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Careers in Visual Arts

Creative Careers

Young people look at art
25 Apr 2018
6 min read

Deciding on your route as you start to map out your career in visual arts can be tricky to navigate. We invited a group of curators, artists and professionals from the art world to share their insights and tips.

Think inside the box

For visual artists at the beginning of their career, there aren’t always the resources to meet the imagination’s requirements.

André Anderson, a designer, educator and author of eight self-published books, hadn’t produced anything for a year, so he decided to set himself the challenge of creating a piece of work in one hour. By giving himself boundaries he came to a realisation, ‘You know you’re really creative when you can think inside the box.’

Jordan McKenzie is a performance maker and visual artist who tutors at UAL and mentors the Young Barbican Visual Arts Group. Jordan started his project Lock-Up Performance Art (LUPA) in a lock-up garage where he lives in Bethnal Green as an event for the local residents to access art that is usually confined to the museum or gallery. His advice is to begin with what’s around you, ‘One of the most important things is to make your own luck, and if you make your own luck you set the agenda.’

LUPA was an event designed to be inclusive for the residents of the estate the garage was part of, so Jordan started by hand-delivering invitations in the local area. Initially he had to borrow electricity from the shop opposite, and only five or six of his friends came to the first event, but by the end of the project events were attracting audiences of 200+ from the surrounding estates and the residents’ committee supported Jordan to hold a fête with more than 150 artists. Jordan’s advice, ‘Don’t wait for it to happen; start with what you’ve got.’

Find your people

Often, the most valuable resource a visual artist can make use of is other people, so it’s important that you find collaborators you get along with. Julie Smith, Studio Production Coordinator for Idris Khan and Annie Morris, recommends meeting artists, curators and other arts industry professionals by volunteering at arts fairs alongside attending events like Creative Careers and Young Professionals in the Arts. However, she also highlights the importance of getting to know your customer; it’s difficult to be commercially viable if you have no idea who will be interested in buying your art. By attending opening nights and private views at galleries (often the night before the official opening date), you can meet potential customers, get to know gallery owners and become familiar with the industry as a whole.

Russell Martin, who co-runs Artquest, a hub for advice, information and opportunities for visual artists, stresses the value of investing in your creative relationships. It’s hard to work with someone you don’t get along with, and it can be rare to find someone you connect with creatively and personally, ‘Once you meet someone that you can work with, keep working with them over and over again. You don’t have to start from scratch all the time.’

Get a mentor

Having a mentor can make all the difference, especially when starting out. Abi Wright, an independent curator, found herself with an accidental mentor in the early stages of her career. After she graduated she found it hard to find work, so she sought out an organisation online, the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora (AACDD) and asked to exhibit with them. While in her initial meeting with them her work was heavily critiqued, she used the experience to further interrogate her work and the meeting led to an exhibition. Abi then nurtured a relationship with the woman who set up the AACDD who opened her eyes to international opportunities and raised the options of a career as a curator or a creative director, ‘By having that figure around me, she really did mould the early stages of my career.’ Now Abi is a mentor, too, through a programme called Arts Factory at 198 Gallery in Brixton, a creative production hub for young people.

Talk it out

Zara Truss Giles is a performance artist and Studio Manager at Somerset House Studios. Zara has balanced motherhood with her creative and professional practice since the age of 18, so keeping a dialogue open about the difficulties of making performance art has been crucial to her success. ‘There are loads of obstacles out there’, she believes, ‘but the most powerful thing you can do is to keep putting your voice into that performance.’

Performance artist Alexis Blake brought Zara onto her project to overcome difficulties she was having sourcing a group of dancers from a range of backgrounds, ages and abilities for a piece to be shown at the British Museum. ‘Lots of people told me you couldn’t find a dancer that’s sixty years old, you can’t find a dancer that’s good enough at fourteen years old, you can’t find disabled dancers who can be a part of your project, and that there aren’t enough black dancers out there’. Within five days of joining the project, Zara was able to source the right dancers by talking about the difficulties that might be faced by each dancer in order to find solutions.

‘A big part of finding a career in a creative industry and the arts is being really honest about what you need’, Zara explains. ‘If you find that you’re struggling with something and there’s a gap there and something isn’t being provided, talk louder about that because you won’t be alone and the more you shout about it the more you’ll find other people are attracted to that.’

Somerset House Studios run a Creative Careers Academy which 85 of their artists in residence are regularly involved in. The London hub of Makerversity, who run education programmes and provide work spaces for young creatives, is also based there.

Value your individuality

When tackling several creative outlets at once, André doesn’t believe this should be a barrier to your work. ‘Look at the vast portfolio of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino – ask yourself, ‘What is an ‘insert your name here’? The only thing that makes you valuable is that you are able to articulate things in your own specific way.’

Faye Wei Wei, an artist and recent graduate from the Slade School of Fine Art, believes in the power of ‘mythologising’ yourself: turning yourself in to a brand as well as an artist. ‘If you know what your brand is that can be really interesting to play with, as long as you’re aware of it.’ Faye highlights the power of social media, particularly Instagram, in creating your brand – as long as you only see it as a tool for achieving that.

We don’t all know what our end goal is, but Russell Martin’s advice is to first decide what success looks like to you, so you can work back from there and decide what to do next. For example, to Russell, success is working three days a week so he has time to keep his personal creative practice thriving.

Anyone who has investment in something they care about should have one eye on what’s coming up next: Abi suggests joining Facebook groups and André suggests following Instagram pages like Run the Check to keep ahead of opportunities online. For Jordan, simply keeping at it, although sometimes hard, is vital.

‘It’s a bit of an egg and spoon race, and at the end of the day if you keep running with your egg on your spoon, eventually people turn around and say, ‘You’ve been doing that a long time!’ It shows you’ve got, not just stamina, but you’ve got a history.’

Words by Jack Beard

This session took place on Wednesday 25 April 2018


  • Don't wait for something to happen - start with what you've got. 
  • Go and meet people - artists, curators, arts professionals - volunteer at arts institutions and attend as many private views as you can to learn as much as you can about the industry and the people in it
  • Get to know your customers - it's difficult to be commercially viable if you don't know who will be buying your art
  • It can be rare to find someone you connect with creatively and personally - once you find them, keep working with them
  • Look for a mentor
  • If you're trying to find something and only find a gap, talk louder because you won't be the only one looking for it
  • Mythologise yourself - turn yourself into a brand as well as an artist
  • Embrace the power of social media, especially Instagram, to build your profile
  • Ask yourself, what does success look like to me? Work back from there.

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