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Laurel Smith, Alberta University of the Arts

Laurel Smith.jpgAdvisors play a key role in improving art students’ confidence by supporting their decision to choose careers in the arts. But the focus on careers is absolutely the wrong perspective. Instead, students should consider what I call life’s work.

My viewpoint comes from a career as a professional artist, as an art and design professor for fifteen years, and in my current job as an academic advisor, a role which I have held nine years. In my work with thousands of art students, I have noticed that despite their passion for art, many have low confidence about their career prospects. I have also seen students’ confidence soar when they begin to grasp what their life as a contemporary artist can look like.

Here are some things I have noticed students respond to as they consider their futures in the arts.

Artists are persistent. Students show up to my office looking worried when they realize opportunities to earn a living solely from a studio practice may appear somewhat bleak. According to the Strategic National Arts Project’s (2020) alumni survey, 75% of the 92,113 recent art graduates across the US continue their art practice alongside art-related and non-art-related employment. Of those surveyed, 23,028, or only one quarter of all artists, reported working in art-related occupations: 29% as self-employed artists, 26% as art educators, 23% as designers, and 9% as arts administrators. It should be noted that even those working in art-related positions are not earning their living from their studio practice. The Government of Canada (2019) confirms those in occupations fitting the definition of artists are usually self-employed.

Art students often seek my advice because they are second guessing their choice to pursue the arts. I believe it is important to help those students understand the reality rather than myths. The myth of the starving artist or the myth that artists will somehow magically earn a living by simply being artists. It is my goal to help students gain clarity about their challenges and to come up with a plan to prepare for and feel inspired about choosing a meaningful future in the arts.

Artists are valuable to society. Artists are professionals who serve contemporary society by questioning traditions, innovating existing concepts, and creating alternatives to the status quo. Ezra Pound (1961) recognized the value of artists’ societal contributions stating, a nation which rejects the perceptions of its artists declines. After a while it ceases to act and merely survives” (p. 87). I remind students that their chosen art profession is a noble and inspiring pursuit. They can proudly assert their place in society as artists.

Art is ubiquitous because artists are necessary. While the art market may have jobs for artists, it requires research and creative job hunting. I also advise students to dispel the myth of the starving artist. Many students say they contend with parents who use this myth in an attempt to dissuade them from pursuing their passion. On the other hand, I also advise students not to sell their work too cheaply or to give their services away as free labor. I think it is important to help art students challenge these outdated biases and focus instead on how they contribute to contemporary culture and to remind them that they should expect fair wages for their labor.

Art careers are professional art practices. A practice is defined as the exercise of a profession or occupation involving prolonged training and formal qualification. What an artist, doctor, lawyer, writer, or architect does is a practice. Like all professionals, artists deserve to be recognized and compensated for their expertise and products. It is also important to note that artists are tax-paying citizens who contribute to the local economy by maintaining their professional studio practice.

Artists have meaningful, interesting lives. I encourage students to consider their career through the lenses of “life’s work” and “means to live”:

  • Life’s work refers to activities that qualify as artistic practice that inspire, question, and enrich the artist’s and the consumer’s world understanding. Life’s work reflects disciplined creative investigation and devoted time to carefully craft one’s ideas. Life’s work for artists evolves tangibly in artworks that are disseminated within a cultural network.
  • Means to live refers to commercial activities that provide economic stability to support artists’ professional art practices. Art school graduates are employed in a variety of fields because they offer critical and lateral thinking; creative problem solving skills; technical abilities; and they can articulate themselves verbally, textually, and visually. Only a small percentage of artists earn a living from art-related jobs, and therefore artists employed in other occupations use their limited free time for their studio practice.

Being an artist is the pursuit of one’s passion. When students ask for career advice, my first priority is to acknowledge and build upon their passion for art. I believe that passion sparks intrinsic motivation and inspires esteem. Passion is emphasized by enthusiasm. Yves Klein (2007) said, Enthusiasm is the only means of true and direct investigation; enthusiasm leads always to the goal that is creation” (p. 7).  I would add that passion can be fragile and it is important for art students to guard theirs well.

My second priority is to encourage art students to stay focused on earning credentials that show the world what they are good at. In addition to credentials, artists must learn to promote their strengths. Upon graduation, art students have skills as researchers, critical thinkers, and technical operators, and they also have a unique portfolio of art. Their credential provides access to opportunities that are not accessible to non-artists such as residencies, grants, exhibitions, and further art education.

As lifelong learners, artists offer highly specialized creative skills, problem solving, and the ability to tolerate uncertainty. While I have found that many art students are completely oblivious to some existing opportunities, they are also eager to take up my challenge to research opportunities and learn to recognize new opportunities when they arise. Researching and applying for opportunities pertaining to their life’s work is an ongoing part of their professional practice, and the following resources can assist students as they start their exploration.

Education in the arts includes additional study in art-related fields including art, design, craft, art therapy, art education, and curatorial studies. For students who wish to continue their education beyond their undergraduate degree, the resources below may help them find the program or opportunity that best matches their goals.

  • The College Art Association publishes directories of graduate programs in art and art history, and other art related programs.
  • AICAD Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design maintain a current list of exchange programs, conferences, and other opportunities for artists.
  • Art undergraduate degree holders are also eligible to enroll in non-art post-baccalaureate and graduate degree programs.

Residencies are opportunities for artists to temporarily live and work in communities around the world.

  • transartists.org
  • resartis.org
  • residencyunlimited.org

Funding is essential for artists applying for project production and exhibition support. Artists accepted for these opportunities are often eligible for grant funding through national, state, or provincial granting agencies for artistic creative endeavors, residency travel expenditures, professional development, studio, and sustenance.

Clearing Houses include opportunity listings for artists, such as exhibition, education, and special project calls.       

  • akimbo.ca
  • artandeducation.net

In closing, I think it is important for advisors to help art students shift their preoccupation with career trend forecasts and look at the lifelong arc of their pursuit in the arts. A focus on life’s work expands students’ perspectives. It gives them agency to assert themselves in the cultural landscape. Ultimately by strategizing and defining what is meaningful life’s work, students become more hopeful and inspired about their choice to work in arts.

Laurel Smith
Academic Advisor
Alberta University of the Arts


Government of Canada. (2019, December). Job bank. https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/marketreport/outlook-occupation/8027/ca

Klein, Y. (2007). Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein (K. Ottman, Trans.). Spring Publications.

Pound, E., (1961). The ABC of reading (2nd ed.). Faber & Faber.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. (2020). SnaapShot. http://snaap.indiana.edu/snaapshot/

Cite this article using APA style as: Smith, L. (2021, September). Advising art students: It is life work, not career obsession. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here] 


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