A hidden job market for people who love art

Where’s the return on investment for that a bachelor’s in art history or an MFA? How do artists support themselves. What can I do if I’m a visual thinker?

You can answer those questions with, “Get a day job.” But there’s a lot more you could do besides that. Here are some career paths that are open to visual thinkers, whether or not you have a degree.

Museum concierge. Parents want their kids to be able to go through a museum and appreciate it, but the parents can barely get through an art museum themselves, let alone make it interesting to a pre-teen. High-end tutoring companies contract out this sort of rich-kid playdate to art-history types. And entrepreneurial art types can create customized paths through museums that will keep adults interested. I went on a Museum Hack tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the tour it blew me away with how quirky and interesting it was. (Notice: Melissa trailed behind taking pictures.) But you don’t have to run this business out of New York. You can do it anywhere there’s an art museum. And, the best news? You don’t need the museum’s permission to do it.

Hospital training. Erika Hayasaki wrote in the Pacific Standard, that there has been lot of talk in medical circles about the decline of doctors’ observational powers. This decline emerges because more and more diagnostic work is done by machines, so physicians are becoming worse at paying close attention to patients with their own eyes and ears. So some hospitals have begun to offer doctors modified art appreciation classes in an attempt to revive their atrophying skills of pattern recognition and awareness.

Video advertising. Online advertising is growing at a much faster rate than offline advertising due to the explosion of video. Creating online ads is half science, half artistry, on the Internet you can measure your progress and success. So if you’re great at making ads that run before videos, you can earn a lot of money (and where else can you remember hearing that about any form or art?)

Art manufacturing. I bought a bunch of items from a woman who does cashmere upcycling. She makes everything out of machine-washed cashmere. Everything we bought from her is soft and doesn’t shrink. I asked why she doesn’t sell to Anthropologie and she explained that she’d have to create patterns and create styles that can be mass produced, but she prefers doing it one by one. (And no web site.) Ceramicists I have talked to say the same thing. So clearly there’s a market for artists who are willing to play the game of mass production. Some examples of artists who do it well: Molly Hatch and Nathalie Lete. But you can bet they have someone behind the scenes who understands both logistics and art.

Go for broke. You could just take a risk and go to New York. But get ready for extreme poverty. Jamian Juliano Villani is a painter who lived in such a small space when she arrived in New York City that she painted in the same room as her bed, and because her bed was the only thing she could see, it ended up in every painting. Still, she held two solo shows in her bedroom, with dirty laundry in the corner.

Now her paintings sell for $20K each. But be careful what you wish for. She says that when it comes to building her reputation as a hot young artist in NYC, “It’s like another job on top of painting.” And she says, “All these people do is just party and hang out. I think to myself am I a socialite or am I a fucking artist?”

16 replies
  1. Marc
    Marc says:

    Inspired article Penelope Trunk.

    If you are a reader, with significant contemporary visual art talent, then you have an obligation to civilisation to go for it. You don’t have a choice – but then you already know that.
    I suggest finding a remote corner of this planet & get down to business.
    Most major visual art cities (Art worlds) worldwide want leadership, but have a profound reluctance to lead. That fact is lost on many aspiring creative talents, for obvious reasons.

    For those with a flair for curatorial / bureaucratic (Dissonance?) I hear that the 21st century will beckon many English language speakers to any of a multitude to new museums. A bureaucratic posting in middle China would be just as valid as NYC or even London. Heck their National auction house is even backed by the army. That would have to be a gold standard. You cannot say that about Sotheby’s or Christies.

    This article’s suggestion for hospital training is simply excellent. Doctors, even in this era may not have graduated with much knowledge for preventative health. So pass them on to a good dietician once you have finished with them. Get them on some form of exercise equipment for the duration of their art appreciation classes.


  2. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    “there’s a market for artists who are willing to play the game of mass production”

    This reluctance to play the game, understand that the game is useful, or even acknowledge that it exists is the biggest barrier I have found to employing most artists.

    How can we motivate talented people that just aren’t motivated by making money? That is my particular INTJ struggle.

    • Adrianne
      Adrianne says:

      @Melissa: Can you frame the need in terms of a more aesthetic and artistic need or vision? If you you can pitch in artist’s terms, and still get the results you need, then it can work. Maybe it’s worth spending some social time with a few artists just to figure out what their “hot buttons” are, and then see if you can use that to pitch work to them?

  3. jessica
    jessica says:

    I’ve found that a lot of artists are great at making their art. Managing the art into a big business is a different skill set (that can take away from the purpose of creating the art- the reason and love being separate from making money). It’s not that they are reluctant to make money from their art.

    So, I would suggest (good) artists find partners that would help them run their business.

  4. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    My brother is a talented artist (from sketching to painting to scuptures and large exhibits–sometimes mixing sound, sculpture and lighting/shadows– to modern furniture design). But he has ADD traits and so many creative ideas that he can’t focus too long before he is onto the next thing (I have often wondered what role taking Ritalin as a child plays in this).

    He is just a few credits shy from a degree at a well-known art school–which he didn’t attend until he was in his early 30s. He has the experience of selling some of his pieces for good money at the college’s sales, and a piece on display for a few years at a museum.

    He will likely not be successful without a couple of assistants. One would need to keep him on task. The other would need to do his marketing and scheduling. I thought about trying to do both for him because I believe so much in his talents, and I think I would be good at it (especially after learning the lingo etc….I considered taking a class in art promotion). But I already am raising a couple kids. Maybe when they are grown–if he hasn’t found a girlfriend by then who would shape her world around his art.

    To get some momentum going, I suggested he crank out some drawings and sell them on one of the artsy websites. Easy money. He thought of using a site which could sell his work on coffee mugs and throw pillows etc. But without an assistant, these actions aren’t likely to happen.

    It is hard to watch talent not being used and shared with the world…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think this all the time — that it’s hard to watch a talented artist not know how to market themselves. But then I think I bet the artists think it’s hard to watch a creative person wasting their time in the corporate world (which is, of course, the most efficient marketing plan for one’s creativity).

      I also think about how maybe there is an inverse relationship between how amazing someone is as an artist and how terrible the person is at marketing themselves. Like, maybe someone who is sort of good at both is a working artist, yes, but maybe also (in a more negative light) someone who is not especially brilliant at art or marketing.


  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    why should artists make money out of their art? They do it because they need to express themselves. Other people are inspired by it. Here lies the value. To be able to create stuff that speaks to the human kind. If somebody else makes money out of it and pay some royalties back to the artist? Great, but that’s not what art is for.

  6. Michael Trinsey
    Michael Trinsey says:

    I’ve been an art director for over thirty years and I am making the switch to fine art. Looking for a way to promote my art I came across Alyson Stanfield. She teaches you how to promote yourself. Its still very hard but she gives you path to begin! Thanks for the great article Penelope!

  7. Tauseef Alam
    Tauseef Alam says:

    I have just completed my post graduate diploma in film direction. I want to make my career in video advertising. Where can I find opportunities to do my internship. Can you suggest me some websites?

  8. Tony
    Tony says:

    I am looking for a good professional course in Arts to study further. This article really helpful to me. I really looking forward to do a good job in Arts so that I’m looking for this every single day through internet & other resources.

  9. Anne
    Anne says:

    Really amazed by the post!
    After reading the post, I am even more confident about Arts being my career choice.
    While this post is extremely descriptive in nature, if you’d like to speak to some professional in this field, do check out Edudrona.com!
    I am sure, it’ll be worth the check out.

  10. Edudrona
    Edudrona says:

    Really amazed by the post!
    After reading the post, I am even more confident about Arts being my career choice.
    While this post is extremely descriptive in nature, if you’d like to speak to some professional in this field, do check out Edudrona.com!
    I am sure, it’ll be worth the check out.

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