This isn’t a success story. It’s about success in progress. I work in the creative field. You know, the one that’s notorious for being full of artists and professionals who are struggling to make a living. That in itself is a myth. The creative field is actually thriving, and it’s now one of the world’s leading industries.
It’s always growing, even if it’s constantly changing. Here in Canada, the Conference Board reported that that the arts and culture industry contributed about 7% of the country’s real GDP in 2007 ($84.6 billion) and employed 1.1 million people that year. The Globe and Mail, the main national newspaper, says that that’s “more than [the] mining, forestry and fisheries sectors, plus the Canadian Forces, combined.”
So I’m not here to say that artists and other creative professional have it rough in the end. Just in the beginning. Surviving those early days, months and maybe years is what I’m doing now.
How I’m Working Through My Beginnings as a Creative Professional
Nobody is gonna call you and say ‘this lottery ticket is yours.’
– Jerry Saltz
The key to understanding success in the creative domain is understanding that it is founded on risk-taking and entrepreneurship. There’s a large portion of the sector that is entirely dependent on inventing your own job, niche, or functioning, independently of typical employment structures. There is a portion that’s fairly standard too, but I doubt I’ll ever get a desk job because I can paint a portrait in the style of Rembrandt or Sargent. If that were my only skill, I doubt I’d even thrive doing that.
Adaptability is key
Since May of 2016 I have had to negotiate the sales of large quantities of art, initiated a residency in Ontario, painted over 100 works, sold work online myself, sold work through third parties, curated exhibitions, gave talks, taught and taken classes (after my degree), started three websites, and hired various assistants throughout it all. That’s only the part related to my work as an artist.
This sounds very art-oriented, but it’s important to remember that the above work requires skills in marketing, communications, budgeting, design, and management. It’s also meant that I’ve had to teach myself or find resources as I go. I’ve had to learn about website marketing and digital image production (it was all analogue for me before), for example, while I continue to develop my capacity for reading and writing (which was what 70% of my fine arts degree was about).
Some of it has worked out and some of it has not. I spent January and February madly applying for work, all because one sale in one exhibition went awry for reasons beyond my control. I was broke and still am because of it. I paid my rent late, and am still catching up on my utilities while trying to figure out next month’s rent.
Right now I’m writing, learning about affiliate marketing, painting small portraits of people and animals (which alone, means marketing, sales, design, and production), and it looks like I might be starting work soon in the graveyard shift of a call centre. All of this is so I can continue making the work that I believe has integrity and will stand some test of time.
There is no set structure for me to easily fall into, and I believe this is essentially the case in all creative fields. There are regular patterns and relationships that can often form (artist-gallery, actor-agent-producer, writer-publication-publisher, etc.), but they can be highly unpredictable and inconsistent over time.
There are two things that I believe are essential to making sure that risk-taking and failure are viable options for creative professionals: working unstoppably and building community.
The only solution to workblock […] is more work.
– Jerry Saltz
Working unstoppably is important, because ceasing production is stagnation, and stagnating stinks. It keeps your mind fresh, and it’s the best way to reaffirm your passion for what you are doing. It will be miserable, and it will have its ups and its downs, but it amounts to something if you work hard at working smart too.
Building community is crucial to working as an artist, because there is no way to do this alone. Talent can be honed in solitude, but hiding it away will never amount to being magically discovered. Surrounding yourself wherever possible and becoming a recognizable (and welcome) face is essential.
Avoid making enemies, whenever possible. An English teacher once told me that you never know who you’re going to bump into down the road; that if you you ruin someone’s relationship or insult them greatly in your art school in Canada, you will inevitably bump into them as the assistant curator to one of your shows in Italy fifteen years later.
Here is another quote I like about maintaining the community around you:
Form groups. You must protect the runt. […] Why? Because four of the other people think you’re the runt: they’re just never going to tell you. […] Never break ranks.
Guess who. It’s Jerry Saltz again. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s a respectable art critic based in New York. This is a great talk he gave about working through the rough as an artist, but it translates to any creative field.
The thought I’d like to leave you with is this: I am struggling right now. It would be wrong to deny it, but I believe that my work is amounting to something. I may be tired and I might be stretching myself as thin as I can, but I feel like working through it is more important than even bothering to look up for a light at the end of the tunnel. So far as I am concerned the tunnel is endless, but it might have windows on the side some day. And I think I can convince some people to walk in it with me too.