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What it Means to be a Working Artist

In the early 1990s, I facilitated a meeting of artists as part of a strategic planning process for the Massachusetts Cultural Council . We met in a beautifully restored theatre, whose brilliant Gilded Age surroundings contrasted with the prescient words of one passionate artist-entrepreneur at this early moment of the Internet’s development. He rose to argue that as new forms of media were developed, artists would be called upon to create content and must be willing to enter new arenas – video games, web site design, and so on. Back then, this seemed like a pipe dream.

Times change! The options for artists seeking employment have clearly expanded since those days. Some interesting new research, conducted as part of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), indicates that arts training pays off in the workforce (contrary to the cliché of artists furthering their careers by waiting tables). For example, “…92% of those recently graduated artists who wished to work currently are, with most finding employment soon after graduating. Two-thirds said their first job was a close match for the kind of work they wanted.”

My guess is this has happened because artist training is embracing a more entrepreneurial stance. The New England Conservatory, for example, has instituted a program called “Entrepreneurial Musicianship” (that WolfBrown helped design) to consolidate and expand its music industry and business training programs to better prepare graduates for the realities of building a meaningful career as a musician.

These changes notwithstanding, artists still have a hard time earning a living. Indeed, the SNAAP research indicates that “…almost a third (30%) of former professional artists and those who wanted to be an artist but did not do so pointed to debt, including student loan debt, as a reason to find other work.” Click here for a summary report.

What other examples of an entrepreneurial bent to artist training programs are there? How has professional development for artists evolved since the primary means of content distribution has become the Internet?

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4 Responses to What it Means to be a Working Artist

  1. Mat Dryhurst says:

    I think that, sadly, despite some gestural attempts towards preparing arts grads for the workforce (such as RISD’s recent Artrepreneurial kit art schools are commonly a fatal mix of apathetic and/or clueless to the challenges faced by aspiring artists today.

    I think that the SNAAP research is indeed interesting, and is likely more so documenting a shift in expectations from arts grads entering the workforce than any major changes in prospective careers in the arts. It begs the question, with newer models for arts education emerging (The Public School, Berklee’s rapidly developing online music program), why pay for an expensive four year education in something that is consensually relegated to a hobby upon graduation?

    I’m currently setting up a group here in San Francisco, called Artup ( to try and think over some of these questions, and produce tech provocations that maintain there could be a way for artists to sustain themselves outside of traditional industry, and doing the things they do best. Now is a time for artists to get creative about how they plan to sustain themselves, and I personally believe that a shift in the right direction will take a radical re-imagining of the artist/audience dynamic in an attempt to contemplate new services and channels for interaction between the two.

  2. I’m not sure I agree that art schools aren’t serious about preparing young artists for the realities of working in the field. From what I can see – and it’s admittedly at some distance – the shift to providing arts students a more comprehensive set of skills beyond the discipline-based is real, if moving relatively slowly.

    That said, being an artist has always been a circuitous and rocky career path and it never offered the security of other professions. It was really only after World War II and the GI Bill that large numbers of university-educated visual artists began to practice and as far as I can see that’s when the expectation of a middle-income life style took form. Unrealistic, perhaps, but in some ways we’re closer to that now than ever before. If your intention with Artup is to engage young artists in focusing on building and controlling the trajectory of their career, I applaud the effort!

  3. Mat Dryhurst says:

    That is really interesting historical context, thanks for responding so quickly.

    I do think that it could be possible for many artists to aspire to a middle income life style while pursuing their craft, and perhaps my skepticism toward art school is that it appears that institutionally speaking many I have encountered are resigned to the supposed infeasibility of that challenge rather than getting creative about how it might become a reality. My wife recently graduated from an elite graduate arts program, and to see such pessimism adopted systematically rang huge alarms bells for me!

  4. I think you’re on to something, Mat. I spent 15 years as a studio artist before I started consulting 30 years ago (yikes – don’t do the math!). About 10 years ago I renewed my visual work through photography and that has been a critical part of my life ever since. So the two components, consulting and creating, co-exist with some degree of comfort.

    What I notice is that we have a very narrow view of what sort of work an artist can (should?) do. Feels to me like it’s a left-over from the 40s and 50s and 60s, the heyday of the “elitist” arts where even craft (oops, decorative arts…) was not fully viewed as “art.” While making work is clearly central to being a working artist, supplementing that with other sorts of creative employment seems a really obvious strategy to keep young artists’ body and soul together. And why is it that arts programs don’t focus here? Hum.

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