7 tips for building a career (and making money) as an artist

close up hands covered in paint, over face with deep brown eyes looking at you.

1. Your work doesn’t have to be “saleable”

When I was at uni, the idea of making money from my art seemed impossible. I didn’t make paintings or sculptures – most of my work was digital – and I thought how can I sell any of this?? I’ve sold one piece of art in my entire career – a print in a tiny gallery show in 2013. I think I made about £60.

It turns out I was really naïve as to how the art world works – and the different ways of being an artist. Nowadays I make a living mostly from commissions. I make work for shows but there’s no exchange of ownership. The money I make is for the time I spent planning and creating the piece.

2. Make yourself known

This point is about ensuring the right people know what you’re doing. If you don’t shout about your work publicly, commissioners will have no way of knowing that you’re the artist they’re looking for. Engage in opportunities to make people aware of your practice and make connections with people that you want to see your work.

It is important to have some online presence when people search for you, whether that’s on social media or a personal website. However, don’t waste your time on promotion that isn’t productive for you – you might get a lot of likes on an Instagram post, but how many are from people who have the power to offer you work?

Situate yourself in the places you want to be found. Do not put your work where you think it ‘should’ be, put it where you want to be seen. Think about the people you want to work with and where they will find you. You don’t need a page on every platform – do you research and choose what’s best for your personal goals.

3. Offer a coherent narrative

In the same vein as choosing where you situate your practice, you have control over the narrative that surrounds it. Don’t be vague when writing about your work. Dig down into what makes your practice unique and identify key themes and recurring elements that allow you to offer a joined-up story to commissioners. Provide a strong and clear narrative that they can understand.

4. Build, strengthen and maintain your network

Word of mouth is absolutely the best way to get work – open calls are important too, but as soon as you’re being approached directly, you’re at the top of a shortlist of one.

Attend events (including online ones right now). Look for events run by arts organisations, or from other fields that overlap with your practice. Follow up with people that you’ve met or heard from. Just an email to say ‘that thing you spoke about was really interesting, can we talk some more about it?’ is a good starting point.

In general, reach out to people you admire or find interesting. Set up a video call if you can. Don’t go into a conversation expecting a commission at the end of it, but do make yourself known to people who might mention your name next time a relevant job comes up.

5. Take advantage of other revenue streams

You can have a ‘day job’ that you don’t hate. Most of the time, you won’t survive on commissions and grants alone, but there are other revenue streams that will still sit comfortably alongside your practice. These might be lecturing, running workshops, speaking on panels or working with local authorities. This work will make itself known more to you as you build your network. The type of work you are interested in will help you determine where you situate yourself and where you make connections – think about who you want to find out about you and where that will happen.

6. Know your worth

Work out how much you and your time are worth and don’t undersell yourself. If you want a career as an artist, treat it like you would any other form of self-employment, not a hobby. Refer to guidance like the a-n guidance around paying artists.

Only do as much work as you are being paid for – e.g. a ‘micro commission’ is just that. Don’t over promise or over provide. You will do some unpaid work – we all do, but be seriously considered and selective. Not everything is worth the ‘exposure’ – in fact most things really aren’t.

Do not take work just to make your CV look longer. Shows, commissions, etc should provide you with experience that helps your practice develop, not just be another entry on a list. Take on work that you are passionate about and that excites you, do it well, document it well (vitally important) and it will be a good stepping-stone in your career.

7. Know what’s out there

This final tip is specifically for you, Reading students: look outside of London(!)

Perhaps I was particularly naive but, when I was at Reading, I believed you had to go to London to succeed as an artist (which sounds ridiculous to me now). I was also aware that the London art scene is oversaturated and difficult to break into, so it seemed an impossible task.

I now live in the West Midlands and there are new opportunities launching all the time. We have Coventry City of Culture coming up and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games – both of which have created numerous jobs for artists.

There are art scenes all over the country and they’re all really different. It might take a bit more digging to find it in a city outside of the capital, but usually it’s there. And if it’s only really small, that gives you the opportunity to grow it – there’s always funding out there for bringing art to the places that don’t have enough of it. Talk to local arts organisations, venues, etc, and find out what’s out there and where you might fit within it (or be able to shake it up!)

Blog written and provided by Edie Jo Murray, a UK-based artist and graduate of the University of Reading.