There are no right and wrongs when setting out on an arts career
Starting out as an artist
There are no right and wrongs when setting out on an arts career. Everybody approaches it from a different direction and succeeds on their own terms. What may be right for some may not be right for others and vice versa, but what you can do, to maximise your chances of success, is research.
There is a wealth of information on www.a-n.co.uk and in a-n Magazine, all designed to help recent graduates get that foot up on to the next rung of the ladder. Nobody can tell you exactly how to go about being an artist as this is as individual as your practice, but a-ns Code of Practice for the Visual Arts provides good pointers to follow.
The artists' stories in this section of www.a-n.co.uk provide invaluable insights into those first few years out of university, the time when it's hardest to keep sight of your goals. Signpost online shows how artists from different disciplines have taken very different approaches to getting where they want to be.
Remember that a period of reflection is no bad thing. After the build-up and hype of a degree show, it's easy to find yourself floundering with no specific direction. Little steps are as important as big ones and a period where you're not making as much work as you want to, isn't a bad thing. Reassess your practice, think about what you want to do next and how to make it happen.
The idea of life outside the security of university can be daunting. Take a look around and see what is there. Support networks are more accessible than you realise. You may have a publicly-funded gallery and any number of artist-run initiatives in your area and, hopefully, friends with similar goals. It is not difficult to tap in to these networks. Write and ask to be put on to the mailing list of the larger galleries, make yourself known to the artist-run spaces, discuss your highs and lows with your friends. You're not unique in your frustrations with your situation.
What's classed as 'arts practice' is a wide reaching umbrella. Being actively involved in your practice is more than making work. It's reading magazines, making applications, researching opportunities or clients. Many artists find that this administration takes up as much time as making work itself.
Taking responsibility and actively contacting the people who should be seeing your work is vital. Many applications and approaches artists make appear to lead to nothing but it is important to keep yourself visible and to talk to people on their terms. An unsuccessful application, and there will be many, isn't a wasted application. It's another group of people who have seen your work and heard your name, and may remember you when something more appropriate comes up.
You also need to be realistic. Unsolicited applications to galleries will get you nowhere. If you really believe that somebody should see your work, keep them informed of your exhibitions and commissions and let them find their own way.
Don't be afraid to call yourself an artist and be professional in everything you do. If you submit a badly put together application, it will go to the bottom of the pile. What you submit is a direct reflection of you, and galleries/commissioners/employers want to know they can trust you to do the job well.
Support and free advice are the things that people most take for granted inside an institution and then miss most on the outside. Having a resource at your fingertips, through which to get advice and answer practical questions that arise through the course of your practice can make all the difference. And that is where a-n Magazine and www.a-n.co.uk come in!
a-ns Practical Guides on www.a-n.co.uk offer a wealth of information to help maximise your chances of success whether organising your own event, applying for funding, writing a proposal; all the things you need to survive, practically and commercially, as an artist. They are written by arts professionals, drawing from first-hand experience, and so offer a from the horses mouth, practical approach to many areas.
The practical guide index includes:
• Approaching galleries
• Code of practice for the visual arts for artists
• Funding applications
• Getting paid
• Pricing and fees
• Setting up an event
• The studios toolkit
• UK arts councils
• What is a contract?
• Working with people
Plus many more ...
Your degree has given you skills that can be applied to many professional situations. Creative thinking is increasingly prized. When you've got a solid grounding you try things you didn't study at college. Keep trying things and keep moving in different areas.
A great source of work for any artist whether it's awards, bursaries, commissions, competitions, events, exhibitions, prizes, professional development, residency or selling is the weekly updated Opportunities on www.a-n.co.uk and monthly listings in a-n Magazine.
When applying for any exhibition or commission you will probably have to write a proposal. There is no right or wrong way to go about this but a-n's Practical Guide: Proposals, written by Judith Winter, gives you some pointers.
A great way to gain experience is to volunteer. Whilst you are giving your time for free, think about experiences you'll gain and skills you can develop, anything from running workshops to marketing. You'll also be meeting like-minded people, putting yourself in a position to apply for paid work when it arises and sometimes getting subsidies on resources from studios to artists' talks.
One of the many things artists do to support their careers is running workshops. Consider your skills and where they can be applied.
Top ten tips
1. Tap into different networks
Whilst I was an undergraduate I spent seven months in Australia. It brought home to me the need to think strategically about making connections with artists in other cities. When I came back I became aware of the thriving network of artist-led activity right on my doorstep.
Stuart Edmondson BA Fine Art, 1999 and MA Fine Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2000.
2. Build your address book
One invaluable experience for me was working in the box office at Cornerhouse, in Manchester, where I really got to know who people were. I now have an e-mail mailing list and a snail mail list; this helps me to remind people I'm there!
Adele Prince BA (Hons) Dance Theatre, Laban Centre for Movement and Dance 1996 and BA (Hons) Interactive Arts, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2001.
3. Great minds think alike
I like working with people who are sincere, committed and inspired. If you're honest about your passion, like-minded people galvanise around you.
Marion Kalmus BA, Goldsmiths College, 1994.
4. Get your foot in the door
Early on in your career you have to do a mix of paid and unpaid work to get the experience and raise your profile, so that you can apply for better paid work in the future.
Martin Heron BA (Hons) Fine Art, John Moore's University, 1989.
5. Be confident
You just have to get over the embarrassment of talking about yourself and really go for it; how else are people going to find out about your work?
6. Prepare well
The more research you do into your host and their sector, the more you will reassure them that you are asking them for their help for a specific, well-considered reason.
Carey Young MA Photography, Royal College of Art, 1997.
7. Branch out
Although I still have an independent practice I have realised that the main way I was going to be able carry on producing projects was to have a range of fields of work so you can flip from one project to another.
Ben Sadler BFA (Hons) Fine Art at Ruskin College, Oxford, 1998 and MA Sculpture at Royal College of Art.
8. Share thoughts with friends
If you to have a circle of friends that includes artists, whatever their discipline, that is a bonus, because you can share problems and exchange information and help each other out in a supportive way.
Dan Bass BA (Hons) Communication Media: Illustration, Kent Institute of Art and Design, 1998.
9. Know your best bet
When applying for projects I concentrate on the ones that are really appropriate. It's better to spend time getting those applications right than to apply for those that aren't.
Tanya Axford BA (Hons) Fine Art, Newcastle University, 1997.
10. Start the ball rolling
Art isn't only about major galleries: it has to happen everywhere, but you have to create your own opportunities collaboration has always been the healthiest way of doing this for me.
Anthony Hall BA (Hons) Fine Art at UWIC: Cardiff School of Art and Design, 1999 and MA Art as Environment, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2002.
Find out where you fit in the art world, by doing our fun quiz. The scene is a familiar happening for artists – the exhibition preview.
1. What time do you arrive at the opening?
a) As early as possible so that the bar’s not too crowded.
b) Not too long after the doors open but long enough after to go for a drink in the pub with your friends first.
c) As early as possible in the hope that you get to meet the artist.
d) As early as possible so you can look at the work before it gets busy.
2. When in the gallery, do you:
a) Try and stay within ten feet of the bar to make sure you get as much free wine as possible?
b) Wander around talking to anyone and everyone there?
c) Ditch your friends and go and hunt down the curator/director to introduce them to your groundbreaking artwork?
d) Look at and enjoy the artwork on display?
3. At the post opening bash, do you'
a) Carry on drinking like you've just won the Turner Prize?
b) Enjoy yourself, taking this informal opportunity to get to know people better?
c) Find the 'cool' table, introduce yourself and sit down?
d) Have a drink and a laugh with your friends?
4. The next morning, do you'
a) Wake up and wonder where you are and what you said and did?
b) Make mental plans to contact the interesting people that you met?
c) Log straight on to the internet and e-mail everyone whose cards you gathered?
d) Tell people what a fantastic exhibition you saw and encourage them to get along to see it?
If you were a car you'd be a classic. Always there, not overly exciting and prone to ending up in an immovable heap somewhere.
You are a netwroker. You realise that to get on in life you need to meet people and that friendships are not exclusive of professional relationships.
You are a focuser. You know what you want and you think you know how to get it.Whilst you may get some way to reaching your goals, you may inadvertently annoy too many people who could help you in the future.
You are a rare breed and should be nurtured. The art world needs more people like you.
Mark Gubb is an artist, writer and lecturer at University of Derby.
First published: a-n.co.uk July 2004
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