I am thinking about what it means to be a part time artist. I wonder how many of us this includes? According to the Big Artists Survey 2011
• 57% of artists generate only 0-25% of their income through their art practice.
• Almost a third of artists surveyed earned less than £5,000 a year from practice.
• Average turnover artists made from their practice in their last financial year was approximately £9000.
This was 2 years ago, it seems probable that these figures will have only worsened in the tough times since then, but clearly most of us are working part time.
For some time and the foreseeable future I have had a four days a week job designing websites. The work is intense, varied, challenging and rewarding. It’s also mainly design and design management rather than art. The main conundrum in my life at this point is how I could start to redress the balance between how I earn a living and what I feel is my real vocation.
With my time split in these proportions it takes a long time to devise, plan and execute the work, my art turnover is very low especially in a process intense medium like ceramics. Making the work is only part of the artists job of course, you also have find the time to cover marketing and administration of your art career.
Determination and struggle
I have determination and conviction on my side most of the time, occasionally they take a break when the prospect of either earning income through my own work or getting work related to it becomes obscured. In short I sometimes struggle to maintain my sense of myself as an artist.
One of my student contemporaries at Leeds Polytechnic fine art course in the seventies, Colin Fraser Gray now living in California, got in touch with a number of us who were on that course not long ago and opened with congratulations to all of us that have managed to continue making in any capacity after all this time. He pointed out that once you have defined yourself as an artist, a process that usually involves attending art school it’s hard to lose that self definition or to really settle for anything else.
Grayson Perry said in one of his recent Reith Lecture talks that he had a back-up plan to go into advertising if his art career did not pan out. Luckily he has not had to test that idea out. Most of us do have to find a day job, full-time freelance art making may well be a goal for many of us but it is often not a realistic option as you make commitments to housing and feeding a family of any description.
When I listened to Perry’s lectures I found them fascinating, poignant and painful in equal measure. What struck me most was how difficult it is to define what the job of an artist actually is. How many jobs involve not only a set of undefined tasks but no job description and no-one except yourself to assess your progress. With a few exceptions artists are more like entrepreneurs than employed workers, they take on risk, they define their own direction, they manage their own careers. Many of us use one (or more) career to fund our art career.
The idea of a career structure for artists seems like a distant ideal from where I stand although I have been advised (in a consultation with Matt Roberts of MRA) that there are discernible stages to an artists career, I have only attained the first and most common stage: post-art-school.
A summary of my current thoughts on a part time art career.
• Most artists are part-timers.
• Unless you call yourself an amateur, as long as you can show artwork people will assume you are a professional artist.
• It’s essential to find a sustainable balance between earning a living and doing your own work, the balance of paid work to artwork could be in any proportion.
• I define myself as an artist. I may well never be a significant or a celebrated one but I am still determined to find ways of spending as much time as I can afford to make my work and seek an audience for it.
• Being an artist is a (part-time) job, you have to work on it step by step, build it up day by day like any other business. You have to sustain it before it is likely to sustain you.