Making a living in art and design

  • 11 Ways to Survive by Andreas Mølgaard (Design Interactions, 2007)

Tom Harrad, a student on the Critical Writing in Art & Design MA at the RCA, on how artists, designers and writers juggle different jobs in search of the perfect balance.

For more advice on how to get your ideal job, our Dream Jobs event on Wednesday 30 May will feature expert speakers advising on CV writing and how to create a job that suits your skills and interests – bookings are open now

“So, what are you up to?” It’s question dreaded by many of us (and a dreary one at that), and it’s one to which I have two different, equally truthful answers. There’s the one I’m happy to give: that I’m studying at the RCA, do art department and freelance writing jobs, and work occasionally with a small collective of artists and writers. Then there’s the other, less inspiring answer: that I work three nights a week for minimum wage at a pretty crummy bar in Peckham and it barely covers my rent. Both are completely true; they just both omit certain unnecessary details.

This is not an uncommon situation for the modern arts graduate, and nor am I suggesting it is a shameful one. London’s bars and restaurants, much like its art galleries, bookshops, vintage clothing outlets, cinemas, theatres, call centres and water purification plants (a friend of mine once spent an illuminating summer with Thames Water) are brimming with students, artists and writers sweating it out for Mr Landlord. The dream situation for many arts graduates is that what they do for love will coalesce with that which they do for money, that they won’t need to perpetually update two CVs, one for jobs they really want, and one for the jobs they need to live. A more tangible aim for a lot of visual artists is landing a job that allows them to use their skills and get paid by the hour for it, that their employment is at least relevant to their practice.

Justine graduated in 2011, and though she trained in graphic design, her interests lie mainly in casting and sculpture. She now works for the UK’s second-most ubiquitous sculptor, Anish Kapoor, helping to produce his work in his South London studio. “This is my first job as a technician so it's all pretty different to anything I've done before,” she says. “I think working in a relatively dangerous environment, with a wide scope of tools and machinery has given me a huge advantage when it comes to realising my own projects. Not only in terms of what is achievable and how to do it but also time-keeping and having the confidence to start something ambitious. Even learning about post-production, so where the work goes, who takes it away and how; that influence has been just as important as the physical one.”

She seems to be in something of an ideal situation, in that she can earn enough through part-time employment, leaving her three or four days a week to concentrate on her own studio work. There’s nothing like a full-time job to put an end to any personal studio ambitions you may have, so having that treasured weekday free can be hugely important. Unless you’re Charles Bukowski and can use your mundane day job as source for a successful (if a little self destructive) alternative career, it seems that a balance between money coming in and time to concentrate on your own work is crucial. “Being full time would be completely exhausting,” says Justine. “The physically hard nature of the job can make doing a late night studio visit pretty tough.” Though it’s miles better than her last job, working for a small gallery: “The people I work with now are more like mentors, sharing their skills with you. I’ve found gallery working relationships much more hierarchical and intimidating, 'You can't talk to that person because they're so and so,' things like that. How can someone possibly have passion in a position when you go in bottom of the food chain, and are repeatedly told you are at bottom of the food chain and that you will remain there unpaid until further notice?”

How did she get this great, relevant job then? The answer to that is as frustrating as it is common. “Through word of mouth to be honest! That's how most of the people who are art techs that I've spoken to get a job to begin with. It's strange but it feels like there are other major artists who have had the same technicians, and everyone seems to know each other. It’s a little incestuous.” Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that who you know is more important than what you know, but like many clichés, there seems to be some truth in it. Justine was already proficient in various sculptural techniques before she got the job, and has since learned all the other skills she needs while working for Kapoor, but she got an interview because a friend recommended her, through another friend who was already at the studio. She agrees, “Obviously having a relative amount of creative and technical capacity and experience is important, but it is who you know to a certain extent.”

Building a network of friends, colleagues, as well as artists working in other fields, is one of the most valuable by-products of the art school experience. The fact is, that these ‘dream jobs’ we crave are not conventional ones. Similar rules apply for anyone who survives on freelance employment. Nick works for the Barbican on a freelance basis, and seems to have become something of an odd job man. He explains, “At first, the trick is to keep reminding them that you can work, and that you want to work. I knew someone who was working in the education department, and they were a few people short on a project. I got called up at the last minute, and have sort of managed to stick around since then.” He thinks that the keys to being a successful freelancer are availability and adaptability. “I started doing education stuff, but then the more you say yes to, the more you get. I’ve done some art direction work, workshop and event development, worked at their festivals, lugged speakers around all day, all sorts.”  

The downside to all this is that it cannot be relied upon. “It’s the curse of the freelancer, that while the money can’t be good, your employer does not guarantee you a living,” says Nick, so he supplements his income through less interesting means. This seems to be all the more common among recent arts graduates; we are factotums, workers of many jobs. We juggle our creative lives with our working ones. Hopefully, eventually, the two will become one. For many of us the search for a relevant job continues, battling the complacency that comes with the irrelevant ones. What am I up to? Well I work at a bar. It sucks, but I’m always on the lookout for something else. Know of anything good going?