A few people have asked me recently about what advice I would give a young person seeking to embark on a career in the arts. I find this interesting as I don’t necessarily see myself as being ‘in the arts’, probably because my working life spans a number of career sectors. I also don’t make money directly from my creative practice, though it has provided me the skills and discipline that has ultimately led to paid work in non-profit, government and education sectors, working on stuff I love by creating online environments.
My first year of art school was 1988, finally jumping ship after three years working in a bank. I can still remember feeling like my eyes had opened to the world, and that I was finally around other people who understood and even encouraged some of my idiosyncratic traits. For me, it was like my biggest dream had come true. I was actively discouraged from this path by my parents; who were concerned that I would never have a stable income. This in part is a reality in the arts sector, where many people are not paid well or not paid at all for their efforts. In saying that, I have never looked back or regretted my choice to go to art school and to be trained to work in the arts.
Anyway, enough nostalgia, here are my tips:
- Be unafraid of hard work. You need to be dedicated to learning as much as you can and focusing on developing your identity as an artist. A lot of time needs to invested not just in making art, but in marketing yourself. To do this well, you need to be visible to the arts community by networking with other artists, going to exhibition openings, building your online and real world identity. The romantic idea of an artist working alone in a garret is just that – a romantic idea.
- Learn to see creativity in everything. Art and life are not things that live in isolation, so why do we try to separate the two – it only diminishes the beauty of the everyday. Cooking, gardening, arranging a room are all examples of everyday creativity. An artist can recognise the beauty of the mundane, the spectacular and the terrifying – artistic vision is all about interpreting the world around us, our experiences and our dreams.
- Be open to criticism. I have learnt that the real world is not as cruel as art school. Critiquing each other’s work is a regular practice in an art education environment. It should be constructive, but sometimes the criticism does feel personal – and that hurts. But you are not your art work, no matter how much of yourself may be in the piece, just remember that. When I think about it, the critiquing process has been of great benefit in terms of making me resilient and open to feedback. In my working life now, I ask for feedback and am constantly looking for ways to improve. I don’t always take on board the advice or suggestions, but it is so useful to have a springboard for ideas.
- Find your tribe – the people whose work and ethics you aspire to. This one is important, because it comes back to the bigger issue of being true to yourself. There is no point trying to fit in with the cool kids, you will eventually be found out – just like in high school. Have a good look around and talk to the artists who you admire, the ones that inspire you and don’t worry about the competition to ‘get’ somewhere – you already ‘are’ somewhere.
- Be encouraging. It takes so little effort to be kind to other artists, even if what they do is not your thing. Don’t waste your energy criticising or gossiping about other people – get busy and focus on your own work. If you need to be mean, then maybe you need to have a good look at why you are feeling so insecure.
- Be courageous. Don’t let anyone put down your ideas, however fantastical they may be. If your heart’s desire is to be a visual artist, a music producer, singer, a graphic designer or a trapeze artist then go for it. If you don’t, a time will come that you will regret the fact you didn’t try. What do you have to lose – nothing! Often it is the negative voice inside us that stops us from following our dreams, so tell that voice to be quiet. It might sound very new agey, but affirmations and creative visualisation are great ways of overcoming these fears of failure. See yourself doing what you love, happy, creative and energised.
- Be persistent. If having a career in the arts is what you really want, then keep trying. When I was in art school we were told that only 5% of us would ‘make it’ as artists. 20 years later, I still have no idea of what that really means. I never wanted to be an artist in the stable of a commercial gallery and was suspicious of the art economy, so I guess I was never going to be one of the privileged percentile. But that is alright with me, I have managed to continue to develop my work unhindered by market expectations or reliance on funding bodies; due to my realisation that my skills were very transferable, which takes us back to points 1 and 2 🙂
As a bit of a background, I was formally trained in two main disciplines – printmaking and photography, in a fine arts context (both disciplines having industrial or commercial applications). I have fond memories of many hours in the darkroom, enjoying the quiet, dark space and seeing my images come to life through the chemical processes I was taught. So much has changed!
This is not a comprehensive list by any means, so any suggestions, comments and feedback is most welcome.