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How to build a portfolio career

Madeleine Dore

Channeling your inner Renaissance Man to pursue a portfolio career could be the answer to being gainfully employed in the arts while doing everything you love.
How to build a portfolio career

A portfolio worker: the new Renaissance Man. Image: Hipster In Stone by photographer Léo Caillard

‘Men can do all things if they will,’ said polymath Leon Battista Alberti, perhaps the textbook example of the Rennaissance Man. But in the half-millenium since Alberti, the growing body of scientific and technological knowledge has seen a commensurate trend towards specialisation. Wearing multiple hats is often seen as a fashion that belongs in the Renaissance.

But in the 21st Century, the fluid job market and fast pace of change mean there is a resurgence in the polymath as the portfolio worker becomes the 'career du jour'. Juggling multiple job titles such as graphic designer/producer/musician/festival assistant is proving to be a successful way to remain gainfully employed while doing things you actually enjoy.


For arts workers, the notoriously competitive job market and an average wage significantly lower than average annual earnings for all Australians  mean a portfolio career can be the only way to make ends meet.

Here's how it's done:


Eleanor Howlett is a professional actor who also runs arts publicity business Sassy Red PR, which was launched in 2010 as the solution to the unpredictability of the arts.

Howlett has theatre, film and voice credits but she knows better than to depend on auditions for a regular income. ‘We’re very rarely afforded the luxury here in Australia to focus on one aspect of a career in the arts, and make an adequate living off it. It’s just basic commonsense to have skills in other areas that you can rely on when you need to make money.'

Like many actors, she has also established her own production company, Sassy Red Productions, which last year produced Kit Brookman's Night Maybe at Theatre Works. Plus she reviews theatre for Australian Stage, not a highly profitable gig but one which adds to her profile.

Howlett said having multiple roles gives her the opportunity to balance her interests, earn a living and stay in the sector she loves, offering a wide range of exciting roles that are all within the industry.

Howlett finds it empowering and ‘wonderfully challenging’ to craft a portfolio career. ‘I can be on set doing acting work, and I’m also able to work on my laptop at the same time. I can run my business alongside my creative endeavours.'

She recommends developing multiple skills to enable a viable career in the arts sector. ‘I don’t think anyone would argue (the idea) that education and professional development allow people more choices, and the ability to be malleable and work across various sector of the arts industry.’

An awareness of your skills, the kind of life you want and how this can be an asset to an organisation provides the foundation of a portfolio career. Now it’s time to be open to opportunities. Eleanor Howlett recommends finding a mentor, attending small business seminars at local councils, and checking out programs offered by organisations like Malthouse and Melbourne Theatre company.

‘There are so many opportunities to gain expertise that can help you in the long term; both in the artistic and business fields. It’s called show “business” for a reason – I think that can be forgotten at times,’ said Howlett.  


Christian Stena combines a bureaucratic role as principal innovation officer at VicHealth with a faculty job at The School of Life. He also takes on volunteering roles including his position on the board of Renew Adelaide and his role as a mentor for the Pinnacle Foundation.

Stena, who runs a class at The School of Life Melbourne on How to find a job you love, told ArtsHub that a portfolio career still tends to challenge society’s general expectation of lateral careers. ‘In society we have a view that there is one grand plan for life and that there is one sense of self. So once you figure out who you are, you can create and implement a plan.’

Yet Stenta points out that there are multiple aspects to who we are as individuals. During childhood – in our own minds at least – it seemed completely conceivable to be an astronaut-artist, reflecting our inborn desire for diversity and our multitudes to do all.

A portfolio career is a grown up take on a childlike sense of wonder. It allows you to encompass a range of your aptitudes and interests and offers the ‘opportunity to be able to explore all those multiple selves,’ added Stenta.

While dabbling in photography while simultaneously writing your first novel and working nine-to-five for a non-profit may not make you da Vinci, it could potentially make you happy.  

‘Why a portfolio approach for some people can be quite good is because it enables you to really think about what are the different aspects or components that make up who I am – my sense of identity – and how do I continue to evolve and respond to that,’ said Stenta.

‘It’s really about us being able to bring to life all the different components that make us up and make us who we are, rather than investing everything into one particular basket.’

Portfolio careers depend on complex juggling acts and Stenta said it was important to approach employers with honesty, respect and transparency, ‘I always go in to any arrangement being really clear about the different components of my working life – how they fit together, what I do in terms of making sure I manage that and building a sense of trust that I am able to be accountable for the decisions that I make and the things that I do.’

A portfolio career may offer flexibility in terms of the work you take on, where you work from and when, but it also requires a high level of organisation and commitment. Stenta said: ‘It’s not just about the employer providing me with that flexibility, but also about me being able to honour the things that I am committing to.’

Editor/Freelance writer/Tutor/Festival committee member

Freelance writer Sam Cooney is the editor-in-chief and publisher of literary magazine The Lifted Brow. As if these positions weren't enough to juggle, he adds literary critic, copywriter, presenter, program committee member for the Emerging Writers’ Festival and rotating university lecturer to his impressive portfolio.

Cooney told ArtsHub that the appeal of a portfolio career comes down to a level of freedom, variety and challenge inherent in wearing several hats. 'Having a portfolio career means you are never settled, which is excellent, at least for a period of time, because you learn more about yourself.'

Discovering your talents, skills and aptitudes through trying your hand at a variety tasks can also broaden your perspective and teach you about the world as you are 'pushed into unfamiliar territories', said Cooney. 'It’s interesting to find out exactly what you can do, what you can’t, and why.'

Samuel_Cooney (for web — smaller)

When it comes to pursuing a career in writing and publishing, having a broad skill set will assist you to secure work in a competitive industry. 

Cooney points to a few major reasons why it is important for writers to hone new skills, emphasising the need to be prepared for a variety of work, 'There is an ever-decreasing possibility for individuals to make a living from creative or literary writing.

'It’s important for writers to be out in the world, doing not-writing activities,' he added, 'Broadening a skill set can include learning skills that can complement one’s ability to write, sure, but a writer’s skill set can also include learning how to make a living from not-writing, in order to be able to write what one actually wants to write, and not what the market wants.'

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of the interview project Extraordinary Routines. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub and dedicated to communities that encourage entrepreneurial and artistic careers. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator