Career Advice

One day last week, I found myself engaged in four different conversations about pursuing a career in the arts.  While the student community that I work with here at Penn is quite large,1200+, the number of students who plan to pursue a career in the arts is actually rather small, so I don’t have these conversations regularly.  When they do happen, the interests are varied and run the gamete from technical, performing, designing, management, marketing, directing, writing and more.  As you can imagine, these are not always easy conversations.  They frequently involve more questions from me than answers and often reveal a myriad of challenges from relationships with a significant other, parental expectations, financial concerns (duh!) and personal insecurities.  So I tread lightly, encourage heavily and generally offer the following basic advice.

Network, Network, Network. While there are advanced degrees, certificate and training programs, and apprenticeships, everyone pretty much understands that there is no single, direct path to a successful career in the arts.  You can never have enough information.  Talk to old teachers, camp counselors, family members, family members of friends.  Use LinkedIn, Facebook and alumni directories.   Attend events of organizations that do the work you aspire to – fundraisers, receptions and networking events.  In short find any opportunity to talk with people further down the career path than you.  Most importantly, be ready to talk to the people you have identified.  Ask about their path, their training and education; how they came to have their current position.  Be humble, don’t bombard them with your vast accomplishments (if you are so great what do you need them for?).  You can also network more formally by asking for informational interviews.  Again, be prepared.  Be able to clearly state your general career goals and have specific questions ready.  Be sure to thank anyone you speak to for their time, and if you found them particularly thoughtful, offer to buy them coffee sometime so you can continue the conversation.

Surround yourself with supporters, including like minded artists. Carving out a career in the arts can be challenging.  Make sure you have a support system in place (Facebook comments and likes when you whine on your status is not the same thing).  Be intentional.  Let friends know what you are trying to do and ask for their support.  Ask them to encourage you and challenge you.  Ask them to tell you if they see a great opportunity to make some money (you might occasionally need it).  Create an artist group, a book club or a monthly happy hour.  Find people who want to do the same kind of work as you and dream up a project that you work on together – even if you have no idea whether you can bring it to life.

Get just about any experience you can.  Volunteer. Intern. Be present. Do what you can to both explore and get experience.  If you find an organization or people who do what you want to do, or work that you appreciate ask how you can help, and be willing to help.  Again, humility is key here.  If you are not willing to put up posters or lick envelopes, don’t offer to help.  Often the life of an artist revolves around the things that allow you to make art, fundraising and marketing, and sometimes posters just need to be distributed and envelopes just need to be licked.  Use your time volunteering to find out about the organization, the artists, how are things managed, how are they are funded, how they do marketing and how those who run the organization got their positions. All experience is good experience.  In general, smaller to mid-size companies might be better places to explore casual volunteer opportunities.  A bigger organization will have a volunteer “process” and you will likely never connect with those doing the work – unless of course you want to be a volunteer manager.

Manage your expectations and be creative.  It is possible to make a living in the arts whether you want to be a artist or administrator.  Full time jobs are available, but many folks, particularly early in their careers, pull together a living with a string of part-time jobs.  In the theatre (my particular genre) for instance an actor might do plays, film work, industrials, commercials, voice-over work, teach and more.  There is a list of equivalent jobs for every art form.  This of course means that you have to be in an area that has enough opportunities.  Generally that means a fairly large metropolitan area with a strong arts scene.  If there a good number of colleges and universities in the area, all the better; for a number of years, I taught either acting and public speaking, or both at three different colleges in the area.

Keep training.  If you can afford it, take classes and workshops.  If you can’t afford it, find a way.  Ask if they have scholarships, or if you can work off the fee.  Find free lectures, demonstrations and workshops and go.  Learning from any artist or manager it is always good. And you can network like crazy at these events!  Or go to graduate school.  Among the benefits of graduate school, besides the training, is time; time to explore, to hone your craft and build your expertise.

There is certainly much more that could be said about pursuing a career in the arts.  When it gets down to specific careers, I tend to connect students with an alum in that field. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But I do know that while it can be a frustrating road, but there is nothing like pursuing your passion!

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