fall into a pit of despair due to unemployment?”
“I know it’s only been a couple months, but it’s easy to feel useless and hopeless, you know?”

When I was having my own professional meltdown a few years ago (one of many) one of my former professors said to me “there are many ways to be an artist.” Such a simple statement, but it was exactly what I needed to hear to remove the burden of not achieving what I thought I was “supposed” to be achieving.

Pursue what YOU want to do, not what everyone else says you should do

Most of the time nowadays, I practically bolt of of bed and with with feverish enthusiasm on my current projects. However, I still get self-conscious from time to time about taking an alternative path as an artist.  When that happens, I remember what my former professor said to me, and I can renew my confidence in the path I chose to take.

For many years after finished my MFA degree, I was trying to fulfill someone else’s checklist of goals that were not my own. Since I walked away from that checklist of goals, the world is a much bigger place, and I’m seeing opportunities in places I never would have considered options even just 5 years ago.

“As a non-traditional college student who had taken several gap years, I was a little bit older than my peers, but I was still terrified like most art school seniors that I was jumping into some deep and horrible abyss of financial doom.

I actually went to therapy because I was so fixated on the idea that I was going to be homeless after graduation. Thankfully, this has yet to come to pass.

There are certainly realities that are hard to deal with as an artist fresh out of art school, but they are not nearly as bad as the ones I had imagined.”

Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Reality vs. Passion

I’ve been in this situation before; a college course I’ve taught in the past is a Senior Seminar, intended to prepare students for a professional life after art school. For most students, the idea of life after art school is terrifying, and many are either in denial or paralyzed by their fear. The subject is a touchy one, and when you’re immersed in senior year of art school, it’s still pretty easy to push it to the back of your head.

I always struggle with teaching the Senior Seminar course because I want to be honest about the challenges of the professional art world, while not causing the students to completely freak out and see the future as a hopelessly bleak place. I want my students to feel okay if things don’t go exactly as they want them to, (which for most of us, is pretty much 99% of the time) and to reassure them that you can make it work.

Ultimately, what I want to do is empower my students with the skills and savviness that will allow them to retain their passion for what brought them to study art in the first place. That’s about as much as a contradiction as you’re going to get, it’s a tough subject with imperfection “solutions.”

Hitting that balance on such a delicate topic for many recent art school graduates is extremely difficult to do well, but what I do know is that many artists who do find success tend to never mention every having a hard time. For those reasons, I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me in the years after art school.

Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Filmmaker & Animator

“Life after graduating art school was a combination of feeling liberated and endlessly confused. I had these incredible skills and knowledge my education had provided me, but had no idea what I wanted to do with them.

What I did know was that I had no savings, and my artistic community was slowly disappearing. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, and I had a ton of personal projects that had been collecting dust while I was working on my thesis.

Trying to keep calm while navigating this post-graduate labyrinth was difficult.  I decided to capitalize on the things that were already working for me, worked on feeling more confident in my areas of confusion, and set a 6-month goal.”

It’s normal to have a tough time after graduating from art school

How things go for you in the months after graduation has nothing to do with your worth or skills as a visual artist. Some artists have extremely successful careers not because their artwork is necessarily artistically revolutionary, but because they are simply masters of marketing.

If you won’t believe me, take a look at Jeff Koons, do you really think he made it to to where he was based on his skills?  Ask his warehouse of underpaid workers in New York City who produce his artwork for him.

I also know several artists who I think are truly incredible, whose artwork is so exquisite that I bow down to their greatness. For a long time, I was always puzzled as to how they could be producing such amazing artwork, but weren’t having much professional success.

After many years working as a practicing artist, I am now seeing that their careers suffered due to their lack of motivation to consistently engage with the public. Sometimes it’s simply laziness, other times it’s lack of interest, and other times that’s actually on purpose! I had a former professor who really could have cared less about getting his work out there, he didn’t want the constant interruptions and distractions that come with trying to publicize yourself as an artist and was perfectly content to keep it that way.

For better or for worse, marketing truly is a separate skill that has nothing to do with your skills as an artist.

You can’t be a professional artist by yourself, find or create your artist community.

Who are your “hotlines?”  Who will you call when you are verbally bullied by 3 senior faculty members at the college you teach at? (yes, that happened to me) Who will explain to you how licensing an image works?

Connect with an artist who has at least 15 years more professional experience than you do


“Some of my first jobs were freelance gigs, where I had a lot of clients who didn’t know very much, or anything, about art. I had to quickly learn the importance of contracts and being BEYOND clear about budgets, cost, expectations, etc.

It’s very important to create good relationships with old teachers, classmates, and mentors. When it came to writing contracts and figuring out project budgets, those were the people I needed to most for guidance.

Having a strong creative network once you’re out of school makes a lot of things so much easier!”

Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Filmmaker & Animator

The following statements are not necessarily true

Yes, some people do listen to the advice below and end up with stellar art careers. Some artists will win Guggenheim grants, and MacArthur grants. Some artists are chosen from over 400 applicants and get a tenure track position at a top art school,  some will have artworks in art fairs and at an NYC art gallery in Chelsea that fetch jaw dropping prices. Some artists will have their work in museum collections all over the world in places like the Whitney and the British Museum. 

However, all of that is the equivalent of winning the lottery or becoming a major movie star like Hugh Jackman.  There are just soooooooooo many artists, the ratio of artists to these specific opportunities is just impossible.

“You have to move immediately to New York City to make it in visual arts!” 
“To be a legitimate illustrator, you have to freelance and illustrate for the NY Times or the New Yorker!”
“The only art galleries that matter are the ones in NYC.”
“NYC is the only place where anything new and exciting is happening in visual arts.”
“You have to do your MFA degree at Yale and Columbia!”
“You have to publish a children’s book within 5 years of graduation or it will never happen!”
“An amazing animation job would be doing CG effects on really big Pixar movies and other major Hollywood films!”
“Do an unpaid internship at at New York City art gallery, that will get you good connections!”

“A lot of the time, your big goal is similar to everyone else’s big goal. I’ve met a lot of people that want to be represented by a New York City Chelsea art gallery or want to be a tenured art professor.

There is a lot of competition for very few positions that sometimes don’t even end up being that glamorous anyway.

But if you keep an open mind, you’ll acquire opportunities and positions that are maybe off the beaten path, but make a path unique to you which is a lot more important!”

Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Your major in art school does not necessarily determine your career path

It’s common that within a department at an art school, there is pressure put on the students to pursue very specific areas within their major. This is a really narrow minded way to approach your career which vastly limits your professional options as an artist.  This causes many recent grads to think that if they don’t have the “right” kind of success, what they pursue is not legitimate.

The opposite holds true as well, there are some jobs that some faculty and students will scoff at. In some art school jewelry departments, you’d be seen as the world’s biggest sell out if you get a job at Tiffany’s!

If you majored in illustration……you have to freelance.
If you majored in painting……you must show with a New York City art gallery.
If you majored in printmaking……you have to work at a printshop.
If you majored in animation….. you must work at an animation studio like Cartoon Network.
If you majored in film……. you need to work on a film set.

Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Children’s Book Artist

“After I graduated, I had a very rigid idea of what my work and my life as an artist would look like: I would illustrate books, and only books. End of story.

I fell into the trap a lot of young artists fall into: limiting my work by keeping my dreams too narrow. Whether by not taking some classes because they didn’t fit with my goal, or even not drawing some pieces I thought of because they didn’t work with the portfolio I wanted, I was limiting myself as an artist.”

The problem with staying focused on one goal is that we sometimes ignore the directions that our work is trying to take us, and when we stray too far away from our true work we lose focus on why we make art in the first place. A career in art is not a simple trajectory. There are many turns and surprises that it can take us that we don’t even expect!

Open your eyes and cast a very, very, wide net

Let’s dispel some of these myths and tell you that there are SO MANY other options out there, you just have to be willing to your eyes to them.  Art schools really do their students a disservice when they put pressure on students to think that there are only a few career options that are acceptable.

This is not all on the schools though; to be able to see those options, you’ll also need to swallow your pride. If you take a mindset that a particular field or art or media is beneath you, you’re going to be closing a lot of doors and not have much to pick from.

“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.

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.”

Casey Roonan, Comics Artist & Cartoonist

Casey Roonan
Cartoonist & Comics Artist

All of those motivational articles for struggling artists usually have the opposite effect

The way the news media covers visual artists does not help either.  The only artists who get significant press coverage are the ones who had a sudden, meteoric rise, who skyrocketed into the art world after being plucked out of an MFA program in NYC. Or, it’s articles like Forbes’ “30 under 30” as if 30 is your deadline for success.

The only artist success story article I’ve ever read that was helpful was this one written by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. I read this article once in a while when I feel demoralized, and it helps every time!

A personal connection can be everything

Many articles conveniently don’t mention those personal connections that started an art career. From the outside, how these people get onto these lists seems completely baffling.

The truth is, many of the people in these lists are no necessarily any better or more deserving than anyone else.  Many of them had a significant personal connection that gave them membership into a very exclusive club.

Once you realize how a personal connection can make a career, you’ll start to notice how common it is. Case in point: this New Yorker article that mentions that Ryan Trecartin‘s father, Dell Trecartin, was a childhood friend of Ken Johnson. (an art critic for the New York Times)

Johnson and Linda Norden (at that time, Norden was a curator at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum) attended the first public screening of an early film by Ryan Trecartin at the Rhode Island School of Design. The article goes on to state that Norden “would become one of Trecartin’s most effective supporters.”

Clara Lieu, Deepti Menon, Alex Rowe

Most artists only show you the success, no one talks about what’s difficult

A lot of art schools bring successful, recent alums to lecture and speak about their experiences.  Schools naturally want students to have a point of reference for what’s possible, so it makes sense to bring in the alums who have experienced that success early.

However, many of these successful recent alums giving these talks don’t bother to address the less glamorous parts of being an artist, any periods of struggle prior to their success, financial difficulties. From the outside, the process of building a career in visual arts can appear to be a piece of cake. Social media only perpetuates this, as many young artists heavily curate their feeds to appear much happier and more successful than they actually are.

All of this is hugely misleading to artists at the very beginning of their career, you feel like you are the only artist in the world who is having a hard time, that everyone else is more content, more active, younger, had had success much earlier than you!

In theory, it should be inspiring to hear these successful alums who attended the same art school. More often than not though, students feel very demoralized afterwards. Every year, I hear the same comments from students afterwards:

“I’m so depressed.”
“I’m never going to make it.”
“I’m so behind.”
“I’m already a junior and I haven’t done anything yet!”

“Sometimes I feel embarrassed that I lived with my parents for so long, but I try to be honest about it. Jobs in the art world can be competitive and many do not pay well especially when you’re just starting out.

Since I didn’t have the pressure of making rent for several years, I was able to put a lot of time and energy into my gallery position, studio, and professional relationships, while paying off my student loans.

Creating this network of social and professional support has been enormously helpful for my artistic and financial stability as I transition into my own place in New York City.”

Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Creating art is a success

What art schools should do (which they never will) is bring in recent alums who are just barely sustaining our artistic practice. Those of us who have had little or moderate success, but who are still actively producing their artwork.  For most of us, maintaining a studio practice is a long, tedious, incremental, slow slog that isn’t so easy.

However, in my opinion, maintaining an active studio practice is in itself an achievement to be recognized.

Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Filmmaker & Animator

“Post graduation, I decided to stay in the small city I went to art school in until the end of the calendar year. I already had an affordable place to live and I was able to continue using my school’s resources.

Many of my friends were leaving town, but there was still a giant artistic community of peers and teachers that I thrived off of. I gave myself until the end of the calendar year to make myself ready and confident enough to move to New York, the city I knew I wanted to eventually move to.

Although daunting, breaking up my post-grad life into time frames like this with clear goals helped make the transition into the ‘real world’ way more digestible.”


Add Michael’s notes too-podcasts, etc.

Cover letters: research a specific person, address the letter to that person.  Don’t address it to “Dear Editor.”

Cover letter: 1) open letter with why you are applying and for what job. 2) don’t be afraid to toot your own horn, it’s not bragging!  3) don’t write “I look forward to hearing from you.”
how can YOU benefit the company?  (Wellesley College example: educating future female leaders, I can be a role model as a female minority faculty member) don’t talk about how you will benefit and what you will get out of the job, it’s not about you

CV: 3 different versions if there are different areas you want to work in.

Jarring in the art school transition:  being a big fish in a small pond. “in school, I felt like I was somebody.” Post grad is being a tiny fish in a very, very, big pond.

don’t send your CV as an attachment, post it on your website and embed that link into the email. People hate attachments, unless they have specifically requested an attachment from you, don’t send them.

never hearing back from a job app is the norm, you’re “lucky” if you get a rejection.

motivational stuff!  a lot of people this generation have a lot of anxiety

Instagram: student looked amazing, I called them up and all of the drama spilled out.  Her real life was not what was being seen on Instagram. Most recent grads go to a lot of trouble to look like they have a great life and are doing well.

art school is a sprint, real life is running a marathon. Running a marathon: it’s actually much tougher than a sprint. You have to learn to pace yourself, not burn out, and there are few chances to totally collapse and relax. There are not definitive moments of finish. In school, you can work like crazy, and then crash at the end of the semester and during school break. Those breaks are built in for you.

art school: measure your progress by the day

real life: measure your progress in years. (Song: took me 5 years to get 10k followers on Insta)

Cast a wide net:  Utah tutorial, approach travel agencies! (not just for artists)

take excerpts from TA talk articles

how to stay up to date with social media, trends.  Clara:  I find people who are on top of the trends/art exhibitions/art reviews, etc.

cold calls are fine. People go on maternity leave, etc. and that’s how you get in. When people go on leave, it happens pretty abruptly and most places don’t want to bother with a long interview process.  They will take whoever is nearby, and places really will keep your resume on file for those situations.

Find an artist who is about 20 years older than you who you can speak to. Peers are important, but its good to have someone who has much more experience to talk to.

Develop a support system, you can’t do this alone!

Find someone whose career is about 10 years ahead of you who lives in the same town. Look at their CV, see what local galleries they showed at early on; approach those galleries, apply to the same grants.

Job boards for artists:  CAA, (college teaching and museums),

student: should I wait for publishers and not post on Webtoon?  If I publish on Webtoon I can’t publish it with a traditional publisher. Clara:  DO IT, don’t wait around, you could be waiting 20 years. (no exaggeration)

connections are a necessity, getting hired from an broad job application w/o a connection is very rare. Perspective: a full-time tenure track position often times has 300 applicants, only 1 person gets that job.

being an artist is being part of a community, you have to interact and pay it forward.

Write contracts, especially with people you are friends with.

podcasts as a source of inspiration: How I Build This

Going from structure and deadlines of art school to having no deadlines at all. Living at home with your parents: how to organize your day. Simulate a commute: get out of the house at 9am even if you don’t have anywhere specific you have to go. Instead of working at home, go to the library, you’ll concentrate much better and get out of the house.

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