An Artist’s Life: Full-time, Part-time, or No Time
Unless you are an artist who is independently wealthy, recently won the lottery, married rich, or live on a commune, the question, should artists quit their day job, has probably passed your mind. Many artists are forced by financial necessity to supplement their income while trying to gain recognition, and it is the goal of most young and emerging artists to one day ‘be able to live from their art.’
The reality is, for many aspiring artists, selling artwork can be an unpredictable source of income, and obtaining grants is time-consuming, competitive, and will only get you through for a short period of time.
Some artists, who weren’t so fortunate to have had family financial support, may need to make a critical decision in their art life early on: Financial stability through commercial or unrelated work, or scraping by from residency to residency until you build enough momentum to let your art carry you. This process can take years, a lot of patience, and crashing of couches.
For those who took the latter option and began a career outside of producing and selling artwork, leaving the security employment can be equally difficult. However, if the drive to succeed in art is strong enough, the question of whether to be a full-time artist isn’t as clear-cut as the question of ‘when and how.’
Taking the First Step
When I was a student, I thought I wanted to become a doctor. It seemed a rational, doable, and a sure way to succeed professionally. I had a genuine interest in medicine, and a scholarship, and began college with a major in biology as my ticket to medical school.
In the first two years, I underwent a drastic reconsideration of my life goals and values. I found that I was spending considerably more time in my art and liberal arts courses than I was in my sciences courses. Also, the allure of having a doctor title and the lifestyle attached to it lost its luster. I began seeing other doctors with demanding schedules and broken families and started to question if that was the future I indeed wanted.
One day, after leaving an organic chemistry class early, only to sit in on a drawing class for fun, I recognized where my heart was pulling me. The next day, I also had a ‘wake-up call’. A dentist who was a friend of the family encouraged me to intern at his clinic to get a feel of medical life. I put on a surgical mask for the first time and felt difficulty breathing. The next thing I knew, I passed out on the floor of a dentist’s office, having fainted at the sight of blood while observing a wisdom tooth extraction. Lying on the ground, with the doctor above me waving smelling salt over my face, I wondered if medicine was indeed the way to go.
Soon after I went to my college administration building and expressed my wish to change my major to a fine arts degree. The next day I informed my parents of this not-so-hard decision which I have repeatedly revisited over the years. My parents were in shock, to say the least. In hindsight, it must have been very difficult for them to handle the reality that I was exchanging a secure job with something so unknown and insecure.
Reluctantly, they accepted my decision, but that didn’t stop my father from pointing out the obvious to me each time we would drive past an underpass on the highway. “See under that bridge,” he would say. “That’s where you are going to end up.”
Working as a Full-Time Artist vs Part-Time Creative
After majoring in Studio Arts, I moved countries and tried to establish myself anew. I had many opportunities, including the ability to live with family, which helped me tremendously at this time to get my bearings. I participated in many exhibitions and residencies, traveling to different cities and regions, gaining experience, and discovering my own personal mission as an artist. However, even with this blizzard of activity and artistic production, and subsidization of housing costs, I struggled to make ends meet.
Eventually, I picked up work as a photojournalist, took freelance jobs as an architectural photographer, and offered art classes for extra income. Later, my newfound experience in journalism led me to more offers to write as well as shoot. The time I spent on my artistic development began to decrease while my bank account began to fill itself out.
I was shooting photographs, doing work that was ‘creative’ and ‘engaging’ but the vision wasn’t coming from me, instead, it came from my editor. Eventually, I became a chief editor myself, and the editor inside my own head began dictating how I should shoot my subjects during photography sessions. For instance, I would purposely set aside empty space for text, or I would shoot in Landscape format rather than in Portrait format because it would be easier for the design team later on. These ‘edits’ while shooting began to infringe on my creative process, and after a while, it got under my skin.
Meanwhile, I noticed my artist contemporaries whom with I had previously exhibited, began excelling in their craft and profession, while I was stagnating and depending on sneaking in artsy fashion shoots at the magazine to get my creative fix. However, I found that although the work was creative, it left me drained for my own art practice.
At this point, I was no longer a starving artist, but starving for art. I quit my job, in a rather melodramatic fashion, and went off with my camera to Jerusalem for a few weeks on a personal creative project I had been pondering.
This time, without any financial security, grant, or promise of a payoff, I went with my gut and didn’t look back. I did struggle with money, having invested much on film and processing, but somehow I always found a helpful hand that assisted me in finishing the project. When I returned, I had multiple offers for exhibitions and licensed publications. The experience showed me that acting on courage also has its rewards.
The Pros and Cons of Quitting your Day Job
The process of when or how to transition from your day job to being a full-time artist will differ for each individual. It is important to really weigh out your specific situation: both negative and positive to transition in a sustainable way.
Having a full-time career, outside of your art career, leaves very little left for art production. And the reality is that living from your art requires more than only producing work. It requires time invested in going to exhibitions, marketing yourself, applying for grants, and delving into research on your subject matter. If you were relying primarily on weekends or time after work to spend on art, your progress will most likely be incredibly hard and/or incredibly slow.
Part-time work can be an option and a way to eventually transition. If managed properly, it may even work out as a long-term compromise. The key is to find a balance, and the time management skills to make it work.
The Pros of keeping your part-time Day Job as an Artist
- Financial Stability – Let’s face it, not worrying about income or whether or not you sell your artwork at your next show is a great burden lifted from an artist’s shoulders. In addition, that money you make can be re-invested in art supplies, framing, or marketing costs.
- Freeing Art Production from Financial Motivation – There is a compelling argument that when you are no longer dependent on living from your art, your artistic exploration is freed from the pressures of commercialism or catering to your audience’s expectations with the hopes of selling. In this regard, having an outside source of income, non-dependent on your artistic production, can keep your artistic process free from the traps of being gimmicky or formulaic in hopes to sell. In other words, your intentions are easier to keep ‘purely’ focused on art for its own sake.
- Structured Scheduling – Many artists struggle with discipline and time management. Some would say that being spontaneous and staying up all night working on art is part of being creative. However, one big advantage when having a part-time job is the necessity to divide your work days and hours up and keep to a set schedule. While it may not be as exciting as waiting for a whim of motivation to move you, it can force artists to be more organized and structured with time management.
- Connections to people outside the Art-World Bubble – Immersion in the art world is critical for artists in networking and in getting feedback and ideas for their practice. But connections to professional fields outside of art can open other doors. It can be a source of marketing for your work and it can also be an influence on your subject matter. In addition, the artworld can come with pretention and inflated egos, as this New York Times article points out, connections to people and life outside of the Artworld can be healthy in keeping one grounded in ‘Real Life.’
The Cons of Working as a part-time Artist
- Little time for in-depth research and development – Some artists who work part-time find that they produce in spurts, with each project being a unique task with a beginning and an end. However, Full-Time artists have the benefit of watching artworks go through multiple re-incarnations. Their research can go into greater depths, as the end of a project becomes the beginning of the next.
- Lack of flexibility in Time – If you are not self-employed, taking time out for traveling to exhibitions or residencies can be close to impossible, and in the best case, is still not in your own hands. Although your time is structured, it is not your own. Any participation in Art Fairs or exhibitions abroad has to be planned well in advance.
- Juggling Art Production with Art Management – As stated above, actual art productions only makes up a fraction of your professional time as an artist. Networking, building a social media presence, and staying ‘relevant’ and up-to-date is also a big part of making it work in the arts. The disadvantage to part-time work in other fields is the lack of long-term concrete dedication of time and research on specific projects.
- Feeling Left Behind – Being able to live from your artwork can take years of sacrifice and development. I have seen colleagues who took that route in their twenties, finally see the payoff for their hard work in their thirties. But when you are sitting behind a desk at your day job, hearing about the praise and accomplishments of fellow artists can sometimes leave you feeling frustrated, not because you don’t want others to succeed, obviously, but because deep down it points out the gap between where you feel you should be professionally and where you are. Keeping your day job doesn’t count you out, but it can slow you down.
How to transition to a full-time Artist
If time management isn’t your strength, and if you feel you have the courage to make the lunge, plan for it ahead of time. Use your job to fund your art and build a wealth net that may support you when you transition to your art career. Set financial goals to give yourself the financial space to invest your time.
I know an artist who even took out a loan to financially support herself as she left her old career. The move was risky, but with great risk comes great payoff.
Alternatively, when considering the question, should artists quit their day job, you may opt for a more moderate approach, gradually transitioning from full-time to part-time work outside of the art world, and then continue to reduce your workload until your art career begins to bear fruit. This strategy can work as long as you keep your eye on the prize and not lose focus of your goal: total commitment to your life’s artistic expression.
Whatever you decide, good luck, and let me know how it goes!