Making a Life in the Arts: Make the Commitment, Do the Work; Expect Payment.

A life in the arts provides its inherent challenges, not the least of which is making a living within your art. Some folks go to school, graduate, then go on to graduate school, finally landing a job teaching in their field at the college level. While this might seem like an undesirable compromise to some altruists out there, the reality is these folks are lucky. They have found a way to make a decent living in their field, have the opportunity to continue pursuing their art, and are the ones who actually stand a chance of building a retirement fund in the process, all the while having access to other benefits like health care.   Some take the route of teaching in their field in elementary, middle and high schools. For those who land full time work there, it can be a reasonable living; however, in today’s public schools the arts are one of the first fields to be cut when funding crises occur. There are other ways to make your way in your field, but they are not for the uncommitted. If you can’t commit to doing everything it takes to make a living in your particular field, then you really need to face the fact that the only way you’re going to make it is with a day job.

The lady who owns the dance studio my daughter goes to studied dance through the college level, danced professionally for years, and is a certified dance teacher, licensed to teach in public schools as well as privately. She is currently in her middle years and still dances as the opportunity presents itself, but most of her professional life at this point is directly linked to her school here in Oak Park, IL. She has two studios, one in Oak Park and the other in Forest Park, which is a neighboring suburb. She has a cadre of instructors who are all excellent, and she still is very active teaching. I am amazed at the amount of work she puts into the studios, with dance concerts several times a year involving full productions on excellent stages in the area. She’s a dynamo who is also currently starting a dance company as well, featuring students and local professionals, and giving the ability to experience a full on professional production for the members. She spends enormous amounts of time teaching dance and choreography, producing the shows, choreographing dances and all the while maintains a positive attitude regardless of how stressed she might be. If you’re curious about her, her name is Diane VanDerhei, and her studio is Intuit Dance Studio in Oak Park, IL.

Diane is an example of the level of commitment necessary to be successful in the often cut-throat world of the arts. Most musicians that I know who aren’t teaching in colleges full time, either don’t make a living as a musician, relying on day jobs to pay the bills, or cobble together an income from a variety of sources, usually a combination of gigging, teaching private lessons, and working in a music store, or some combination thereof. I have a friend, Erik Truelove, in Tucson, AZ who is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with and a wonderful gentleman to boot. Erik has always been something of an entrepreneur and has worked as a contractor doing construction as well as having his own businesses over the years. Erik started a music school in Tucson called Drum and Drummer. Originally it was started to teach percussion, both group sessions and private one on one lessons. He also sells percussion instruments through his school. He has been successful, marketing his skills very well and has been expanding the school to include guitar, piano and bass lessons as well. This is in addition to working as a drummer on a fairly regular basis. He has a cadre of instructors as well as other staff who man the desk and take care of various aspects of business. This being said, the reason the place is running so well is that Erik committed to the project and didn’t go in part way. He had a plan, worked the plan and is getting solid results.

Often people go into the arts and have a somewhat flaky assumption that inspiration is something that cannot be rushed, you just have to wait for the moment and it’ll come. Most of those folks are still waiting. In order to be successful in the arts, whether it is dance, art, writing, music, or whatever, work must be done and it must be done on a regular basis. The people who are out there on the local level and making a living at it are all committed to doing the work it takes in order to reap the rewards. It’s also important to have a concrete understanding of what you need in order to make a decent living. What is a decent living must be ascertained otherwise it is simply a vague concept. Determining what you need to make also has a hand in determining what you need to do in order to hit that target. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s definitely time to look for a different stream of income.

Too many people approach a life in the arts with the romantic notion that artists are dreamers who keep their own schedules and can’t be troubled with worrying about money. And far too many adopt an attitude that they’re selling out if they start thinking about the money aspect, looking upon those who expect to make money with sneers of disdain. The fact is people need to eat. They need a safe place to sleep and they need to be able to take care of themselves. Expecting to be paid for your art is simply the difference between a professional and an amateur. And if you have any hopes at all of making a life for yourself in the arts, you really need to focus on both your art, and how you can make a living with it. That is actually one of the key factors in succeeding. The other two are total commitment and tons of hard dedicated work.

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