Last night Nick and I had a another talk about art as a career. And money. And whether those two concepts go hand in hand. I wonder how much I thought about it when I was an art student. I just figured I would work at a gallery, possibly run one down the road. (Turns out I did both but I'll get to that later). I graduated in 2003 and immediately set out for jobs in the artworld. There were few and far in between so I immediately opened up my search to anything administrative, education or non-profit. Somehow, after enduring (and enjoying) five years of art school, I had already settled. That's like going to a burger joint, ordering a burger and being told there are no burgers left. And the fact that we accept this is ridiculous.
A well-respected art critic once told me that Chicago has an over-saturated art scene. The rare art positions available will be filled immediately by graduates and the rest will have to head East or West. That made me sad because art should be an integral aspect of every community but sometimes it's just overlooked due to lack of funding, interest or initiative. In a city the size of Chicago, you'd think that positions in curatorial, art admin or art education would be more readily available. But they aren't.
My dear friend Megan Williamson, is a painter (below: Still Life with Rabbits, 24 x 18 inches) and says very matter-of-factly that she just wants to make what a bus driver makes. I couldn't agree more. Not every artist is as active as Megan but she volunteers, teaches art to children, dutifully practices painting en plein aire and meets with politicians as a voice for the working artist. Artists serve a public service but can't get medical benefits or a fair wage to do what they do best.
So you're probably asking, "Why then, did you leave a cushy gallery position to make a go of it on your own?" My answer is simply "Why not?" I had achieved my goals of running a gallery where I got to curate shows, meet clients and see extraordinary private collections. I had handled major paintings and traveled. But for us, the biggest goal in our careers was to ultimately work for ourselves. And since the stock market plummeted in 2008, the industry and particularly commercial photography has changed drastically. (This is also largely due to the onslaught of digital imagery in the arena but you should ask Nick more about that). This was as good of a time as any to make our own way since our positions could be or would be precarious in the near future.
Create that non-profit art organization, make your own opportunities, start an Etsy site, create jobs for yourself and others, even if it's unpaid at first. What I'm telling you is that you can wait tables, usher, paint houses - whatever it takes to pay the bills - but don't give up chasing the art dream. As few opportunities as there are out there, one day your number will be drawn and it'll be even more incredible that you made it happen. You may not make a boatload but you might just be happy doing it. So don't pass up that burger so easily. Especially since you waited long and patiently for it.