Portfolio Careers for Artists

by Manick Govinda
Head of Artists, Arts Admin

As Head of Artists’ Advisory Services at Artsadmin, I am asked on numerous occasions by early-career artists from both the visual, performance and that in-between space known as live art whether they can make a living doing or making art. In a country that has experienced an economic downturn, greater unemployment and a graduate employment crisis, the portfolio career is becoming the norm for more and more people. The portfolio career, by definition, is based on a series of diverse short-term jobs or opportunities, being a bit of a precariat in an unstable environment, and sometimes doing crappy day jobs for employment agencies and casual work. However, doing odd jobs here and there can hinder your dream of being an artist – making work that you're proud of, that communicates and that the public (whoever that might be) can enjoy, appreciate or even loathe.

The first thing to bear in mind in a portfolio career is that there will be some self-sacrifice. You will need to prioritise your time, be resourceful, invest in your practice, be strategic and keep your eyes and ears peeled for new opportunities.

A key starting point for any artist is to make yourself visible; start building, compiling and building up your CV; begin to catalogue your work, and reflect where you are and where you want to be in 3 to 5 years' time. Then start telling people what you do. There is no excuse for being in the garret in the 21st-century digital age. Don’t rush into paying someone to design and build a website for you.  Think of building your presence on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, art-specific sites such as New Work Network, Axis, artreview.com, Artists in Representation (AiR), etc.  Think about starting a blog – it’s a great way of articulating, discussing and presenting your thoughts, experiences, ideas and work. A good digital footprint is also excellent for networking, developing collaborative relationships and finding work. Michael Nyman and David McAlmont’s collaboration initially began on Facebook. It’s not all poking and sending digital cakes!

Being pro-active in seeking opportunities for your sector is also important; subscribe to e-newsletters and discussion sites such as sound and music, jiscmail (which has nearly 50 discussion groups in the field of sound and music), the Artsadmin E-Digest and This is Live Art. These are great sources of information about performance platforms, grants and bursaries.

Giving up the crappy job may not be an option at the moment, but once you've got your essential living costs covered, you need to invest time and money in your practice. Live Art UK has published a collection of case studies with a section called Infrastructure. One study on economies of live art profiles a performance group that has developed a financial model based on the feudal tithe system: an art tax of 10% from all of their income sources that they save and spend on nothing else but their art practice.
Finally, building peer-recognition is important. Participate in workshops, courses, retreats, art-labs, find a mentor, test your work, ask people what they think of your work, develop strong opinions about art, life and politics and don’t play safe. If your talent is evident, or the potential is there, people will talk about it. I’m a firm believer in serendipity, and the chance that someone may approach you with an offer you can’t refuse.

Relevant links:

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