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Tips to Transition to an Art Career

Knowing that design or art career has always been your calling can be an incredible breakthrough while also leading to great uncertainty. Despite having bright artistic talent, not every artist begins their career in the arts. Perhaps you fall into the category of “deferred artist”: someone passionate about art-making who pursued a different career earlier in life for various reasons, whether being offered a different job or seeking greater material gain. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds 10 different jobs before age forty, and this number is projected to grow. A 2016 Forrester Research Report suggests that today’s youngest workers will hold 12-15 jobs in their lifetime. It’s very common not only to change jobs, but to change industries as well. Transferrable skills mean that no matter what field or sector you’re in, your skills can apply to multiple jobs. Even retirees are coming out of retirement, and many are as busy if not busier than they have ever been with consulting projects and leisurely learning.

There is no stigma attached with approaching a second, third or even fourth career as an artist, but you do need to be prepared to transition to a design or art career. It can seem daunting and exciting, but creating a solid action plan to make a mindful career transition will give you the confidence and outline the steps to make your move. Here we sourced informed opinions on what you can expect when making a transition to an art career.

Start Your Art Career by Understanding the Market

art career transition

AARP Deputy Art Director Dian Holton sheds light on the issues that face artists of retirement age ready to shift focus to a second career in fine art. We sat down to learn firsthand what sets apart retirees who are ready to present work to the art world, and those whose transitions fall flat.

“First, the [art] market is competitive so it’s important to set realistic expectations and have a passion for your new career. To be honest, my insights are no different than what I’d give someone just entering the creative workforce. Research the area of interest. Take classes (everyone can benefit from continuous learning) and be open to receiving insights, counsel and criticism. Network. Show up. Be present in the creative spaces where other artists are.” Community colleges are an accessible and affordable way to accomplish many of these goals.

Beginning with market research, such as identifying artists already in the field making similar work and gaining a firm understanding of contemporary art theory, fine artists should understand that becoming successful relies on more than just art-making. While the fun part of being an artist is working in the studio, pursuing art sales and recognition requires legwork in addition to simply creating new work. Set reasonable goals for yourself aligned with how you see a successful second career evolving in the fine art industry. 

Former Executive Director of the Australian National Association for the Visual Arts Tamara Winikoff reinforces this concept – that success is self-directed, and that this impetus begins within. Knowing what questions will take you into future success as a fine artist are key – second only to knowing your answer. “What do I want out of this? Do I want to be selling work? Do I want to be seen? Where do you position yourself? How do you identify yourself? Are you courageous enough, bold enough, silly enough to say: “I am an artist,” when you fill out your Census form or go through customs at the airport?” By slowly and consciously aligning yourself with your new identity as an artist, you will be psychologically better prepared for the long road ahead.

Be Optimistic But Realistic

Whether you’re changing careers or re-entering the workforce part-time, full-time or as a freelancer, Holton says, “It’s competitive. That’s why it’s important to build professional relationships. Also depending on many variables, it might not be as lucrative [of a new career] as [someone] think[s]. Many factors play into bringing home a sustainable income. Individuals still have to put in the work and time.” Recognizing that although making art is a fun job, it is still a career pursuit, will create a healthy frame of mind for emerging artists transitioning from a past career “life”. In addition, Holton reflects on the boundless possibilities for new artists seeking ways to get engaged and make a wider impact. “Opportunities [for artists] are everywhere. They should share their talents in a variety of places: elementary schools, senior homes, hospital or non-profits as well as faith-based organizations. Organization and/or institutions mentioned are often looking for new works of art. This could be a good opportunity for the artist to get visibility while having creative freedom. Speaking of additional volunteer opportunities, please check out https://createthegood.org/.” Getting a handle on impacting the wider community can both expand your existing contacts and – most importantly – enact real change in the local community.

Don’t lose sight of your ability to continue to make an impact, both personally and professionally, in this new role of fine artist. Find ways to combine it with other passions and/or skill sets you already possess. Have a background in marketing? Offer to partner with a small local artist-run space to get the word out: it will give you a chance to meet active members of the local community and gain insights into the local art market! Know a lot about event planning? Dive in and offer to help a local arts organization and/or nonprofit group supporting artists as a volunteer for a benefit event or gala. Find ways to make yourself indispensable to your local arts community, and you will have the favor returned – probably even more quickly than you think! By gauging who to work with and how to forge a path ahead as an artist, your priorities can set you directly on the path to success. Gaining confidence as an artist is crucial – and there’s no better way to feel integrated into a community than by finding ways to help existing networks reach their best potential.

Finally, don’t forget why you made the transition to an art career to begin with. In order to fully welcome a career transition, expect change and a period of adjustment as you get settled into your artistic practice, creative business or design related field. Make sure you have a support system to encourage you, mentors to guide you and a network you can start to grow. Don’t go it alone. Find local arts clubs and associations, professional development training courses and business of art bootcamps to help introduce you to peers and opportunities as you begin your art career.

Do you feel prepared for your transition to a design or art career? Have you considered how your previous career(s) and skills can inform the next step in your life? Share your insights here for your fellow career transition-ready artists!

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant, and editor.

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