Breaking the barrier: 10 things learned in going from amateur to professional in the arts

It isn't about the great outfits. It's about having grit.

It isn’t about the great outfits. It’s about having grit.

In pushing past the line of amateur into becoming a professional in the arts, there are several things to consider. Here’s a list of 10. The list isn’t definitive. It’s a start.

  1. Be stubborn. 
    From parents to gatekeepers – there is a world of people who will pressure you to not move from the weekend warrior hobbyist position in the arts. Some of the reasons are valid – money is tight, time becomes scant and the world will treat you like an ignorant special snowflake. To get through the gate, you have to find the latch. In the tangled world of art, it takes time and perseverance. Buckle down. Become as permanent as the installations you wish to build.
  2. Live and breathe art. 
    Let your practice become your life. Go to galleries. Go to openings. Go to shows. Let most of your thoughts be about art. Talk about art with you arts colleagues. Go to conferences and talks about art. Talk to community leaders about art. Make it not only your practice, but part of your service back to the community. Immerse yourself in ideas.
  3. Build a community around your practice to increase sustainability. 
    Practice art in the community. Talk about what you are building, and form a community around your practice. Get on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and talk about your work. Talk to others about their work. Support your colleagues by attending their opening nights and shows. Your community will push you to that next level with their support. They will also support you when things become difficult. Make your community diverse and as geographically large as you can.
  4. Never give in to laziness. 
    Art is iterative. The reliance on process: on doing something over and over again until it’s mastered – the repetition, the rehearsal. The act of mastering anything can never be lazy. Be tireless. In your process there are no shortcuts, there are only ways to hone and fine-tune through hard work. Don’t sidestep in the pursuit of excellence, and your goal in being an artist has to be reaching beyond the mediocre, even if your work is to illustrate the mediocre.
  5. Have no exit strategy. 
    If you are entering the life of an artist, it must be the only acceptable life. There is no space for a Plan B. Times will get tough, and your eye must always be on your practice, your process and your outcomes.
  6. You can die from exposure.

    You can die from exposure. Don’t create your own droughts.

    Find a way to survive. 
    As an artist, you may need other sources of income – especially in the beginning. Teach art lessons. Be an acting coach. Write freelance. Or find a skill that you can apply to earning money. Learn how to make a good espresso and work in a cafe. Do something that doesn’t destroy your creativity, and is flexible enough to allow you to dive completely into your practice when you need to. Seasonal work can be particularly good for this. As are contracts.

  7. Cut the fat out of your budget.
    An artist income is below the national average. Learn to live with less. Waste less. Buy less. It can feel like an ascetic life sometimes, but it is a good and fulfilling life – and unlike monks and anchorites, you don’t have to give up sex. Know what you are willing to give up financially, and do so. You may no longer be on the bleeding edge of current fashion, but as an artist, you set the trends.
  8. Share resources. 
    Share a studio. Share an apartment. Share your internet connection. Organise group buying. And if you have a valuable resource, share it with other artists. Don’t be afraid to approach others in your community to ask them to share as well. This is another way that a sustainable community is built.
  9. Take risks and always be ready to try something different. 
    Write that grant. And if it fails, change it and write it again. Be ready to gamble and pivot. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Fall in love with your ideas, but be willing to express them differently if need be.
  10. You can die from exposure. 
    Do not work for free for institutions. They are supposed to support the arts community, not exploit it. Choose very carefully where you will put your free labour. As an artist, there can be a trade-off between being known and getting paid. Just make sure you do not become the artist who is known for not getting paid. Instead support organisations that support building up the arts (Arts Build Ontario, arts councils or arts funds –Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, organisations like Artscape).

And a couple bonuses:

  • Take idle days. 
    Stop every now and then. Waste that extra $20 on a half litre of wine and play with your friends. Remember that your brain needs time to recover so you don’t burn out. You need to push, but you also need time for the mind to rest to come up with new and brilliant ideas.
  • If you get a grant, don’t call it “winning”. 
    You worked hard for that. You did your research and you wrote an excellent application. Your idea is novel, meritorious and good enough to be considered for funding by a jury of your peers. That is not like a lottery ticket, or a door prize. Our own words set up expectations. If we “win” – it seems like chance. With grants, there is very little left to chance. Make sure you recognise that with your words, so others view your work as valid as well. You EARNED a grant.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the barrier: 10 things learned in going from amateur to professional in the arts

  1. Great stuff. One more thing.

    11)Get as much training in business as possible. Think of yourself as a start/up. Affliate with folks that have other skill set than yourself. Network in business circles. Set up a cash flow projection and establish a target market. You are in business so learn as much as you can about thinking like a business owner.

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