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Debunking the Myth of the Starving Artist



Artists are all too used to peers interrogating them on how they plan to make a living off their art degree. They are already aware that their chosen path will be difficult, but it is important to keep in mind that such a path may not be any less difficult for any other graduate. Nothing is going to be handed out in life, whether studying to be a graphic designer or a rocket scientist. The people that go into the arts do it because it is their passion. Their career often becomes less about the money, and more about the unconventional lifestyle that artists often get to lead.

The concept of the starving artist otherwise known as the poor, hard done by, creative spirit that lives off coffee, ramen noodles, and “experience” in order to live a life off the beaten path is simply a myth, or at least it doesn’t have to be truth. It is ultimately a perpetuated romantic idea that has mainly served storytellers, curators, and critics more than it does artists or anyone working creatively.

Despite the overwhelming doubt facing artistic professionals, Canadian citizens have consistently demonstrated their interest and intrinsic need for arts and culture. According to Stats Canada, in 2016, 99.5 per cent of all Canadians 15 or older participated in some type of arts or culture activity. Those statistics also determined that 86 per cent of Canadians attended an art gallery, arts performance, artistic or cultural festival, or visited the movies in 2016. When we remove movie theatre attendance, that statistic only drops to 73 per cent. Canadians are also well-versed in arts practices. In Canadians 15 and older, 18 per cent participate in crafts, 15 per cent participate in music, 13 per cent in visual arts, 11 per cent in writing, 9 per cent in dance, 1.4 per cent in theatre, and another 5 per cent in various other creative arts activities.

The list of current staff in the UFV visual arts department are qualified professionals who are able to provide fountains of information to their students. They can speak on behalf of the strong need for culture demonstrated not only in Canadian society, but also closer to home. Paula Funk, Shelley Stefan, and Aimee Brown all have very different personal relationships with their Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degrees and the real-world application of fine arts education. All three of these individuals have their own very different experiences within the fine arts realm, and are able to provide a wealth of insight into the concept of the starving artist.

Paula Funk has been employed at UFV since 2005 in some capacity as an advisor. Currently her role is coordinator of completion advising, which is partially an administrative role where she is able to oversee advising services to students in programs with over 30 credits completed. She also advises directly with students in fine arts, design, and media programs.

Funk suggested that the concept of the starving artist is becoming rather outdated. It stems from a time when people chose a career and were expected to live the rest of their life in that profession. The generations currently emerging into the art world are much more comfortable creating new jobs, careers, or even new professional landscapes than in previous decades. Contract-based work or short-term work placements are replacing more stable, steady options, as they offer opportunities to build creative and professional lives that provide a level of security.

While Funk was quick to dispel misconceptions regarding starving artists, Shelley Stefan remembered a time when she too was struggling with such issues. The need for a sense of freedom is sometimes outweighed by the need to pay the bills or rent, both for a home and for a studio space.

Stefan is the department head of the UFV visual arts department, and has been an associate professor of painting and drawing here since 2006. Stefan recalled her early 20s, when she often held down three or four jobs at a time. During that time, she attempted to piece together a lifestyle where she could be free to work on her artistic practice.

“I do have some experience trimming down my work for non-art-related entities. But it didn’t last long, because I don’t think it can last long. It’s not healthy to have jobs that you hate.”

When aspiring creatives can figure out how to piece together work that resonates with their life as a practicing artist, it means their job doesn’t deteriorate their artist’s spirit. This is important to realize when entering a four-year program such as a BFA, because sometimes expectations for a career when students begin their undergraduate degree can drastically evolve by the time they complete their schooling.

When Funk started her undergraduate degree at 17, she was attending SFU and heading toward elementary education. However, when she got married and had children, her plans were derailed. Years later, she approached UFV looking to finish her degree in elementary education. During her time as an undergrad, they introduced the UFV BFA program, and she became rather interested by it.

“I didn’t really know what the career outcome would be for that. But my husband and I both decided that it was basically [meant for] me.”

Many undergraduate students entering a BFA program aspire to make artwork and exhibit in galleries. However, by the time students reach the end of their schooling, they realize that many more options for a professional career in the arts are available. When Stefan received her BFA from the University of Notre Dame, she had no initial interest in working with academia. For many years she worked in museums, community groups, and community organizations, teaching middle school and high school students, and more. When she eventually attended grad school, new perspectives inspired her, and reshuffled all the things she thought she knew about art. Ultimately, grad school helped her fall in love with academia as a concept.

Aimee Brown is here at UFV as a year-long replacement for print media instructor Davida Kidd, who is away on sabbatical. Brown will be filling a highly interactive role with VA students until the end of April 2019.

As part of her short-term position, Brown teaches the VA360 professional practices course at UFV. The VA360 course prepares aspiring artists for the real world of art and educates them on museum practices, as well as various alternative career options and how to work toward them. She expressed during her interview that she wished a similar course existed when she was a student. When she first began her undergrad, she ran with the idea that she would one day own and run a gallery. However, as she also started out in design with a business marketing minor, eventually that plan changed drastically.

“Part of it was because I really fell in love with printmaking as a way of making work. Then the other side of it was also realizing that I didn’t necessarily want to pursue art-making solely as a business venture, and I didn’t want to approach the work that I was interested in making from a profit or profit-loss margin attitude, which is fundamentally what a business is.”

By the time she graduated, she had fully realized that she wished to pursue teaching, which is one income stream that a great deal of professional artists tap into.

All three interviewees expressed that they experienced both positive and negative developments when they attempted to apply the knowledge they collected from their schooling to the active job market. Some expressed that they wished they received more education on marketing, in terms of how to connect themselves to the community they wished to become a part of. Others expressed how utterly applicable their degrees ended up being to the real world of art-making. For example, Brown presented a solo exhibition within a commercial space just four months after graduating.

Stefan stressed the importance of applying to as many art-related jobs as possible, and advised that getting turned down shouldn’t tell someone that they are not exceptional at what they do. Often, getting rejected from a position simply means that the characteristics that organization or institution is looking for might be different than the characteristics someone is providing. So, no one should take it so personally if they are not immediately hired to the position they want.

Keeping a resume active with extracurriculars or organizations that work in partnership with learning, arts, and culture is also key. These type of art-related jobs provide emerging creatives with experience that looks great to employers. Stefan spoke of her experience during her days in community organizations, where she taught a wide demographic of learners, including five-year-olds, middle school students, and even people in their 60s who just wanted to get back into making art.

Brown spoke of a job she had during her undergrad, where a retail shop gave her experience and understanding in how to develop client relationships. Jobs that may not be related to what someone may want to be doing eventually can still provide unexpected lessons or resources. They are also a potential opportunity to network and build a community. Many creatives get used to always having two jobs at any given time, especially if they consider a non-artistic position and their artistic practice as two concurrent jobs.

It is also vital to keep in mind that every career has its ups and downs. There will be identifiable high and low points in any professional practice. It is always something to remain aware of.

In 2017 Funk was awarded a show at the Kariton Art Gallery in Abbotsford. However, she was struggling with some mental health issues at the time, which led her to withdraw from the exhibition. Mental health challenges are experienced commonly among struggling creative professionals. After battling with such issues for long enough, goals can drop by the wayside and inspiration can fail.

However, this past spring Funk was approached to do a commission by someone outside her circle of friends and family members, which she described as a high point in her career. She enjoyed developing a piece of artwork that encapsulated a bizarre circumstance for a family, which was able to help them through that process.

Brown expressed that she has reached a pretty stable high point in her career at the current moment. She is able to project her schedule an entire year ahead of time, including what exhibitions are happening, what her studio looks like, or if she has a teaching gig planned. She has been able to live like this for the last three years, which has provided her stability in what can sometimes be a fairly unstable market.

Brown graduated from an MFA in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. According to her, since that economic decline, tenure track positions have all but disappeared. The industry has reached a “Publish or Perish” state, in which artists must consistently show that they can continue to exhibit their work to prove they are contemporary and relevant.

“When tenured faculty are retiring right now across the country, often their positions are not opened up anymore.”

It is important to acknowledge that the arts industry is constantly evolving. We must recognize that tenured university positions in visual arts are declining. However, that information should inspire exploration into new fields, and a creative outlook into new landscapes and possible entrepreneurial opportunities.

UFV creatives looking to make a living off their creativity could benefit from some frank and honest advice from individuals who have faced professional perils of their own. One thing that students need to realize as they enter a visual arts degree of any kind is that they need to have a plan. Young professionals cannot expect by any means to exit their degree and have a plethora of career options available to them. There are many keys to success in the arts, and no single answer on how to achieve projected goals. Every artist needs to find their own path, as their career will likely never be as clear cut as other professions.

Brown suggests that emerging artists look at how they want to be showing and sharing their work.

“Start by asking yourself a set of goal-setting questions, because you may not wish to show at a gallery while other people may wish exclusively to show with galleries. Figure out what you want to do and then break those goals down into manageable pieces.”

According to Funk, many aspiring individuals ask questions like, “What job am I going to get? How am I going to make the money to live the life I want to live?” when instead they should be asking, “How am I going to be a part of my community? What am I going to give to my community, and what are they going to give back to me?” In other words, artists should present personal assets and traits to a community in a way that showcases what they are able to offer.

Sometimes the healthiest thing an artist can do to keep their creative mind activated is to surround themselves with people who are like-minded. Having a sense of community is imperative. Some of the healthiest artistic and creative pursuits happen in collaboration with other creative minds, especially since family or friends may not always be the best mode of support. Aspiring artists should visit local creative spaces and participate in communities that they envision themselves working with some day. If they can maintain the relationships they build from that, there is an unbelievable possibility for reciprocation on investment. Community engagement is a vital practice, as networking will make or break a career in the arts.

Stefan also urged that it is imperative that emerging artists who are just entering their chosen field find a job position that will support them but isn’t mentally exhausting. For example, working at a coffee shop or a small-time office job may allow someone to leave at the end of their workday with the level of mental energy they need to produce artwork.

“You want to nurture the internal relationship you have with creative practice. Make sure that you know you’ve got to get stuff done in life. So that you can pay your bills and pay your rent, but also so that you can continue to keep this relationship with your creative practice intact and strengthened.”

If someone is truly starving as an artist, then there is most likely something else going on. Whether that be mental health issues that need to be dealt with, or more education to be pursued, creative individuals who are down on their luck would do well by identifying information about their situation, and expanding their focus to find a new path that suits their needs better.

When the world asks creative people, “How can you afford to go into the arts?” they respond with, “How can we afford not to?” The world needs more artistically driven people to be their designers, musicians, writers, teachers, and visionaries. Creative people are the backbone of culture and society, and just as the statistics have demonstrated, Canadian citizens will continue to utilize their potential.

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