“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.
“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.”
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!
Filmmaker & Animator
“I’m lucky that I have any completely terrible jobs post graduation. When looking back, the jobs I disliked the most were the ones that consumed so much of my time and energy that I had no time for my own creative practice. I’m trying to stay away from those jobs now!”
Illustrator & Comics Artist
“Post graduation, I didn’t have a job at all. For a while I was still living & depending on my parents. Of course, I felt some shame about it, but it sure beats several months of New York City rent I could have been paying.”
It’s okay to not have an art career immediately after art school
My first ‘real job’ after art school was advertised as an ‘fine art teacher’ position at an after school program at a public elementary school. I had experience teaching art at summer camps for kids so the job seemed like a decent fit.
I quickly discovered that actually, it was babysitting on a large scale: 30 kindergartners for 3 hours in the morning followed by another 70 elementary school kids in 1 cafeteria until 6pm. I was supposed to do art projects with them, the kids were tired, grouchy, and in no mood to do anything but run around at the playground. Many afternoons I spent my time consoling kids whose parents were late picking them up.
I cleaned up pee, I wiped throw up off the floor more times than I care to remember. I worked from 12-6pm, made $15 an hour (this was in the 1990’s!) and lived in a tiny apartment in Boston that was a 45 minute drive on the highway. I don’t miss that job.
I never had a full-time, 40 hours per week, health insurance, 401k with free massages and snacks type of job after art school. I was constantly piecing together tiny fragments of jobs, hoping that it would be enough to get me through. (moving back home wasn’t an option for me, so I had to make it on my own financially)
I did however, have these jobs after graduation:
1. Painted the windows on the front glass windows of the local Jewish community center every time there was a Jewish holiday. I had people bother me that my Hebrew writing wasn’t correct. (I was just copying what was on the piece of paper the person who hired me gave me!)
2. I gave private art lessons where I drove to the kids’s house, planned a project just for them, brought all the art supplies, and sat with them for 1 hour while they did their project. I charged $25 an hour. (let’s just say my rates have gone up since then)
3. I ran 1 hour long birthday parties for kids at the local community center where they did a ceramics project. I once had to teach a lesson on how to make the Batman logo out of ceramic clay, and then was chewed out by the mother afterwards that the Batman logo project didn’t last long enough and she had to entertain the kids for part of the party.
“At art school, I knew who I was. I knew what I wanted from my artwork, and I had friends and mentors to cheer me on. I had a position in an artistic community. I loved the structure of school: homework, critiques, film screenings. Day to day, I was stressed out, but overall, I was happy.
The first two years after leaving art school were some of the worst in my life for my mental health. Losing that art school community and sense of purpose destabilized me.
What I eventually realized was that I didn’t have to stop learning when I left art school, it was simply a different kind of learning.”
“There are so many artists out there. Of course, there’s more competition than you know what to do with, and also more inspiration and help if you look for it.
Above all, this mindset taught me to completely unromanticise the life of the artist. I’ve had to supplement my income with part-time jobs for a while, and not to say that I have lowered my ‘goals’ but rather gained a level of patience and career humility.
I have professional aspirations for my art, but I don’t need it to be my only source of income. I like wearing many different hats for work, so maybe that’s a route you can take as well! Have multiple professions.”
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.
“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.”
Marketing skills are completely separate from your artistic skills
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.
There are artists who are one trick ponies. They discover an easy gimmick that works, and just go keep doing that same shtick over and over again. Not much creativity is involved in that, but from a marketing and branding perspective, an artist whose work is really predictable and doesn’t change dramatically is much easier to promote.
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.
“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!”
Find or create your artist community.
There’s a common misconception that being a professional artist is mostly time spent in the studio producing your artwork. If you ask any professional artist working today about what percentage of their time is doing tasks that are not producing artwork, most will estimate that it’s about 50%. Creating the artwork is the easy part!
That other 50% involves a lot of people: anyone from your artist colleagues, art dealers, collectors, gallery directors, curators, installers, framers, people at retail stores you purchase materials from, your local printer, former professors from art school, and so many more.
No one builds an art career by themselves, you’re going to need help.
You can’t pull off a career in the visual arts on your own, you’re going to need a lot of help. Sometimes that help might be a small thing, but those little things can be hugely impactful. I’ve been working with the same framer for over 15 years, he gives me a 20% discount because he knows I’m a reliable customer and I’m pleasant to work with.
I think about the Administrative Assistants in the office at the school where I teach and how many times I’ve asked them to open a supply closet for me, or where the extension cords were. These people make a difference, so be nice and gracious!
Connect with an artist who has at least 15 years more professional experience than you do
Who are your “hotlines?” Who will you call when you are verbally bullied for one hour by 3 senior faculty members at the college you teach at and were bawling your eyes out afterwards? (yes, that happened to me) Who will explain to you how licensing an image works? Who is going to give you advice on how to price your work for that upcoming art fair?
Your art “hotlines” will get you through rough patches
Identify who your “hotlines” are, and stick by them. They will be a stable voice of reason within a really chaotic, sometimes unforgiving art world full of people who could care less about you. I have three former professors I have stayed in tough with for over 20 years.
After I was bullied by those senior faculty, I called one of my former professors. I was confused because I felt like it was my fault and that I had done a bad job at the teaching position, and I didn’t know if this was normal in a collegiate setting. My former professor told me that what happened was completely inappropriate and horrible. He gave me perspective and I felt much better afterwards.
The art world has its own version of the Hollywood dream
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!”
Many departments at art schools have very narrow, specific views of what defines artistic success
Departments at art school frequently have a strong bias towards specific parts of the field, there’s a hierarchy of jobs that unfortunately gets imposed on students. These jobs get romanticized and placed on a pedestal by both faculty and students. Any job looks good when you don’t acknowledge the less glamorous parts of it!
Keep in mind that a job is all about finding the right fit.
For some artists, a freelance career is an excellent match for the artwork they make, and provides them the freedom to organize and design their own schedule and structure. For me on the other hand, a freelance career is a terrible fit. The way a freelance careers are doesn’t work with my methods of working as an artist.
So when a specific job gets glamorized by other people, ignore all of that and ask yourself, would that job be a good fit for my needs?
“If you majored in illustration……you have to do editorial freelance illustration.”
No one tells you how hard it is to do freelance work. The pacing of work is often feast or famine. You have to do your own taxes, invoicing, deal with clients who don’t pay on time, there is no guarantee you’ll get a paycheck every month, you’ll have to constantly hustle to get work, and more.
“If you majored in painting……you must show with a New York City Chelsea art gallery.”
You can’t exactly stroll into a NYC art gallery and ask for a show. The vast majority of galleries won’t look at artist submissions, so how do you get in? Most of the time artists connect to galleries through a personal reference. Sometimes a personal reference may not even do it, I’ve been rejected by galleries even after someone gave me a glowing reference.
“If you majored in printmaking……you have to work at a printshop.”
People forget to mention that 1) printshops are usually barely surviving in terms of finances and therefore the pay is pretty low and 2) you’ll spend most of your time doing manual labor, not exactly the most stimulating tasks.
“If you majored in film……. you need to work on big budget movies and do visual effects.”
The visual effects industry is only getting more dysfunctional. Many visual effects artists get to work on some pretty cool big budget movies, but at a major personal expense. Once a movie wraps, the visual effects artists have to move to the next project. Most of the time, that means relocating, between Vancouver, New York City, London, California, and more.
Imagine you are in Vancouver for 3 months to work on a movie, and then having to ship off to London for 4 months, only to go to NYC for 4 months after that. Having a family or any resemblance of a predictable life is out of the question in this field.
I’m not trying to say that any of the jobs listed above inherently terrible jobs by any means. I want to point out that often times, these jobs that are talked about in such glowing terms are often times not for some artists. There are certainly many artists out there with these jobs I listed above for whom these jobs are a perfect fit for their artistic careers!
“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.
This is not to say that you have to act upon every single opportunity that presents itself. If you took an editorial illustration course in art school, and post grad you get asked to do an editorial illustration gig, and you know from taking that course that you hate editorial illustration, then don’t do it!
Look at your skills outside of visual arts
There are many versions of how you can interpret your skills and your area of focus, but keep in mind that many of us are more than artists and have skills outside of the field.
I never really considered myself as a writer. Sure, I took Honors English in high school and I could write a decent essay, but the idea of writing professionally was never an option that I ever entertained.
Then I started an art blog, as a way to keep track of my progress in the studio and also as a way of organizing my thoughts on paper. The more I wrote about my studio practice, the more the work I was doing as a teacher started to bleed into my blog . Eventually, I ended up writing a book, which led me to writing an advice column for HuffPost called “Ask the Art Professor,” which ultimately led me here to Art Prof. You never know!
“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.”
There is no deadline for success
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.”
Most artists only show you their 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.
Every artist struggles at some point!
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!”
“Fear not: as grim as the career of an artist may look at times, there are more ways than ever to get your work out there and make it work! I found little success when I was just looking at book publishers.
Now that I’ve started meeting local bands, interacting with small businesses, and even joining a gallery (trust me, the last place I thought my work would fit!) I’m slowly finding people who I can work with as an artist. Be honest with your artwork, and the right venue for it will come.
Don’t try to make your work fit a specific goal, but try to find a goal that fits the kind of art you enjoy. In my experience, as I let go of the assumption that I knew what I wanted to do, I’ve been having so much more fun making my work again! “
“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.”
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.
Consider just having an active art practice 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. It’s no small feat to juggle jobs, paying bills, family/friends, and everything else that life throws at you while simultaneously being able to find the head space and time to create on a long term basis. Do what it takes to keep your art practice alive, anything that motivates you is valid.
After art school, learn to pace yourself
You don’t have to find a 6 hour day to be in the studio day either, even 15 minutes a day is enough to create something substantial. 15 minutes may feel like nothing, but those pockets of time do accumulate and you might find by the end of 3 months you’ve actually produced quite a bit.
I’ve always thought about art school as a series of sprints. Yes, sprinting can be painful because you are pushing your body to absolutely extremes. In art school, you know there is a clear, definitive end to that sprint. Every year, you hit midterms and finals, and collapse at the end of the semester followed up by a nice cushy school vacation.
Outside of art school, you’re running on a treadmill, where there are no finish lines. You’re not running nearly as fast as if you were sprinting, and the running doesn’t hurt your body the way a sprint would. Pacing becomes incredibly important, you start to realize that sprints are no longer an option and that so much of sustaining yourself as an artist is learning to prevent burn out and to stay healthy. Physically, the day to day running on that treadmill isn’t remotely as physically straining as a sprint, but the head space and focus it takes to keep going can be incredibly challenging.
“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.”
You’re actually going to miss having deadlines
When you’re in art school, it’s common to resent having deadlines for projects. I don’t think there is any artist out there who doesn’t think after a project been passed in: “if only I had had more time on this project I could have…”
What you don’t realize when you’re an art school student is that after art school, there actually be such a thing as “too much time.” Not in the sense that you’ll have an infinite number of hours on each project, but as in that lack of structure that deadlines used to provide is now gone.
When you don’t have professors breathing down your neck, that deadline you have to meet, it’s really, really easy to lose your momentum and become lethargic with your studio practice.
Create your own deadlines
This is why many artists will create their own deadlines to feel that they have something concrete to work towards. Otherwise it can feel very much you’re just shooting in the dark, with no clearly defined destination.
If you find it challenging to work towards a deadline that doesn’t have any serious consequences, find some artist grants or residencies you want to apply to. Mark up your calendar with the deadlines for several of these opportunities you are interested in.
There are applications happening throughout the year, so it will be easy to find a deadline for yourself every month or so.
The good news is that in most fields, deadlines are usually not within one week. (there are exceptions though; if you are hired to do an editorial illustration for a newspaper, you often times have only 24-48 hours to pass in your sketches and final piece)
However, I do think there is such a thing as a deadline that is too far away. I once had an opportunity to have a solo exhibition at a college art gallery. Physically, it was the largest gallery space I ever had the chance to show in, so I really didn’t want pass up the opportunity. The curator booked the show a year from then. I hadn’t yet finished the work that was going to be in the show, so I knew that I had to create the work to meet that exhibition deadline.
That was a big mistake, I spent an entire year with this exhibition hanging over my head. I felt pressure because I knew the work was going into a gallery, so I felt like there wasn’t a lot of room to play around or experiment with the work. Since that experience, I’ve promised myself that I will never book a solo show before the artwork gets made.
Simulate a commute
People are working from home now more than ever, and that is definitely the situation for many artists. Perhaps you just graduated and are in a transitional period job searching, so you’re living with your parents. You have a job, but you can’t afford to pay for a studio space so you’re doing your studio work at home. Maybe you are doing freelance work and are working at home.
For a long time, I had a lot of trouble working from home; there were endless distractions! I would get cabin fever, a load of laundry would beckon to me (mostly I’d do laundry when I was procrastinating.) and so much more.
To combat all of these potential problems when you work at home, you can stimulate a commute. For example, even if you don’t have a specific reason to leave the house in the morning, do it anyway. Go to a coffee shop and read the newspaper there. Make a run to the grocery story, go for a walk at your local park, anything that will get you outdoors. You can return back home feeling much more awake and ready to work.
Another option is to work at the local library. Of course you can’t exactly take your acrylic paints and canvas and paint there, but if you’re catching up on paperwork, building your website, or any other task that you can be on your laptop for, its still a good use of your time.
“There was a long time after art school when I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I’d start in on preliminary sketches, and then things would sputter out before I could move onto the final artwork. I was stuck in my sketchbook.
Without school deadlines to push me, I found I couldn’t prioritize one idea over another. How did I know a concept was good? Which product was actually worth making?
I was filling up sketchbook after sketchbook with fragmented, half-imagined notions and unresolved doodles.”