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Subtle Maneuvers: Reality Based Career Advice for Artists

by Michael Edmondson, Ph.D.

January 2020


"Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding make even more art.”

Andy Warhol


Due to the myths, lies, and half-truths related to how artists earn money, there is a tremendous need in the marketplace for reality based career advice for college students, recent graduates, and anyone else interested in creating art. For example, in March 2013 the satirical publication The Onion published “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It on Nights and Weekends for The Rest of Your Life” by David Ferguson who wrote:


“Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, and do it for the rest of your life on nights and weekends when you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed. It could be anything—music, writing, drawing, acting, teaching—it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that once you know what you want to do, you dive in a full 10 percent and spend the other 90 torturing yourself because you know damn well that it’s far too late to make a drastic career change, and that you’re stuck on this mind-numbing path for the rest of your life.”


Since the definition of satire is ‘the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices’ this satirical statement is misleading, even outright wrong, since many successful artists do just that; they create art on nights and weekends. As Sara Benincasa wrote in Real Artists Have Day Jobs: (And Other Awesome Things They Don't Teach You in School) “the biggest myth we are fed as artists is that we need to sustain ourselves solely on our art. This is ridiculous. Every artist has at some point in time had some other job. Some of them kept these jobs their entire lives.” To help fill the need for reality based advice this article highlights a variety of dynamics artists should consider as they navigate their career.


Artists Represent a Wide Spectrum of Employment Positions


Reality based career advice begins with an understanding of the various occupations associated with artists. While the word artist generally conjures up writers, painters, actors, or musicians, reality based career advice would have you remember that artists represent a wide spectrum of employment positions. According to the U.S. Government’s Current Population Survey (CPS) the spectrum of artists includes everyone from actors to writers:


  • Announcers

  • Art Directors, Fine Artists and Animators

  • Dancers and Choreographers

  • Producers and Directors

  • Writers and Authors

  • Other Artists


The National Endowment of the Arts provides a listing of the various occupations related to each category of artist. For example, actors (SOC 27-11) are defined as those who play parts in stage, television, radio, video, motion picture productions, or other settings for entertainment, information, or instruction. While trying to count artists remember “artists work and live in many types of communities, and distinctions between artists and non-artists are more than simply occupational” and should involve those engaged with art, community activists leading art initiatives, and entrepreneurs offering art based programs. 


Defining Success Requires a Personal Approach


For anyone along the artistic spectrum of occupations perhaps the most critical piece of reality based career advice would be to create your own definition of success and allow it to unfold over time. A few years ago the Massachusetts Arts Council asked artists the question "how do you define success as an artist?" The answers were varied but all contained the theme of individuality as evidenced by this quote from painter Mary Bucci McCoy: “an important part of my definition of success in terms of my studio practice as a painter is making work that continually challenges and changes me, work that pushes the boundaries of my practice and opens up new possibilities.” As an artist it is critical to remember that your definition of success is entirely your own. To get started you need to “put success into your own context and shift your perspective toward what’s important to you, as opposed to something outside yourself.”


Recent research supports the personal approach to defining success. Maverick British advertising legend Paul Arden published It’s Now How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be and noted “your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.” Additionally the Gallup/Populace 2019 Success Index concluded “Americans have very diverse definitions of personal success that cover a wide variety of life domains. The study found that there is no average definition of success. Instead, everyone tends to have a highly unique, personal view of success. The most important domains in Americans’ personal definitions of success are education (17.1%), relationships (15.6%), and character (15.4%).”


Realize Overnight Success Takes a Long-Time


As you rely upon a personal approach to define what success means, be sure to realize overnight success is yet another a myth. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson noted this in their best-selling book Rework: “You know those overnight-success stories you’ve heard about? It’s not the whole story. Dig deeper and you’ll usually find people who have busted their asses for years to get into a position where things could take off….you have to do it for a long-time before the right people notice.” American singer and songwriter Rachel Platten is someone very familiar with working hard for a long-time.


An international relations major at Trinity College, Platten did an internship in Trinidad at a diplomat's office and at a record label. While she was there, she sang backup for a friend's band in front of over 80,000 people at the International Soca Monarch finals in 2002. From that moment on she knew she had to pursue music full-time. Upon graduating college she moved to New York City's Greenwich Village where she played in the local music scene. After 12 years of grinding it out and unsure if she was ever going to make it, Platten released Fight Song on June 27, 2014 which would be her first hit song. As Platten said “This has felt like a complete fairy tale. But a fairy tale that is 12 years in the making. I grinded and worked so hard for so long and got to the point of… I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought I might need to figure something else out. That moment bred Fight Song. So that song came because I had to make a decision, ‘Am I going to keep going or am I going to give up on myself?’”


There Is Absolutely No Need to Be a Starving Artist 


Since success will most likely require a long-term commitment rest assured there is absolutely no need to be a starving artist as you travel your career path. The Starving Artist is a stubborn myth and residue from the 19th century when Henri Murger published a series of articles on the unconventional lifestyle practiced by those pursuing musical, artistic, literary, or spiritual interests in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. French dramatist Théodore Barrière worked with Murger to produce a play. Following the production’s success Murger published Scenes of Bohemian Life (original French title: Scènes de la vie de bohème) in 1851. Numerous interpretations of the bohemian lifestyle have been found in culture ever since and include performances, movies and publications with Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème in 1896, and Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent in 1996 as two of the more famous productions. This starving artist myth is in contradiction to the evidence that suggests one need not starve to create or engage art. If starving artist is a component of your definition of success, however, that is entirely up to you.


The 2017 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) had over 65,000 arts alumni from 84 postsecondary institutions participate and concluded “67% arts alumni currently work in the arts while another 31% are engaged with the arts in some other capacity.” Thus, college students majoring in art work and/or are engaged in art in some capacity. Moreover, according to the National Endowment of the Arts 2019 report Artists and Other Cultural Workers: A Statistics Portrait “2.7 million individuals have a primary or secondary job is as an artist. Of the 11 specific artist occupations, musicians compose the greatest number of moonlighting artists. In 2017, an estimated 100,000 workers held second jobs as musicians. An additional 54,000 workers held second jobs as designers. As one contemporary observer noted “the idea of the starving artist is complete and utter BS.” Indeed it is since many successful artists held day jobs.


Many Successful Artists Held Day Jobs


There is no need to be a starving artist because many successful artists held day jobs. Working during some part of the day was common place for artists of the past and continues to be so today. Here are five of the countless artists that held day jobs to help finance their art.


  • Frank O’Hara published Lunch Poems as a series of reflections he made from his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • T.S. Eliot wrote by night and worked accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day.

  • Wallace Stevens won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in . When Harvard University offered him a faculty position he declined it since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims.

  • Richard Serra is an American minimalist sculptor who started a furniture removals business in New York called, . He employed many of his fellow struggling art friends, including artist and composer Philip Glass, who worked as his assistant helping him to install shows and move furniture.

  • Sujatha Gidla published in 2017 while working as a conductor for the New York City subway.


Leverage Your Limited Time through Subtle Maneuvers


If you have a day job as an artist you will most likely learn to leverage your limited time through subtle maneuvers. In other words, you create art before or after work, or during the weekends. You simply learn how to effectively leverage the 24 hours in a given day afforded to everyone. German-language novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, relied on subtle maneuvers.

Kafka’s father often referred to his son's job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute as his Brotberuf - a job to put bread on the table. Kafka's position involved investigating and assessing compensation claims related to personal injury cases involving lost fingers or limbs to name just a few of the many situations. Kafka usually got off work at two in the afternoon so he had time to spend on his literary work. Kafka described his approach to writing in a letter to a friend: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”


Creating Art Will Only Consume Part of Your Day


Leveraging subtle maneuvers is possible for any artist because creating art will most likely only consume part of your day. According to the 2019 American Time Use Survey 96% of Americans aged 15 or older had approximately five hours on leisure time each day. The three most common types of leisure activities included watching TV, socializing, or exercising. Of course leisure time varies based on work, family, and other factors. If you work a day job as an artist you then create art during your leisure time. It actually is that simple; 79% of arts alumni respondents to the SNAAP survey reported making or performing art in their personal time.


Anders Ericsson’s research confirmed that the very best in their field only used part of their day for their craft. “Across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists, and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time. In fact, most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities, such as writing about new ideas.” If your definition of a successful artist is linked to your association of how many hours you work on your art, stop and ask yourself why that is? Oliver Burkeman noted "if you’re judging your output by your tiredness, you’re sure to be misled; as daily exhaustion is not a prerequisite to purposeful work.”


It Is Perfectly Fine to Not Depend Upon Your Art for Money


If you have a day job and create art during a small portion of your day, you then have the freedom not to depend upon your art for money. One of the most famous English playwrights of the 19th century understood this. In 2013, a letter by English playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was found in a box stashed at the back of a wardrobe in Oxfordshire, U.K. The letter revealed the author’s thoughts on how to succeed as an artist. “The best work in literature,” Wilde penned, “is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

Herman Melville struggled to earn money from Moby Dick. After publishing the novel, Melville struggled financially for the rest of his life. He used much of his savings to publish his subsequent novel Pierre, which also was not well-received. At the time of his death in 1891, he was a customs inspector at a ship dock in New York.

If you would like to create art and then sell it as one of your revenue streams that’s fine. But you do not have to. Remember, what you do with your art is solely up to you. Your definition of success should be entirely your own. You can just create art and see what happens. You could develop new skills and learn how to market your art. Perhaps you launch your own website where people learn about your art. Another option is for you to create an account on Etsy, an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items and craft supplies. The number of people with Etsy accounts more than doubled during the 2012-2018 time period and increased from 830,000 to 2.1 million sellers.


You Can Change Your Artistic Direction


By not relying on your art for money you afford yourself the opportunity to change your artistic direction. Actress Monica Barbaro put off what she wanted to do for years.  She began her career as a ballet dancer, ultimately giving it up to pursue acting. She is known for portraying the character of Yael on the second season of the critically acclaimed Lifetime television series Unreal. Following her work on Unreal, she joined the cast as a lead of the new NBC legal drama Chicago Justice.


According to Barbaro “I had always wanted to act. I did do ballet seriously and considered being professional and all of that, and I went to Tisch and got a dance degree.” While pursuing her degree she enrolled in as many acting electives as her schedule would allow. Once she graduated Barbaro relied upon her self-awareness and realized it was time for a change. “Once I got out [of school] I was like, ‘OK, this is my time.’ I had that realization, I can't not do this any longer.”  Making the transition from ballet to acting is an example of what author Zig Ziglar believe that “if you don’t like who you are and where you are, don't worry about it because you're not stuck either with who you are or where you are. You can grow. You can change. You can be more than you are.”


There Is No Better Day to Create Art than Today


Whether you create art daily, weekly, or annually, remember that there is no better day to create art than today. American artist Andy Warhol noted "Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding make even more art.” In 1960, pioneering American artists Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse met for the first time and became close friends. Hesse was a pioneer of the post-minimalist art movement of the 1960s and began suffering from creative block and self-doubt shortly after moving from New York to Germany with her husband. She reached out to her LeWitt for counsel and consolation and he replied with a spectacular letter dated April 14, 1965 where he wrote “you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think

that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.”



Navigating the chaos of one’s career, artist or otherwise, requires an agile mind, a resilient spirit, and a creative drive. William Carlos Williams possessed all three as he navigated being both a poet and a doctor who “saw his dual vocations as mysteriously fused.” In his 1967 autobiography Williams wrote “They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him.” As you move forward with your art, challenge yourself to rely upon reality based career advice instead of the myths, lies, and half-truths related to how artists earn money.


Disclaimer: This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is distributed with the understanding that neither the publisher nor author are engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

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