Nine myths that shouldn’t stop you working in the arts

Don't be discouraged by the naysayers. Many of the reasons you will hear not to work in the arts don't mesh with reality.
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Image: Classic Art Memes

Tell a teacher, parent or even a stranger at a party that you want to work in the arts and you are likely to have cold water thrown on your ambitions. Myths perpetuated about the industry – and some within the arts sector  itself – discourage wannabees from pursuing an arts career.

Filtered through parents, teachers, universities and peers, these, perceptions can often be warning lights but often they are more like roadblocks placed by people who don’t really know the opportunities the sector provides.

We ask artists, photographers, performers, arts administrators, and those with a firmly planted foot in the industry to debunk career myths and tell us how it really is.

Perception: An arts degree is useless
Reality: It can land you work in a variety of industries

‘I think one of the most perpetuated myths is that art degrees aren’t valuable because every second person is doing an arts degree,’ said photographer PollyannaR.

In fact PollyannaR has found the workforce values the creative thinking encouraged by an arts degree, often over the technical skills of a more practical qualification.

Read: Stop apologising for your arts degree

‘As I have moved into more commercial spaces, companies pay me a lot of money just to have ideas. They are looking for different ways to engage with people.’

The ability to think outside the box, problem solve, and generate ideas are valuable, transferable skills. ‘We live our life on the outside, but we can look in, making it easy for us to see something from a new angle as opposed to someone who might be in an industry day in, day out.’  

Perception: You have to be exceptional
Reality: You have to do the work

Growing up in the country, a creative career wasn’t necessarily an option for PollyannaR. ‘There was a perception that in order to make a living from your art, you had to be ridiculously talented from day one and sell your art for lots of money,’ she said.

‘I went into photography thinking I had to achieve an unrealistic level of excellence in order to be crowned an artist, whereas it’s not necessarily true. My bread and butter is doing family portraits and I have channelled my art into that.

You can build a career as an artist as you build your skills. ‘You can produce work and it can still be good, as long as you keep putting it out there you will be seen as successful because you are doing work,’ said PollyannaR.  

Perception: Success means being ‘discovered’
Reality: Success is a continuum and requires perseverance

Our obsession with instant results and gratification has warped our sense of success. When it comes to our artistic careers, it can be demotivating if success doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s important to remember that is normal.

There is also pressure to be ‘young’ and successful. ‘Speaking from my own experience as a visual artist, I see the pressures we place on the immediacy of results, on age as a factor of success,’ said Abbra Kotlarczyk.

Read: Overcoming the mid-career slump

Doing the work, perseverance and developing your practice is the reality. ‘A creative practice is just that – practice. It gets better with age and experience, as do the reasons for pursuing it,’ said Kotlarczyk.

Perception: Nothing will ever come of your side-project
Reality: It’s your greatest promotional tool

PollyannaR has invested over a decade of time and countless resources into creating The Big Picture series – the world’s largest photograph. To the cynic, this could appear to be a hefty investment, but it has raised PollyannaR’s profile and secured her countless commissions. 

‘I’ve got work through doing what I love. I was always putting work out whether it was good or bad, so it always looked like I was busy, always looking creative, always trying new things and so people contacted me,’ she said. 

If you can’t find the work, create the work yourself and it will end up finding you. 

PollyannaR is also willing to exchange her creative skills to support local charities and organisations, which in turn has helped gain work. ‘I didn’t have money to help a particular charity, so I made a video. I’m not a videographer, but I now have three really good clients from that project.’

Perception: There is only one way to succeed as an artist
Reality: There are a myriad of ways to support your practice

There are certain ‘goalposts’ that perpetuate this myth of success – you must get gallery representation, or an agent, or a job at this organisation by this stage of your career. The reality is, everyone’s career trajectory is different. 

‘The most prominent myth here is that this is the only way,’ said writer and arts administrator Marion Piper. ‘We are blessed to live in a country with a pretty open arts scene that bleeds into other industries, but there is the danger of becoming disheartened when funding is cut or spaces close down. To be successful you have to be strategic, resourceful and open to changing your ways, which I think is true of any career path.’

Kotlarczyk agreed. ‘There’s a short sighted belief that signing to a commercial gallery – especially when a younger or emerging practitioner – is the be-all to a sustainable and successful career in the visual arts.’

‘While it is a practical fact that an artist must be financially sustained, this can be achieved through a myriad of ways that in turn enriches an artist’s own work.’ 

Financial realities differ greatly depending on how an artist chooses to position the work that they make, added Kotlarczyk. 
To survive, artists and arts workers wear many hats.

Alongside being an artist, Kotlarczyk has taken up work as a writer, a picture framer, an archivist and general support for other creative practitioners.

‘Largely I find it to be relationships and the opportunities that arise through them that help to ground a successful career in the arts,’ she said.  

Perception: You can only make it if you live in a capital city 
Reality: Regional opportunities are plentiful

It is commonly advised artists leave regional towns to flock to where the opportunities are, but your hometown can be just as lucrative. 

‘I’m lucky because I live in a country town,’ said PollyannaR. ‘In the city it can be a lot more competitive and saturated, but if you move somewhere regional and can create something within a client’s budget, they are really happy and that just leads to more clients.’

Perception: You are only an artist if it is your sole focus
Reality: You can be many things and an artist

Some artists and arts workers may adapt their existing skills to find commercial work, whereas others may build an entirely independent career.

‘The process of being an artist is a life-long journey and not something you do for a while or have to give up everything to do. So one of the myths is that people are simply artist – they are actually lots of things. They could be a lawyer and an artist, a nurse and an artist,’ said Head of the Academy at University of Western Sydney James Arvanitakis.

Artists and arts workers move in and out of their roles, he explained. ‘Sometimes leaving their art practice for a while and at other times embracing what their practice for months on end.’ 

Perception: All artists are starving
Reality: Artists are the original entrepreneurs

Musician, film director, composer and author of  The Book of Uninspiring Quotes Sunny Leunig said of the most prominent career myths and perspectives is that artists are all sitting in one camp.

‘As in, we’re all struggling and living on two-minute noodles,’ he said.

‘There is merit and reason for this, but art evolves from all different background. I have friends who can afford to be artists because they have been ‘looked after’ by their parents financially.’ 

While Leunig would hate to see culture being shaped by income inequality, he added, ‘For those of us who don’t have this support it doesn’t necessarily make us better artists. It’s just that the economic realities can be more of a struggle and somehow you have to adapt.’ 

As cringeworthy as the word entrepreneur may be to an artist, resourcefulness makes them the originals. ‘Artists need all the skills and know how of an entrepreneur: they need to be accountants, marketers, flexible and adaptable, promotional experts. They need to be able to balance multiple roles,’ said  Arvanitakis.

Perception: Artists just leech off the government
Reality: Artists work hard to find multiple income sources

‘Another key myth that we need to confront is one that sees the artists as simply locked away in a studio on their own living off government grants,’ said  Arvanitakis.

‘To succeed they need to be highly engaged, build networks, be able to pitch their work and balance their many roles. Some choose to run artist run spaces and others balance other career choices,’ he said.

Leunig agreed: ‘I’ve never felt that I’m owed any favours just because I’m an artist but when the government cuts arts funding it irritates me on a philosophical level. It’s the cultural or spiritual value that art gives a nation and makes me worry about where their priorities lie.’

‘Life I can be a struggle – Embrace it and make something profound, create something beautiful. Just keep your head down, work hard, show diligence, faith and enough creative stamina to keep going,’ said Leunig.

There is no one perception of artists, one way to succeed, or one way to describe and arts career. ‘A career as an artist requires one to be highly engaged not aloof and indifferent – and to describe artists like this is the greatest myth of all,’ concluded Arvanitakis.

Madeleine Dore
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