Sustaining professional practice

I have just returned from a two week study tour of the US, where I was interviewing American artists about their professional practice.  I thought I would share some of the insights that I gained. 

For me, the key focus was looking at how emerging artists move from training to practice, and the different paths they take to be able to earn a living from their art.  Many studies around the world point to less than 20% of trained artists being able to earn a living wage from the output of their art (see ‘Don’t give up your day job’, by Throsby and Hollister, which is an Australian study if you are interested  It’s a scary statistic and one which an emerging artist is not often aware of, but rapidly becomes so.  I interviewed a number of arts organisations and artists about their experiences with this, and what activities they did to maintain their skills and interact with other artists.   I was able to identify a number of practices that artists engaged with in order to increase the income that was generated from their art…

1.       Promotion activities

Visual artists often go to art fairs and shows, buy a table and exhibit their works.  Sometimes these works are sold and they pay the fair owner a commission, other times they make contacts.  After the global financial crisis artists noted that people wanted to pay less for more, so instead of selling one £500 piece, they were selling ten £50 pieces, which took more work and materials and was often at a lower price point.  The same could be said of performing artists through auditions, taking shorter less lucrative jobs or smaller roles (but hopefully more of them)

Artists also spent a long time on their on-line identity, building their facebook or myspace profile, ensuring they had a website or blog, which was updated regularly, professional in its appearance in terms of photography, video and graphic design.  They all attempted to be multi-media even though for example, they made wood art, they would have story books and video footage and perhaps even a podcast about how they carved a certain piece.  Many visual artists used a site called etsy ( to promote and sell their work, which also requires a lot of time to ensure the store is up-to-date and interesting.

2.       Volunteer activities

This was the man focus of my interest.  This is where the artist works with artist groups, collectives, organisations and the like to promote specific causes, agitate for action, help other artists or support artist led community work.  One of the spaces I met people in Portland was called the IPRC ( which is a member driven community space to make zines and independent publishing.  It has photocopiers, computers, typewriters and a whole bunch of other cool stuff to help zine makers, along with a zine library for people to borrow and classes to help people learn the skills.  A lot of people volunteer at this space whilst they are building their arts practice, and continuing to hopefully make a sustainable income.  Other artists I met are involved in activist groups, collectives where they work together to better sustain their art, or even work collaboratively. 

3.       Skills sharing

This is one of the most common activities emerging artists are involved with, from running ‘how-to’ classes in their local centre through to teaching formally at school or FE, or even HE.  Skills sharing is a way according to the artists of maintaining their own skills, helping others, perhaps learning new skills as students, and in many cases earning an income.  However, they did address some of the issues that have arisen include copying of their work by students, protecting their creative ideas and in many cases, how time consuming it can be.

4.       Experimenting

Whilst doing the art form they know and love, many artists experiment with different forms, try out new ideas, and sometimes even fall into completely different mediums.  It keeps the creativity and innovation going, it makes the experience interesting and engaging and it supports their enthusiasm for the existing art form.  One artist spent the interview with me constantly trying out new paints and pens, cutting pictures out and layering them on a piece of paper and generally trialling new ideas. Creativity is enhanced when people experiment and try new stuff.  A former visual artist I met one day found a hunk of wood by the road side and tried sculpting it, now she is a wood artist.  Another artist found that he was only physical able to make 50 copies of his zine because each copy took so long to make, so despite not being overly computer literatre made a PDF copy so that he could distribute the zine more widely.  Experimentation is necessary to encourage creativity, and whilst it may seem an indulgence for artists trying to find a way to eat and pay the rent, it may lead to developing a dance practice class, to the development of something new and interesting.

What do you do between jobs? How do you support the growth of your professional skills and abilities?  I would love to hear some ideas in the comments!

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