How to make a living through teaching your craft

Workshops sharing skills are big business. Master teaching and you can build a reliable revenue stream to support your creative practice.
How to make a living through teaching your craft

Amy Constable Saint Gertrude Letterpress finds teaching letterpress rewarding. Image: supplied

If the plethora of workshops held anywhere from art galleries and museums, to pop-up stores and entire organisations dedicated to skills sharing and training are anything to go by, our appetite for getting hands on and learning new skills is driving us into the ‘Experience Age’.

At National Gallery of Victoria’s recent Parallels conference, Helen Souness, Managing Director, Etsy Australia and Asia, observed teaching craft has become an enormous trend,  benefiting makers who teach workshops and sell supplies to complement their commission income.

‘There is a desire to escape our modern racing lives and make, and there is huge opportunity in that for professional crafts people.'

Creative consultant Madeleine Grummet of Do Re Me Creative moved into hosting workshops when she noticed there was not enough opportunities for children to focus on creative pursuits but now runs workshops for adults. She has observed a hunger in people of all ages to express themselves creatively.

‘I think creativity can have all sorts of manifestations but a lot of people stamp that out…Part of the workshop environment is about bringing that out into the light again,’ she said.

A renewed revenue stream for artists

While teaching has long been a support career for artists and musicians, the boom in workshops has made it more accessible and flexible for creatives of all kinds to supplement their practice income. Libraries, museums, galleries, schools, tertiary institutions and retailers are all seeing workshops as a way to draw audiences and online opportunities provide a new way to reach out to potential students.

For weaver Maryanne Moodie, the DIY courses that she sells through her Etsy store are her bread and butter.

The demand for new experiences and community has provided many artists with an additional revenue stream, added Grummet. ‘I have a lot of friends who are artists or have some kind of creative endeavour, and unless their work can be highly commercialised, then many of them have started teaching on the side.’

Teaching may also be an intrinsic skill for many in the sector. ‘It might be because artists naturally lean toward learning; art requires you to push yourself.’

Amy Constable of Saint Gertrude Letterpress is self-trained in hand letterpress and after seven years perfecting her craft, now teaches out of her studio with classes booking out.

While commercial printing remains the largest part of her income, teaching is the most guaranteed.

‘I just have to run one class a month and it basically pays for my business to run,’ she said. ‘It pays for my rent and then I can focus on whatever projects I want to take on without feeling too against a wall.’

Monica Curro, Assistant Principal Second Violinist at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) started teaching on and off in her late 20s, before being asked by Bill Hennessey to teach violin students at the University of Melbourne.

‘I remember thinking what an honour it was to be asked,’ she said. ‘I've been teaching ever since and loving it. My 82-year-old father is still an active and very busy teacher of violin, viola and conducting, so maybe it runs in the family.’

For Curro, playing in orchestras is her main source of income and she teaches students chamber music and ensemble playing skills. But the balance between playing and teaching always changes. ‘Before I had my daughter, I had up to ten students… I cut back drastically when she was born, then gradually got back into it.
Writers Victoria employs more than 250 writers and industry expert to deliver workshops and literary services. With the latest research reporting the average income for an author in Australia is just $12,900, Kate Larsen, Director, Writers Victoria said ‘teaching is one of the key ways that writers can sustain themselves and their practice.’

‘Writers are jugglers. We all do a lot of different things to make ends meet. Writing is a skill. Talking about writing at festivals or events is a different skill. Teaching writing to others a different skill again. It’s important to know where your strengths lie.’

Melbourne writer Angela Savage said teaching writing enables her to get paid for doing something she loves, in addition to writing.

‘As I don't make enough from writing to earn a living, necessity is part of it, too.’

‘Teaching has become a key income stream for me in the past 12 months as a supplement to my PhD scholarship and small income from writing. I could see it becoming a dominant income stream for me in future if the work is available.’

Where to start

‘Unfortunately, just being good at writing does not necessarily mean that we’ll be good at teaching it,’ said Larsen.

As an artist, writer, crafter, or even just someone with an impressive skill, where do you start when it comes to teaching?

‘Finding out how to structure a workshop or how to cater to different learning styles can help build a tutor’s literary tool-kit – and, hopefully, their income too,’ said Larsen.

‘Taking the time to plan some lessons in advance can help you market yourself more effectively and will ensure you’re ready to go if any last-minute opportunities come up.’

Savage will run the upcoming Train the Trainer: Running Workshops for Adults at Writers Victoria, and will flesh out workshop planning.

Savage also recommends attending other classes or courses as a starting point. ‘I still touch base regularly with other trainers to share ideas, such as activities for workshops.’

To keep it simple, some creatives run workshops out of their home or studio – but remember to take out insurance.

Constable runs letterpress workshops out of Little Gold Studios, which is covered by public liability insurance. She also has separate public liability insurance with additional duty of care premium to cover working with machines, tools, ink, solvent and so on that could potentially cause damage.

A starting point can even be your own living room. Brisbane based designer, stylist, and photographer behind i make. you wear it, Rachel Burke, first did a workshop in her old tiny apartment with a group of friends to make pom poms.

‘I charged them a small fee in exchange for wool, scissors, Pimms – you have to keep your crafting energies up! – and of course, the secret to making a winning pom pom!’

Burke has been running workshops ever since. ‘I find that workshops can easily become expensive in terms of preparation, materials, refreshments, and making prototypes, but if you get the balance right, they can be an excellent source of revenue akin to selling craft.’

‘Finding an audience has namely come through my blog, and the YouTube channel I run with Patience Hodgson, Fancy Free

‘Social media is obviously a huge asset too in terms of connecting with new people and spreading details of your event.’ 

Artists can also pitch workshops to Laneway Learning and approach organisations such as Work-Shop with ideas for classes.

But is teaching for everyone? ‘I would advise people against teaching if they don't actually enjoy it! Students will pick up on your enthusiasm or lack of it,’ said Savage.

How to get the most out of teaching your craft

While teaching is a viable income supplement, there are practicalities such as time management that need to be taken into consideration.

For Savage, designing the course is the most time consuming aspect, and often requires taking a week away from writing. ‘However, I am hopeful that in future, I can implement courses I have already designed, perhaps with small modifications, and this will make teaching less time consuming.’

‘That said, course design and teaching itself can also inform and improve my writing practice by making me more conscious of what I am doing.’

Teaching not only boosts an artist’s bank account, but can help refine their skills. ‘I would advise any musician to teach and tutor as much as possible, if they have the will to do so,' said Curro.

‘Teaching has astronomically improved my own playing and my own musicianship out of sight over the last 20-years.'

She added: ‘Every student has a different brain, and different hand and arm proportions, and different aspirations, so there can never be just one system that fits all. I love the mental challenge, and also love seeing them go into the profession and establish a multi-skilled and versatile career in music. Teaching has ended up being one of the most satisfying and meaningful aspects of mine.'

The Tortoise and the Hare of teaching

Constable credits the success of her workshops to her tortoise approach to her career; learning the artisan skills over time instead of racing like a hare.

‘I became obsessed with manual printing and small desktop printers, but they were not commercially viable at all but I just couldn’t move on from them. In a couple of years, that ended up making me the best at teaching, because it’s something anyone can do.

‘I don’t really see it as “those who can’t do, teach mentality” – I like talking about what I do and sharing that with people,’ she said.

Constable's advice is: ‘Don’t underestimate what the general public want to learn. I honestly didn’t think my craft [letterpress] would be in anyway suitable for just your average Joe – I thought it would only be the kind of thing someone within in my industry would want to do.

‘Developing a course that allows regular folk into your creative world is really great and they really love it. They don’t even have to be that good at it – it is just an escape I think.’

With the popularity of workshops and the general public’s interest in learning craft, what happens to the work of the artist or artisan if people can do it themselves?

‘The idea of someone I teach becoming my competition doesn’t worry me in the slightest – I think if anybody as really worried about that we wouldn’t have universities, we wouldn’t have education. When you look at it as creating a community out of their craft you are developing an even bigger audience,’ concluded Constable.

Madeleine Dore

Thursday 8 October, 2015

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator