Competitive terrain for arts graduates

How can aspiring artists and arts workers navigate an increasingly competitive career pathway post-COVID?

While the Great Resignation looms over the global workforce, careers in Australia’s visual arts are going against the grain – jobs are incredibly competitive and there is hyper-activity around grants and exhibition callouts.

NAVA’s Co-Director Penelope Benton told ArtsHub: ‘Across the visual arts, job applications, grant applications and responses to exhibition call-outs have been greater throughout the last 12 months than in previous years. Applications have also been especially high calibre, making selections even more competitive.’ 

Although competitiveness is usually healthy in the workforce to a certain degree, the past 20 months of COVID disruptions are seeing ‘reputable mid-career and established artists competing with emerging artists’ as well as candidates of varying experiences busting through the door for relatively junior roles, added Benton.

If these pose a difficult challenge for artists and arts workers already within the industry, how can recent and upcoming arts graduates hope to navigate this competitive terrain?

As educators and mentors who guide graduates into the workforce, art schools offer some insights for emerging artists and young arts workers.

CREATING A HEAD START

Adelaide Central School of Art (ACSA) CEO Penny Griggs told ArtsHub: ‘Traditionally there is always a lot of people who want to work in the [arts] sector, it is an attractive proposition and part of that is because of the nature of the work.’

This past year, ACSA has seen increasing demand for art short courses because people are reconnecting with their passions and hope to channel their creativity into a career.

Unfortunately, arts organisations have been doing it tough.

According to information from the Australia Council, arts organisations have the highest percentage of struggling organisations in any sector prior to COVID-19, and the lowest percentage of organisations that say they are in good financial health. 

Referencing NAVA’s sector surveys, Benton said that ‘the majority of Australian artists and arts workers are deeply concerned by income security, restricted earning capacity and limited job prospects.’

Read: Creativity at Work: preparing students for future work

However, it doesn’t mean that there will be no potential for aspiring graduates – after all, art thrives on new blood. It does mean that graduates will need a jump start to activate their careers and art schools play a crucial role.

Sydney’s National Art School (NAS) announced a new initiative to bring much needed industry and commercial knowledge to arts students in a partnership with the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas (SCCI).

From 11 – 13 February 2022, the three-day hub Creativity and Commerce brings together 30 speakers and mentors to help emerging artists identify sustainable and long-term professional pathways.

NAS Director Steven Alderton told ArtsHub: ‘On this journey emerging artists are working on their practice, making the ideas and theory behind it stronger and more resilient, but also building an understanding of the industry.’

SCCI Founder and Artistic Director Dr Gene Sherman AM added: ‘[The program] is deliberately initiated at this crucial post-pandemic moment. Graduating art students and practising artists looking to expand their reach and amplify their opportunities clearly stand to benefit from commercial, legal and marketing guidance.’

The program fosters an entrepreneurial mindset for creatives, and ‘the practical tools needed for them to fulsomely flourish in the beyond-studio world,’ said Sherman.

Alderton agreed: ‘There is a self-propelling revolution for emerging artists that they should grasp.’

ACSA has also developed a new relationship with Adelaide’s Illuminate festival to provide opportunities for three recent graduates (2016 – 2020) through the Graduate Pathway Program. Selected artists will each receive a $5,000 commission alongside $2,000 materials fee, with the project outcome to be considered for Illuminate Adelaide 2022 Program.

FORGING THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS

‘It’s always challenging for visual artists in the sense that it’s not a traditional career trajectory where you graduate and then go straight to a job. It’s more about finding your own pathway,’ said Griggs.

‘Having a digital presence is absolutely essential right now, but it’s also all about the relationships [you build].’

Whenever you ask an arts professional for career advice, the importance of networking will always come up without exception.

Networking and making connections is ever more important for young artists and arts workers looking to get a foot through the door, and collective isolation have actually worked in favour of those previously intimidated by the idea of a self-introduction or cold calling.

Griggs shared that recent years saw graduates staying in SA after they graduate, whereas previously they would travel interstate or internationally to seek opportunities.

There is an advantage in being in a state with a comparatively smaller arts scene, ‘it’s about making your own opportunities to a certain extent,’ said Griggs. ‘The nice thing is you have access to the industry because [places such as galleries] are often approachable and artists can have that direct relationship.’

Small goals can help keep you motivated and see the networking potential of daily interactions. Something like reaching out to three professionals each week, asking them about their career trajectory and keeping a networking diary or spreadsheet will be immensely rewarding when you overcome the initial awkwardness.

‘Be present, and be curious,’ Griggs concluded.

In addition, Alderton strongly recommends tapping into the breadth of regional activity that have been gaining momentum and infrastructural support.

This applies to both artists who are looking to exhibit and arts workers who wish to gain that industry experience.

‘[All around the states] there are job opportunities for you to invest in your community and work with regional galleries who are very well connected across each other and back into Sydney,’ said Alderton.

Wagga Wagga Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, and the new Ngununggula in NSW’s Southern Highlands are just some of the examples.

He added: ‘If you can go to these regional areas, respect and work closely with your regional audience and bring contemporary practice to them and make it accessible – that’s a very rewarding couple of years.’

BE OPEN TO THE POTENTIALS OF YOUR DEGREE

While many BFA students aspire to dedicate their careers to an artistic practice, an arts degree also holds a wealth of potential to expand upon other fields of work. Art degrees can teach vital skills of storytelling, collaboration, and critical and conceptual thinking.

In the current climate, ‘having a visual art degree means that you need a broad view of what might happen after you graduate,’ added Higgs.

Read: Where an arts degree can take you

Steven emphasised the importance of foresight and establishing what he calls a five-year plan before you graduate: ‘Unless you have a plan, you don’t know where you’re going and you’ve got to give yourself milestones.’

The plan can encompass a multitude of pathways, but specific goals will provide a good, realistic outlook of how to get there.

Such can include ‘I want to learn this new skill’, or ‘I want to have two people write about my work this year’.

‘People have different pathways and different reasons for making art, we should realise and celebrate that,’ he added.

In Alderton’s view, ‘artists see a long term future for their practice, they’re not looking for immediate gains’. Instead, ‘they look to hone their practice, make it strong, and then have exhibitions and put their work out there.’

Alderton foresees an optimistic future for emerging artists and the graduates in NSW, even if there may be times when a job in a different field is necessary to support the practice.

He shared: ‘When I left art school, I walked out the gates going: “What am I going to do now?” I ended up working in a cafe and you just gotta realise that’s okay. You’ve got to give yourself room and time for your practice to make work and to think about your work.

‘For me, the endpoint outcome of practicing artists isn’t about getting commercial gallery representation,’ Alderton added. ‘It’s about the practice and feeling confident where you work is going, and then putting it out in the public domain.’

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.