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What are the Career Opportunities in the Fine Arts?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I’m studying architecture and visuals art in college which I am about to finish this fall. I took courses in graphic design, typography, illustration, and print production but I am more passionate and interested in painting, drawing, sculpting and crafting.

I don’t know any jobs that involve my interests. I’ve been having a hard time finding career path in art other than graphic design or web design. What are the career opportunities in fine art?”

If you want to work in fine arts, you have to take the self-initiative to carve your own path. The possibilities are endless, and it’s up to each person to find a balance that allows for them to maintain their studio practice while paying the bills. In order to find that path, you have to figure out just how much you want to involve your art in your paying job.

Some people like to keep their art completely separate from their paying job, while others like their art to be a part of their paying job. There are disadvantages and advantages to both options.

A former professor of mine wanted to be a fine art painter, so he opted to work as a professional portrait painter. You would think that this job would be great, since you essentially get paid to be making oil paintings all day.  However, the reality is that being a portrait painter can be nightmarish.  His clients always seemed to have a vision of themselves that had nothing to do with what they actually physically looked like, and they complained left and right about every single petty detail.

He found himself creatively bound by unreasonable demands made by clients, and having to pander to their desires. This basically dispelled any shred of creativity from the portrait paintings, making the process very mechanical and constrained.


One of my peers went to art school for animation and upon graduation landed a full-time job at a small, independent animation studio.  Sounds perfect for an animation major, right? Well, it turned out that his job animating all day long (and many times all night long)  was so demanding and exhausting that by the time he got home at the end of the work day, the last thing he wanted to do was animate more. Even worse, he often times had to stay late to work, with no over time.

The job was consuming to the point that he couldn’t muster up the mental space or the time he needed to work on his own animation projects outside of his day job. Within a year, he had left the studio.  This is not always the case with animation studios,  I know plenty of people who work at animation or production studios who are plenty satisfied with their work there.

There can be advantages to separating your art from your paying job. If your paying job is completely unrelated to art, you’ll have more mental space and energy for your own studio practice.  One of my former professors told me that he was a movie theater manager when he first got out of school.  He lived with his mother and was able to save a ton on expenses. Although being a movie theater manager isn’t a very glamorous job, he said it was a great schedule because he could focus all of his energy on painting all day, and then go to work at night.

A department head at an art school told me that he was a server for 15 years. Initially when he told me that, I couldn’t believe that he could stand being a server for so long! Actually, he told me that during the time he was a server, produced tons of paintings.  His job as a server was so completely removed from his painting practice that he was able to make the space for his painting practice since his job wasn’t very demanding of his creative abilities.

By contrast, he told be that he now paints very little due to the administrative demands in his position as a department head and professor of fine arts. Certainly, a job as a department head and professor looks much, much better on paper compared to being a server, and it definitely pays better than being a server.  However that’s the price you pay for having so little time to dedicate to your studio practice.

All of these situations are a case by case basis, and it all depends on what is the best fit for you. Some people would thrive in situations where others would not. While having a job that is completed unrelated to art works for some people, there are many of us who would not be willing to be a server for 15 years.

Art Teacher

One of the most popular options for many fine artists is to teach.  Teaching works for many fine artists because it’s a paying job that involves art. There are many benefits to teaching:  you’re instantly plugged into an academic community, and you have all of the resources and facilities of the school at your fingertips.

I’m learning from my students all the time, I enjoy connecting with my colleagues when I’m on campus, and I milk the facilities and resources every chance I get.  Teaching keeps your mind active, getting you to process and think about artistic ideas which can in turn positively influence your own art.

Just remember that making your art is a lifelong pursuit, while jobs and careers come and go. You don’t have to give up making your art to pay the bills.

6 responses on "What are the Career Opportunities in the Fine Arts?"

  1. Finding that perfect work/studio balance is like the holy grail of the art world. And it’s something I feel like you have to keep working at it, it’s not something you just solve. For me, I decided to keep working in the arts after getting my BFA. I work as a gallery assistant and a teacher. This gives me plenty of time to work in the studio and my paintings have really grown and changed as a result. I am also able to supplement my income by selling some of my work. The challenges of this setup are that I have to be really on top of my schedule because I have so many different things going on, and I also don’t have a lot of stability. Sales go up and down, teaching gigs are short term contracts, and my hours at the gallery shift from month to month. I am impressed by the variety of jobs my painting friends have been able to find since graduating from art school. One works as a pattern/surface designer for a company, another is the manager at a sewing shop, and another works as an art collections managing assistant at one of the biggest banks in the world. I’ve seen art handlers, curators, glass and illustration freelancers, paint bar leaders, knitters, art periodical writers, set designers, museum workers, and art lawyers. You’ve really got plenty of options, it just requires being open to all kinds of avenues you wouldn’t expect!

  2. Finding the balance between paying your bills and maintaining a studio practice can be super challenging, but as Alex mentioned above, there are many things a day job can offer if you are looking for something that is separate from a studio practice. Beyond the social aspect, it can be a nice way to get your mind thinking in a different way than how it works when making art. The diversity in thinking can serve as fuel and inspiration for later art making. My environment outside of my studio practice is usually where most of my inspiration comes from. Something that can be helpful, when you find yourself working a day job and producing your artwork at different times and places, is to keep a notebook or journal to sketch and write down ideas that pop-up through the day. This way, you are keeping track of certain thoughts while also getting important distance from pieces you’re working on in your studio practice.

  3. No matter how many times I reread this, it always helps quiet my anxiety! You just have to find out how you make that work for you. Do you work better with your own schedule? Working a flexible service job is a good fit then! Do you work better with a rigid schedule that you make art around? Then a 9-5 with art on the side is a good start! In my experience, my day job at a coffee shop is really social, which I definitely need since long hours of studio time can get really lonely, as we all know! Just find a job that does more than pay the bills – find a job that fuels you enough to make your art!

    • A mentor once told me that “you’re not a painter unless you’re painting,” and I tend to agree… The best kind of job is one that allows you as much time in studio as possible. On the other hand, however, having a job that in some way enriches your art can often times be even better, and this can mean a lot of different things: whether it provides inspiration (as in a teaching position), or just the distraction necessary to return to your work with fresh eyes. I have a regular gig doing editorial illustrations for a blog, and those assignments send me down a lot of unexpected avenues that ultimately inform my personal work – But I also walk dogs part-time, and I must confess that having that imposed break in the middle of the day really keeps me sane! For where I’m at in my life and career, it’s really the perfect day-job. (That said, I’m supremely jealous of how social YOUR day-job sounds, Alex…)

    • When I speak to my students about what kind of job to pursue after art school, there’s a common misconception that if you aren’t working at a job “in the arts” that somehow you’ve failed. What it all comes down to is what works for YOU? There is no one-size-fits-all towards how to sustain your studio practice, which is what makes it so challenging. I have many colleagues who sustain themselves on freelance work, and love it. I know I would hate doing freelance work, I don’t like the anxiety of not knowing where my next paycheck comes from, but I know some people enjoy having the freedom at being able to choose what they work on! Plus, you never know where inspiration can come from, there was an art school student I read about once who spent their summers working at Dunkin’ Donuts, and years later ended up creating this wonderful series of paintings based on the regulars who frequented the shop!

    • I couldn’t agree more about finding work that’s right for you and fuels your art making process (which may take some time to figure out)! I once worked at a company that I thought would be a dream job for me, and was exactly in my field of work. However, I realized that during my three month contract at this company, I made absolutely NO WORK of my own! I would be so drained after animating all day for this company that the thought of animating any more made me nauseous. I felt so uninspired and stuck in their corporate workflow! Another job I had was at a handmade arts & crafts store, where I worked part-time. This did the complete opposite for me as I was constantly inspired by just looking at all the different work that came through the store and learning about each individual artist we carried. I would go home feeling less exhausted and so inspired to create! It’s all about finding your balance and realizing that inspiration comes from different places for different people.

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