Many art students struggle to justify their career choice to parents, friends, and family who see it as an unstable and unrealistic path. In fact, artists possess strong, marketable skills in analysis, organization, problem-solving, and creative and critical thinking. These skills can be applied to nearly every industry, making artists seeking their first job into versatile, flexible candidates. So, artists have transferable skills — what do they do with them? Where does an artist go for their first job? Nearly all artists will need a job to supplement the income from their studio practice, and it’s important to find work that benefits your practice somehow, whether it allows you flexible time, energy to make art, great contacts and networks, access to facilities or resources you need, or high pay. Let’s take a look at some of the best first jobs for recent art school graduates and the skills necessary to excel in these different roles.
First Job Primer
One common first job for artists is working as a gallery assistant. This seems like a perfect job for an artist, and it carries great perks and benefits. It’s the best way to learn insider information on how the gallery world operates: what art dealers look for in artists, how they work with collectors, how they run their business, and how an artist can grow their career. You’ll have your finger on the pulse of contemporary art, and you’ll develop an unmatched network of art world players. It’s also a great way to learn about curating. Despite typically being very small operations (most galleries are 2-4 employees, including the owner), if it’s a full-time position, you will likely receive health benefits — a must-have for a recent college grad in their first job! Be prepared for evening and weekend hours, though, since exhibition installations can run long and there will be monthly openings and events. Gallery owners will value your art historical and contemporary art knowledge, organizational skills, and strong written and verbal communication.
Another common first job for artists is finding work as a studio assistant. This can be a fun, creative way to spend your days, and a way to build contacts and learn about how to operate a successful artist studio. You might assist in the preparation or production of artworks and have a hand in the artistic process, or you might assist with administrative tasks such as answering emails, submitting grant applications, or conducting research. Most studio assistants engage in all of these tasks. At a larger studio operation, there will be separate roles for the production and administration of the practice. Working as a studio assistant will also help you develop new techniques, hone your skills, and potentially gain a new mentor. Graduates seeking a first job can reach out directly to artists whose work they admire and offer their services as an assistant, or they can find these types of jobs posted on local and regional arts employment websites. Keep in mind that most artists hire assistants for part-time work only, which can be a great way to ensure you have enough time for your own practice, but may also mean you’ll need another part-time job. That can be challenging but there are a number of other great part-time first jobs artists can obtain to put together a rewarding and exciting career. Useful skills you can bring to this job are the necessary technical abilities, organization, and attention to detail.
Pass On Your Knowledge
Teaching artists are needed in a range of environments, from after-school programs to museums to not-for-profit organizations and more. This is an accessible first job that can be done part-time to supplement your other income or complement the other work you do. There are also full-time teaching positions in a range of institutions and organizations. Your skills in painting, drawing, ceramics, photography and more will be extremely desirable to administrators looking to teach fun, practical skills to families, youth, seniors, and more. This is one of the first jobs for artists that really lets you flex your fine art muscles. Plus, it can be extremely rewarding to help community members engage with artmaking. If you enjoy working with people and coming up with new ways to use the materials you love, this is a great first job for you! Relevant skills include patience, compassion, and excellent communication, as well as technical fine art abilities.
If you enjoy working with your hands, being physically active at work, and going to a different site every day, then art handling could be the right fit for your first job. Primarily freelance and contract positions, art handlers can be working to install a new exhibition every few days or weeks. Some art handling companies also employ workers in full-time permanent positions, and you’ll be at a new site every day packing, crating, moving, and installing valuable artworks and artifacts. It can be hard physical labor but brings with it a feeling of accomplishment. You’ll be able to make connections with art collectors, dealers, curators, and museum and gallery staff, which could lead to exhibition opportunities for you. You’ll also build expert framing and installation skills useful in your own practice. Some jobs in art handling have benefits, and the hourly rates can be healthy. Art handlers must be efficient workers with great attention to detail. Math abilities and knowledge of how to properly handle delicate fine art materials is also a plus but can be gained on the job.
Arts Administration is a broad field containing myriad opportunities for artists seeking their first job related to their creative interests. From museum work to not-for-profits, art administration position skill sets include fundraising, event planning, education and more. Arts administrators work in a wide range of capacities. You may work at an organization that provides grants to artists, or one that organizes arts programming for the community or in public schools, for example. College graduates looking for that first job to break into arts administration can start as a museum visitor or memberships services associate, or an administrative assistant. This gets your foot in the door. Once in the institution, you’ll be among the first to hear of opportunities for growth, and you can begin to build your network of leaders in the arts. This work can be very rewarding and lead to valuable skills in project and organizational management while making the arts more accessible to the community. Most of these types of roles are full-time and come with health benefits and paid time off. Managers in arts administration hiring assistants will be looking for strong writing skills, organizational and project management skills, and any specific experience relevant to the mission of the organization.
In general, it can feel overwhelming to figure out what that first job should be (especially if you really just want to be in the studio!), but this list can help you start to identify what options exist for someone with your strengths and interests. It may take time to figure out which path is for you, but with some exploration, you can find a position that supports your creative practice, allows you to support and build community, and bring you career fulfillment.
Looking for some helpful places for jobs? You can start with this list of these local and regional arts councils here, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts. If you’re in the New York City area, then NYFA.org is a great resource. Teaching Artists can try Idealist or the College Art Association’s job board, while arts administrators will find opportunities on LinkedIn, and the American Alliance of Museums. Art handlers should also search craigslist for freelance jobs. Last, but not least, artists pursuing creative gigs can check out the Artrepreneur job listings! Know of other great resources for job seekers? Post them in the comments below!