Building a Sustainable Career in the Arts
In this chapter, you learn how to…
- Explain the impact of arts education within the professional world.
- Discuss the importance of building multi-faceted skills for high-level artists.
- Explain how generating an audience supports the development of long-term sustainability.
- Explain the power of mindset and its impact on artistic potential.
Letter To Artists
Welcome! We are so glad you are here.
Before we get started, we have some advice for you to consider as you prepare for the adventure that is about to unfold.
Be open. This book is going to push you to think about, develop, and explore new ways to approach your life as an artist. You will work to clarify who you are as an artist, find new ways of generating creative ideas, and then develop a comprehensive approach to launching a creative project. You will build the key components of an effective grant proposal, explore potential funders of your creative work to generate financial stability, and learn how to effectively frame your ideas to convincingly deliver them in both written and spoken form.
You can do hard things. Creating new projects and proposals and building the skills outlined above can feel overwhelming. But remember this: doing what you do right now as an artist—that magical ability of making something from nothing—is the hard part. It’s important to recognize that developing the artistic skills that you currently possess is the barrier to entry that many never have the courage to attain. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Keep this in mind as you move forward. You are an artist, and you have skills that are incredibly specialized, powerful, and difficult to attain. You and your skills are valuable. This book helps you develop the necessary new tools that augment your overall skills as an artist.
Start with where you are. You may be an emerging artist, or a long-practicing professional, or somewhere in-between. No matter your starting place, you already have tools in your arsenal to help you create and show your work. Maybe you have strong communication skills, a robust community network, or a library of media samples of your artistic work. Or maybe you have experience brainstorming new ideas, organizing things, or working with technology. Identify your strengths and capitalize on them by using them to your advantage. Where skills or ideas are newer, give yourself grace and time to incubate and develop in these areas. This is a process. We all have room to grow.
You have something to share. Part of the fun in creating art is sharing it with others, either in making it or experiencing it. Having a collection of your work is an invaluable touchstone. You can use your collection to reflect on your artistic growth, share new ideas on social media, as examples for students, and finally, for grants. Make a dedicated habit of regularly and consistently capturing and archiving your work. If you don’t already capture your work, now is a great time to start. Use what you have available! A cell phone video is infinitely better than no video.
Sustainability as an artist is radical (Simonet, 2014). If you have had the good fortune of visiting Muir Woods or another redwood forest on the west coast of the United States, you’ll eventually stumble upon a tree that is larger than anything you could imagine. That tree emerged not in days, weeks, or months; it grew over years and decades. The same can be said with your own artistic voice. You and your work are deeply connected to this moment in time while simultaneously evolving, growing, and moving in new or unexpected directions. The goal of this book is to assist your exploration of fostering an environment or framework for you to continue to evolve, just like those trees, for the long term:–not days, not weeks, not months—for decades. Artistic sustainability is about the long game. The world needs your art for years to come and enjoy it through all its continually evolving stages. Being intentional about how you think about, plan, and implement your life and artistic work fosters long-term .
Your path is your path. One of the easiest things for an artist to do is look over their shoulder at what their colleague, friend, enemy, or frenemy is doing and compare. This comes to us naturally because it is a byproduct of how we have all developed our individual skills as artists. We absorb our environments and part of that is looking at other artists’ work. It can help us grow but can also lead to competitiveness. Along with creating a tremendous amount of psychological pain, self-doubt, and jealousy, it’s a distraction from you living your life and creating your work. Pay attention to the success of others. Send them a note of congratulations (everyone loves a bit of encouragement!), and then get back to work. Andrew Simonet said it best in his book Making Your Life as an Artist: “The success of other artists is good for me” (Simonet, 2014).
So are you game? Ready for a little adventure? Good. Let’s roll.
Artists in Action
“I also have a very personal experience of the transformational power of music. I bring that to everything I do. That’s something that our students have in spades. We all have had a transformational musical moment and telling that story is the most powerful thing we can do.”
– Jessica Satava
“There are always those students just upstream of you that you see doing the same thing that you will eventually do kind of getting into the professional world doing their own projects. You start to become aware of how they’re able to make those things happen. A lot of the thing that kept coming back was, oh yeah, there’s grants out there. There are grants everywhere. Just need to apply for grants. It just kind of became like this mantra repeated by so many people, like, just get out there and apply for grants.”
– Adam Rosenblatt
Building a Sustainable Arts Career
One of the major obstacles that is thrust upon almost every artist at some point in their journey is the construct of the “starving artist.” There you are, doing your work, cultivating your skills and BOOM! – a family member, friend, colleague, or even that person behind the counter of your coffee shop confronts you with:
“Yeah, but what’s your plan B? You’re probably not going to be able to do [insert your current project/artistic practice] to survive.”
This notion that you must choose between stability and creativity is the dichotomy that needs to be challenged. The truth is that you can achieve both longevity and the opportunity to create. We just need to set ourselves up for it.
The pages are designed to confront this myth by exploring how you can develop an audience for your work. Perhaps the biggest point for internalizing right now is that when you understand the kind of people who are interested in your work, you have the details you need to build an audience. That information in turn helps you communicate successfully with potential funders. Building those relationships and support helps provide the security you need to grow and take risks to develop your creative voice throughout your artistic life.
If we break this down into a top ten list, the process often resembles the following steps. Note that many of these steps can be combined, re-ordered, or re-mixed.
10 Steps to Artistic Sustainability
- Artist creates work.
- Artist shares work publicly (hooray for the internet!).
- Artist identifies people that connect to their work.
- Artist begins connecting with individuals within their audience.
- Artist audience grows.
- Audience begins to financially support the artist’s work (e.g., gallery showings, attending performances, etc.).
- Artist garners interest from both individuals and organizations, and receives financial support.
- Artist is able to take more creative risks (and audience is excited to see ‘what’s next’).
- The path to artistic sustainability begins.
- The myth of the starving artist is one step closer to becoming a thing of the past.
When we talk about building an audience, one point to consider is that an audience does not necessarily need to be large to be vibrant, energized, and impactful. The goal is to be thoughtful, empathetic, and authentic in the ways you communicate and apply these same qualities towards identifying and connecting with individuals, groups, and communities that you feel might align with what you do. The long-held belief that “people will find you” is not only incorrect, but it also does a disservice to you and your work. People will be interested in what it is that you are creating, you just need to make it easily accessible—draw them a map, give them a compass, and send them a personal invitation into your world.
Minding the Gap
How do we approach an artistic career when it feels like everything is changing? A quick online search offers dozens of cautionary tales regarding the state of the arts, the slow demise of arts organizations, and a lack of audience support or engagement. However, as the world of work, technology, and culture has evolved from the 20th to the 21st century (Gerber & Childress, 2018), the training of artists within academic institutions of higher education has remained, for the most part, static.
This static approach to the curriculum has created a significant deficit to the training of artists based on a recent Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) DataBrief (Frenette, 2020). The report identified a startling skills gap showing 65% of artists that completed post-secondary education were not lacking in artistic ability but financial skills, business management skills, and entrepreneurial skills. Before your eyes glaze over, recognize that this is precisely how the “starving artists” stereotype continues to persist today.
With each passing year, arts programs admit, train, and churn out new graduates, just as they did when they established their curricular model. Year after year, the field gets an influx of fresh artists entering the work force looking to begin their careers. Over time, this has created a unique supply and demand challenge within the arts marketplace (Munnelly, 2020). As the population of qualified artists increases with each year, compounded by shrinking audiences, interest, and support for many traditional art forms, the competition for full-time, part-time, and contract work increases, and arts jobs become increasingly difficult to secure, especially for those lacking necessary skills.
For those that manage to stay in the field, many arts alumni encounter having to navigate the skills gap outlined above (Frenette, 2020). This gap has come to the forefront in recent years as the training that most artists receive has not evolved to address or include the realities of the current marketplace.
How can this be the case? The reality is that most academic institutions have not updated the curricular needs of their programs to align with the skills that are required and desired in the arts industry today. Put simply, arts education programs are not training their students with the necessary business and entrepreneurial skills that will provide them with the competencies to thrive as self-employed artists or freelancers, help them navigate the non-profit and for-profit sectors, and prepare them to build long-term, sustainable artistic lives (Frenette, 2020).
Regardless of whether your educational institutions incorporated these skills in your academic coursework, you can take advantage of opportunities to develop them independently. While the arts industry is indeed transforming—and this evolution has only been accelerated by the impact of recent economic and world events (Jeanotte, 2021; Khan et al., 2021)—there are countless artists currently building lives and careers that can only be described as successful or thriving. You’ll be introduced to several in the following chapters.
Artists in Action
“What it’s allowed me to do is have experiences that I could never in my wildest dreams ever imagine doing when I was deciding to become a musician at eight or nine years old . . . a lot of things that I think, when I’m old and gray, I’ll look back and say, thank goodness that my career was a lot of things. So grants allowed these projects to happen. And again, without them, would we do them anyway? Well, we’ll try, but there’s only so far you can go without some support.”
– Brad Balliett
Building Successful Artistic Careers
How do artists build successful artistic careers today? Here’s the short answer. The artists that develop creative, rewarding, and sustainable lives possess a multifaceted skillset that extends beyond their artistic skills (Munnelly, 2020). These artists recognize the need to obtain high level artistic abilities and hold a range of additional competencies that extend beyond the stage, studio, or practice room to support their professional work (Bartleet et al., 2019; López-Íñiguez & Bennett, 2020; Weston, 2020).
Let’s dig deeper into that idea. The multifaceted nature of their work is evident when looking at artists that have developed fulfilling, sustainable artistic careers. These are highly trained artists that have developed organizational and professional skills that empower them to start their own ensembles, programs, collectives, arts organizations, studios, partnerships, and creative projects. These artists have developed multiple revenue streams, often referred to as a , and frequently work in areas adjacent to or outside their area of artistic training. Additionally, they are not looking for opportunities to get into the workforce. They are building their own pathways, creating their own opportunities, and attracting new audiences as they move forward. These thriving artists have closed the skills gap outlined above to allow themselves over their lives, their artistic work, and their careers. They have the power to choose what they say “yes” to and what they say “no” to in their artistic work.
Along with the development of their own skills in the studio, many successful artists of today have cultivated skillful approaches of communication and audience generation empowering them to amass, foster, and engage an audience that supports their work. The most skillful of these artists understand the need to have a direct communication method with their audience and foster a community both online and in person that extends beyond the artist themselves (Wilson, 2017).
The thriving artist of the 21st century understands who they are as an individual and how that connects to and impacts the work they choose to develop. They have successfully identified the communities, groups, and individuals that resonate with the work they are creating, understand how to communicate authentically about their work to generate interest, and have developed the ability to attain financial support for their creative endeavors, allowing them to take risks to create new work.
This moment of transition we are experiencing within the arts provides an incredible opportunity to finally eradicate the myth of the starving artist. This is the chance for every artist to reevaluate how they can connect with their values , their work, their audience, and how they can build sustainable lives for the long term. It’s a chance to reset, reimagine, and rechart both our individual and collective course.
Artists in Action
“Last year [my flute and percussion duo] came out with an album that was funded almost exclusively by grant funding. And I will say, financially it would not have been advisable for us to go forward making this album and investing that money into this project without grant funding. Grants really made it possible for us to put this professional recording together and we would have been in the hole or not making an album without it. . . So instead of it putting us in debt, we have on-going income, we came out on top, and we’re able to continue making money on that album. And it’s an income driving endeavor rather than a net loss.”
– Christina Manceor
Creating and Funding Your Artistic Projects
It is easy to fall into a mindset of with our artistic work. In other words, we assume opportunities and resources are limited (Covey, 1989). But if we can learn to create our own opportunities and build a robust network of support, we can instead live in a world of . We can find and generate value for ourselves and our work by designing and embracing our own unique paths.
Shifting focus from scarcity to abundance enables us to to discover the infinite number of approaches
Shifting focus from to enables us to discover an infinite number of approaches to building a sustainable artistic career. The key lies in the connections between your artistic work and the community around you. Perhaps the most crucial element involves funding your work in a way that not only compensates you for your time, but also sustains your artistic process and creativity moving forward.
Again, channel the abundance mindset. There are people and organizations in your community who want to support your artistic work. It’s your job to connect with them.
Many avenues to funding are available. However, this book focuses on the process, in large part because applying for grant funding requires a multi-faceted skill set. In addition to the artistic skills you’ve worked so hard to hone over the course of many years, it involves ideation, research, project development, logistics, collaboration, and communication, to start. Fortunately, these skills are not just for grant writing. They are your groundwork for independence and autonomy as a creative person. They offer the ability to build what you want, where you want, when you want, with the collaborators you want.
Ultimately, this power to create and fund your projects from the ground up gives you agency not just in your creative work, but in ways you choose to design your life and career (Stanford d.school).
So, give yourself the gift of . As you explore this resource, take the opportunity to view the ideas put forth from a mindset of . You’ll need to practice this idea. What better way to begin developing this skill than by thinking about your own creative projects? There’s plenty of room for you and your creative work in this world. Let’s begin to take the first steps towards finding your place in it.
Exercise 1-1. Impact Activity
Consider the adaptions you have made (or could make in the future) in response to the evolving industry 21st century artists face.
- How does the external world impact the way you pursue and practice your art?
- How does it impact your sources of income?
Exercise 1-2. Goals Activity
At the beginning of the journey, take a moment to identify a few areas of curiosity or improvement you would like to focus on as you work through this process.
- What are your personal and professional goals?
- What are the tools and resources you need most in this moment to take next steps toward your goals.
- Artistic is accomplished through deliberate and intentional planning of your life and artistic work.
- Artists of the 21st century that understand who they are as individuals and their connection to their work are better equipped to build engaging relationships with their supporters and position themselves to attain financial support that is sustainable and creatively liberating.
- begins with shifting our approach from a mindset to one of .
Below are excerpts from artist interviews conducted by Zane Forshee. Full artist bios and interviews are available in About the Artists. This section includes the following artists and topics:
- Brad Balliett on Advice to Younger Self
- Alysia Lee on Changes After Successful Grant Proposal
- Lara Pellegrinelli on Talking About the Work
Brad Balliett: Advice to Younger Self
ZF: If you could go in a time machine and talk to the early grant-seeking Brad, and share with him what you know now about the process of seeking funding, are there any things that you would like to share with him?
BB: Yeah, and I think this is something that I’m probably going to say over and over as we talk about grants, which is the projects that are likely to be funded are the projects that you’re going to do anyway, that really, you’re not waiting for a paycheck. That’s not the thing that’s holding you back, because it’s connected to what you want to do. You have a passion for it. The idea is strong enough. You’ve got enough pieces in place, that it’s going to help, but you’re going to make it happen regardless of what you’re up against. Even if that means you and your friends are working for free for six months or spending your own money to make it happen. I’d say the bulk of the projects that I’ve done that had support behind them are things that when the chips are on the table, I would say I’ll do this anyway because this is just something that I don’t want to go to the grave not having done.
ZF: That’s an excellent point. There’s a level of personal investment that you feel so strongly about that regardless of whether there’s funding or not, you’re going to keep pushing forward.
Alysia Lee: Changes After Successful Grant Proposal
ZF: After your first successful grant proposal, what changed for you with your next project?
AL: Oh, confidence! You know, before you submit your first grant proposal, you’ve talked to, for me at least, I had for a year been building Sister Cities Girlschoir in my mind, a mind castle of what this organization could be. Everybody that I knew had heard about it to death. It was all I wanted to talk about at dinner and lunch and breakfast. My colleagues in my cohort in the Sistema Fellowship (at New England Conservatory), we’d all heard each other’s business plans 1,000 times and given feedback. I had talked it through with business leaders throughout Boston and, of course, our professors.
So at the same time I felt confident about that, because of all that feedback that I could get. Number one, get a lot of feedback. You don’t need somebody from Harvard. Lots of folks can give you feedback. I did feel confident. But you still feel like, is somebody going to give me money? It’s one thing for someone to say, yeah, this is tight. It’s another thing for someone to give you a check for $25,000. And I had never raised that kind of money before; $100,000 to me was a lot of money to raise, and it is a lot of money to raise.
I would say that confidence that this is an idea that is good. You kind of know that, right? Because you start to feel the prickles of it in your soul when an idea that’s good comes to you. So you knew the idea was good, but you’re communicating about it in a way that other people can get excited about it. And that’s really invigorating, and that kind of confidence comes from success. So, I would say definitely confidence.
In that, if I get one person to catch on to this vision I’ve articulated well enough—one person who doesn’t know me, right? [Someone] who’s not invested in me in any way is willing to make an investment in my idea [that is] not a thing yet. Now you’re making investments in specific children that you may have met at my program, but in the beginning, you were just making investments in what seems like a logical idea that makes sense. And that’s what you wanted someone to say.
My favorite thing is for someone to say, “I don’t even like music, I’m not really interested in music, and your idea still makes sense to me.” That’s the kind of thing you want, the idea to be so locked tight that you don’t have to be a music lover to say, “Oh, yeah, I want kids to experience music” or, “Oh, I want….” It’s not about that. It’s about the logic piece.
So I would say that you start to gain some confidence in your ability to communicate abstract ideas. And who better to do that than musicians? Most of us are communicating, especially if you’re an instrumentalist, you’re communicating abstractly. You’re not using words. To communicate abstract ideas and to make them concrete is what I call a habit of mind of artistry.
So artists are good at that. We are going into it with a little leg up on some other folks. But you’ll get that confidence every time those grant dollars roll in. It never ends, just like performing, you never feel apathetic about it. Because it’s work and you feel kind of like you’ve birthed something, sometimes, depending on the size of the grant application. And so, to get a baby back is very nice.
ZF: What happens when you are getting NO’s?
AL: Then the only thing I want to say then too, is when you get no’s, what happens when you’re getting no’s? If you’re lucky enough to have a foundation that will give you feedback, take it silently. Don’t argue back with people, just take the feedback. But filter it through the lens of what you know to be true. And that can be difficult.
So that’s what I mean by, when that foundation said, “Oh, well, you don’t fit with our mission,” I knew that we did. Maybe we didn’t articulate it well, or in a way that made sense to them, right? We didn’t use language that made sense to them. So, there was some bargaining to be done. But also, maybe your idea, not that your idea isn’t good, I don’t believe in that, but maybe you just haven’t kerneled down to how strong the idea can be.
You might be fluttering around the edge of the idea. And that’s not where the strength of the idea is. You want to get to the root of the idea. So, maybe you just need to go deeper into your own idea and elevate it a little bit. Right?
Or maybe your grant writing is not effective and that is the easiest problem! Because there are tons of tools and skills that you can build in terms of being a better writer and a better communicator about your idea.
The number one thing is just don’t give up. No matter what, if you know your idea is great, especially one of those ideas where something unique about me lets me know that this will work, then you have to do those ideas. Because who else will do them? You can’t deny the world your brilliance because somebody told you no. You have to just keep pressing through. There is some magic number about grants, YES’s and NO’s, it’s not good, you’re going to get more NO’s than YES’s. But, you know, just to keep it up, it’s a numbers game.
Lara Pellegrinelli on Talking About the Work
ZF: You’ve had some experience interviewing these individuals and artists that are really about to embark on a project that makes them vulnerable. I was really struck by the one you mentioned with Fred Hersch.
- How did they get there?
- Were they ready to tell that story or did you feel them steeling themselves? Or is every artist different?
- How would you recommend students start to experiment with stretching and building those muscles?
LP: Do you mean in terms of talking about the work or making the work?
ZF: Talking about the work. From my perspective, our students and most artists in general, it’s like, you can make the thing or start building the project. It’s more like talking about it to others is where it gets kind of scary at times.
LP: I think it is scary. I’d like to acknowledge that it is scary. What you’re doing is making you vulnerable and that can be really scary for people. What can I do to help with that? I mean, as a writer, I feel that on the other end of interviews sometimes. But mostly the people I’m working with are very professional, they’re used to doing this work. I don’t talk to a lot of people who are at the very beginnings of their careers anymore.
But what I can say is that as a writer, I’ve had personal projects and I’ve had to figure out how to talk about them as well and so I feel that vulnerability. I could speak to it from that perspective. I’m not going to say that much about the content of it but I will say that I’m a writer who has a memoir on the shelf. It’s been on the shelf for three years now because of all my work for Miller [Theatre] and I haven’t had time to touch it. But it’s a project that made me feel really vulnerable because it’s not the type of writing that I usually do. It’s very personal. I had to figure out how to work on the page with it and how to talk to others about it.
I took a memoir class, so I was in a writing group. I think that if you can find some community as you’re trying to take those first steps, that’s really helpful. The class I took, there were 10 writers in it, and we all read for each other. Everyone had the same experience of presenting their work, of reading their work, of getting feedback on their work. That’s really valuable for taking those steps. Because before you want to put it in front of someone like me, you want to put it in front of… I think using your peers in that way is really helpful. Then everybody learns.
I would say also, look around you in your community, around you in terms of the people that you know. We often belong to more. I mean, in terms of my memoir, I have a community in that writing group in the writing class, but I also have other writers that I know who are not in that class. I have a husband, who’s a writer and an editor, and I have family members and I have circles of personal friends who went through some of those life events with me or were witness to those life events and so they’re multiple communities upon which I could draw if I wanted to talk about that work and progress.
Those are all resources for you in dealing with that vulnerability and creating safe spaces for yourself so that you are able to do that work because that’s what we want. I think we all want to find ways that we feel safe enough so that we can make that work. If we’re making work that’s really emotional and really deep and really goes to the core of who we are, we have to create these safe spaces and negotiate how we’re going to make that and put it out there in the world.
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Beeching, A. M. (2010). Beyond talent. Oxford University Press.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Free Press.
Frenette, A. (2020). Which skills to founders and freelances need? Unpacking the entrepreneurial skills gap. Strategic National Arts Alumni Project: SNAAP DataBrief, (8)1. https://snaaparts.org/findings/databriefs/which-skills-do-founders-and-freelancers-need-unpacking-the-entrepreneurial-skills-gap
Gerber, A. & Childress, C. (2018). The economic world obverse: Freedom through markets after arts education. In A. Frenette’s (Ed.), SNAAP DataBrief: Arts graduates in a changing economy (part 1), 6(1). Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. https://snaaparts.org/uploads/downloads/Data-Briefs/SNAAP-DataBrief-Vol6-No1.pdf
Jeannotte, M. S. (2021). When the gigs are gone: Valuing arts, culture and media in the COVID-19 pandemic. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 3(1), 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssaho.2020.100097
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López-Íñiguez, G., & Bennett, D. (2020). A lifespan perspective on multi-professional musicians: Does music education prepare classical musicians for their careers? Music Education Research, 22(1), 1–14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2019.1703925
Munnelly, K. P. (2020). The undergraduate music degree: Artistry or employability? Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society, 50(4/5), 234–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/10632921.2020.1756549
Simonet, A. (2014). Making your life as an artist. Artists U. https://www.artistsu.org/making#.YxI-uOyZNyp
Stanford d.school. (n.d.). An Introduction to Design Thinking. https://web.stanford.edu/~mshanks/MichaelShanks/files/509554.pdf
Weston, D. (2020). The value of “soft skills” in popular music education in nurturing musical livelihoods. Music Education Research, 22(5), 527–540. https://doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2020.1841132
Wilson, T. R. (2017). The rise of the creatives. Medium. https://medium.com/@calltyrone_w/the-rise-of-the-creatives-bc1f040f7417
the ability to maintain your activities over the long term; for many artists, this involves multiple income streams, and the flexibility to pivot when their situation changes
a working style where you combine multiple streams of income—often creating a mix of full or part-time employment, freelancing or working as a consultant
the feeling of control over actions and their consequences related to creative work and lifestyle
a situation in which something is not easy to find or get
the situation in which there is more than enough of something
the act of creating proposals with specific requirements for funding from granting organizations