What to do once you’ve graduated with a fine arts degree
Say you’ve just graduated with a BFA from a prominent university, and now you’re ready to pursue a career in your chosen field. According to the Conference Board of Canada, our arts and culture industry comprises 7.4 per cent of real GDP. That’s over 1.1 million jobs. That sounds great – at least until you realize you’ve got a massive student loan to pay off, rent to make, and an empty fridge to fill before your folks visit.
Then there’s the problem of securing the materials you’ll need to make your art, the reason you started all this in the first place. How are you going to keep yourself afloat long enough to produce your many future masterpieces?
The key to success in the art market
Even some of the most renowned artists might not have been able to survive without a little help from some very knowledgeable, well-connected people. Picasso had Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Jasper Johns had Leo Castelli. Damien Hirst had Charles Saachi. That is, they all had gallery owners who championed and displayed their works, who helped them find the financial support that made it possible for their careers to flourish. If you also want to have the best chance for success, you’re going to need gallery representation too, because without a true understanding of the labyrinthine world of the art market – and the potential buyers, corporate collections, museum directors, and media connections that a decent dealer possesses – finding an audience for your work might prove an impossible task.
So, start looking for the gallery that’s right for you. In the meantime, though, there’s still the problem of how you’re going to pay the bills. Most artists need to get day jobs, and you probably will too.
Day jobs and the artist
According to the Canadian National Household Survey, artists are likely to earn 32% less in total individual income than the overall labour force in Canada. They’re also a lot more likely to have to hold down multiple jobs. It’s not an easy life in other words.
So, if you’ve got to find a job to support your artistic practice, why not choose something that will actually help you make important connections? You could go the obvious route and seek a position at an art supplies store where you’re likely to find that, aside from getting great discounts on materials, all your fellow employees are artists just like you. Some of them may already be in galleries, or know of one where your work might fit.
It’s the same with fine art framers, who often have close ties with local galleries and artists. It’s a great way to network, and it’s through such connections that you’re more likely to find out about exhibition opportunities, grants that are available to young artists, or hear about established artists who are looking for assistants to help them with their latest works.
Sales are your friend
Sometimes it’s easier to get into a gallery as a salesperson than as an artist. And that’s not a bad thing if you’re young and hungry to learn, because nothing is going to give you a better real world education about the art market than working in a gallery. That’s where your communication skills will be tested, and where your ability to work with creative people will be in demand. You’ll often be dealing with customers, artists, and a constellation of other people connected to the gallery. There are a lot of opportunities to make significant connections.
But even if you can’t find a gallery position, the traits of a good salesperson align very closely with the traits of a good artist: the ability to communicate ideas creatively and persuasively, a desire to think for yourself and come up with unique solutions to individual problems, and a personality that delights in confronting new challenges.
So, while you’re waiting for your big break, why not keep yourself stimulated with a job in sales? Not only will you be able to support your artistic development, but you’ll find yourself with a whole lot more material to work with – material that might just fuel your art for years to come.
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