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. Art-related jobs can provide you with exposure to art events where you get a behind-the-scenes look at how exhibitions or performances are put together. Plus, these jobs provide you with great contacts and networking opportunities, as well as experience in the field. Let’s take a look at some of the best first jobs for recent art school graduates and the skills necessary for these different roles.
1. Gallery Assistant
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.
2. Studio Assistant
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.
3. Teaching Artist
Teaching artists are needed in a range of environments to work with people of all ages and abilities, from K-12 schools and after-school programs to museums, not-for-profit organizations and senior centers. If you like teaching others while maintaining your own creative practice, check out The Association of Teaching Artists, a non-profit organization that supports teaching artists with the tools they need to do their best work.
Nearly every local, state or regional arts council has a teaching artist roster. There is typically an application deadline to apply with a portfolio and artist statement. If accepted, many councils provide training. You always become part of a network of art educators who know the ins-and-outs of working the teaching artist circuit. Most teaching artists gigs will be part-time and can supplement your other income or complement the other work you do. 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 art making. 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 lesson planning, classroom management, the ability to integrate art into other subject areas, excellent communication and technical art abilities.
4. Art Handler
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 looking to hire will be seeking for strong writing skills, organizational and project management skills, and any specific experience relevant to the mission of the organization.
The jobs listed above can help you identify the options that exist for someone with your strengths and interests. Of course, these are just a few of them. It will most likely take you time to figure out the best job for you. After all, you’re just starting out. It takes time to find out what you like and don’t like about a job. The good thing is, every job will be a learning experience; you will know more after having done more. Your journey to find a job or career that supports your creative practice, build community, and brings you career fulfillment will likely last a lifetime.
- It can feel overwhelming to figure out what your first job should be. This is normal.
- Some common first-jobs for artists are: gallery assistant, studio assistant, teaching artist, art handler and arts administrator.
- Comb through online resources to see job listings in the roles mentioned above. Local and regional arts councils here, NYFA.org, College Art Association, Artrepreneur, LinkedIn and Indeed.
- It may take time to figure out which job is right for you. The only way to know is to try out different roles until you find one that fits your interests, skills, and needs.
Know of other great resources for job seekers? Post them in the comments below!
Anna Ogier-Bloomer is a fine art photographer. She has served on the graduate faculty in the School of Visual Arts MFA Program and has been an adjunct Associate Professor of Photography at The City University of New York. She holds an MFA in Photography from Parsons, an MPS in Digital Photography from SVA, and a BFA from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.