By Nina Berman on November 16th, 2020
What Kind of Job is Best to Support Your Art?
A Sustainable Creative Practice Is Different For Everyone
As an artist, you want to build your creative practice in a way that nourishes you and sustains you, that lets you stay inspired and connected. If you run yourself ragged trying to balance out your creative commitments as well as the rest of your life, you’ll find yourself burned out and frustrated. At Fractured Atlas, we want more artists to make more work. And if artists are burned out and frustrated, you’re not able to create! We need to develop sustainable creative practices.
When we talk about sustainable creative practices, you might think that we’re only talking about one kind of sustainability; the one where your art practice pays for itself and where you can quit your day job to focus on it exclusively. This is a rare model of success that is pretty hard to come by, even though it tends to be the one that’s talked about the most (especially in BFA and MFA programs).
In reality, a sustainable creative practice will look different for everyone. For some people, being able to leave a day job to focus exclusively on art will be the goal. It’s hard to get there, but for some, that’s the most sustainable and nourishing way to engage in a creative practice. For others, it looks different. And it requires that you do keep your day job. For people who are keeping their day job, though, there are a number of different ways you can think about the relationship between your work and your art.
Here, we’ll talk through different approaches to your day job or career and how they could intersect with and support your life as an artist. Our hope is that by identifying different options, you can more confidently think about the healthiest and most fruitful way for you to build a relationship between your job and your artwork.
Job Choices Are Constrained
Before we get into different kinds of jobs artists might pursue and fields you might choose to work in, it’s important to set up a few big caveats.
We don’t (always) get to make free choices about our jobs. You might want to work a full-time salaried position but haven’t been able to get the education that employers feel (rightly or not) is required for that kind of work. Or that you haven’t been able to go to the “right” school. You might want to work as a freelancer but your industry only operates with staff positions that offer less flexibility. If you are a marginalized person, you will face challenges getting higher-paid, more secure jobs because of racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, sizeism, ableism, and more.
Right now, we also exist in a job market that is extremely competitive. You might not feel like you have as much freedom to make choices about your employment because jobs are scarce these days.
Further, we don’t have free choice about the kind of work we do because we all need jobs in order to secure the very basics of human life; food, housing, medical attention. Because these things are coupled together, at some point you just need a job because you need to live.
All of the advice we’re sharing here is about how to best survive within the violence of capitalism and how that shows up in the way we align the relationship between wage labor and creative work.
Different Kinds of Jobs for Artists
When thinking about building a sustainable, creative, nourishing life as an artist, you should think about what kind of job is best suited to helping you get there.
Famous artists through the years have worked the whole gamut of jobs. Toni Morrison worked as an editor while she was writing her first books. Barbara Kruger worked in graphic design for Condé Nast in the early days of her career, Phillip Glass drove a taxi, Mark Rothko taught art to children, Ai Weiwei played blackjack, and Keith Haring worked as a busboy at Danceteria.
There isn’t one perfect solution to living as an artist while still paying bills. A robust social security system, decoupling health care and basic needs from wage labor would certainly go a long way, but until then, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. Here are a few different types of jobs that you might be considering or moving between.
Full-time Salaried Jobs
For some artists, a full-time, salaried job will give you the security you want to support your creative work. You might feel freer to create exactly what you want if you can count on a steady paycheck. It might free up brain space if you’re not consistently moving from gig to gig. A salaried job can also give you the financial security to pay for your studio space and buy materials. This is all hoping that you have a job that pays you a living wage, which is not a guarantee, especially in the arts.
If you can depend on your full-time job to pay your rent and your bills, it might encourage you to be more experimental with your work because the risk factor is lower. If you need to sell your work or tickets to your performances to keep food on the table, you might be more inclined to make work based on what will sell rather than what you really want to make.
While the security from a full-time job could be helpful for you as an artist, it can be time-consuming and stressful in its own ways. It’s hard to find time to get to your studio or to attend classes or find time to make your art if you’re working 40+ hours a week.
For me, this is the model that works. I personally like the security that a full-time job offers, although I often wish I could spend more time in my studio beyond evenings and weekends.
Lots of artists choose or find themselves working as freelancers. Some jobs exist primarily in the realm of freelance rather than full-time staff, which could constrain your choices depending on your industry. But freelancing gives artists flexibility. If you are moving from freelance job to freelance job, you have the freedom to potentially not work for weeks or months at a time in case you get booked on a show, go on tour, attend a residency, or just have a dedicated chunk of time to work on your art. If you have a full-time job, you’d need to dip into your vacation days or sick days in order to take significant time off, and it might make your employer look at you less fondly.
Many freelancers will work for part of the year and take part of the year off, or schedule in long-ish breaks between jobs. If your work requires dedicated stretches of time rather than small, incremental snatches of time here and there, freelancing rather than full-time staff work can help you get that time.
However, working as a freelancer leaves you vulnerable as a worker in ways that working as a full-time staff member of a company or organization does not. Freelancers can run into challenges getting paid on time. They deal with the consistent stress of not necessarily knowing when their next job is coming. The money tends to be pretty good, but whereas full-time work is steady, freelance work is feast or famine. It requires a different kind of money management and budgeting to be able to thrive with inconsistent paychecks.
Service Industry and Retail Jobs
There is a rich tradition of artists working in the service industry and in retail jobs – bars, restaurants, cafes, stores, and more.
One reason artists end up working in service industry jobs or retail jobs is that these are the jobs that are available to people who live on the margins; who might not have formal education or who hold marginalized identities.
Creatives often work these jobs because they have clearer boundaries than other kinds of work. Whereas you might be expected to check emails after you leave an office, you can’t really bus a table if you’re not at the restaurant or fold back stock if you’re not at the shop. Some people find that service industry and retail jobs let them turn off some critical thinking parts of their brains and let them run on autopilot, saving their creative juices for their art. You might find that if you spend your days steaming milk for lattes or explaining the same pasta dish over and over again, you have saved your intellectual and creative energy for your own work.
Plus, the networks of service industry and retail workers with creative lives is deep and vast. You might find surprise collaborators while working together in a kitchen or ringing out customers.
Once you develop skills working in a restaurant, bar, cafe, or shop you can take them anywhere. If you need to quit a job to take a break or to explore a new city, you can generally assume that you’ll be able to find similar work in that new place or after you’ve taken the break you need.
However, this work is still exhausting and challenging in its own right. Service industry and retail work can be physically and emotionally draining, and with plenty of instances of serious harassment. These jobs often require you to be on your feet for hours at a time and to perform emotional labor, regardless of how you feel (and, often, in order to get tips). If you work somewhere busy, your job might not require certain kinds of critical thinking but demand high levels of organization, communication, coordination, and way more multitasking than an office job.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been out of the service industry for four years and still occasionally have stress dreams about my old coffee shop job.
Making a Living Doing Your Creative Work
Making a living doing your creative work–quitting your day job–is the dream for a lot of people. Getting paid to do what you love? Sounds great! If you no longer have to split your time between what you do to pay your bills and what you do to express yourself, you’ll have a lot more time for the latter. You can have the space to dream big and the time to devote yourself to making it happen. It can be a marker of success to be able to support yourself with just your creative work.
But, it offers its own challenges. If your ability to pay rent is tied up in whether people buy your work or tickets to your events, you might find yourself pressured to make work that you think will sell rather than work that most deeply expresses your interests and your creative vision.
Which Fields Should Artists Work In?
In addition to thinking about what kind of work you want to pursue, you should also consider which field you want to be in to best support your creative practice. Do you want the work you do that earns you a paycheck to be in the same ballpark as what you do as a creative? Do you want to keep a distance between what you do for love and what you do for money? There’s no right answer, and the ravages of capitalism do constrain your choices, but it’s worth thinking about what would be optimal for you.
Work Directly in Your Creative Field
Sometimes, the work you do for money is in the exact same field as your creative work. If you’re a painter, you might work as an artist’s assistant. If you’re an actor, you might work on commercials while you audition for productions that are more creatively fulfilling.
Choosing to work for money in a field that’s most closely aligned with your creative work can encourage you to keep making work (even if the work isn’t the most thrilling or creative). It can help you keep your skills sharp and let you stay up-to-date on changes in your field and big new names to know. It can also help you form important connections that will help you in your creative work.
However, working directly in your creative field might make it feel like your work stress is the same as your art stress and that one compounds the other.
Work in a Related Field or Doing Related Work
As an artist, you might find yourself working in the arts, broadly construed. That’s what most of the Fractured Atlas team does. We are theater people, curators, musicians, and more. As arts workers, we get to support artists by working in the arts, but we don’t directly use the skills we use in our creative work at Fractured Atlas.
Being in the same general field or being in the same exact field as your creative work but doing different work in that field can be a nice middle ground where you can reap some of the benefits of working in the same field as your creative work but with some additional boundaries or separation between wage labor and creative labor.
Working in a related field can help influence your career and also your creative life. That’s what I’m finding, at least. Off the clock, I’m a ceramicist. That means that I go through a lot of the same problems that our community deals with. I sometimes find it hard to find time to make art and have to figure out how much to charge for my work. It’s helpful for me as a writer to deal with the issues that I write about. But, on the other hand, it can make it challenging to turn off my work brain when I’m at my studio or thinking about my creative practice.
Work in a Completely Different Field
You might choose to work in a field that’s totally unrelated to your creative work. Having a strict boundary between what you do for work and for pleasure could help you keep the pleasurable creative work more pleasurable by virtue of being separate.
Even if you are a skilled artist, we’re sure that you have plenty of other skills and interests beyond your creative practice. Working in a separate field might even give you the space to exercise another part of your brain that you want to engage with.
The Right Job For You as an Artist Is Up to You
Ultimately, only you can determine what kind of work and what field of work will best support your life as an artist or a creative. What boundaries do you want between your wage labor and your creative labor? Do you want to be able to take long breaks or move freely without consulting HR?
We can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to get to the exact right relationship between art and work in the current system of racist capitalism that we are currently living under. But by better articulating what you want, we hope that you can move closer to getting it.
If your art practice doesn’t pay for itself, you might want to investigate ways for artists to fundraise with our Ultimate Guide!.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.