Recently I received an e-mail from a third year university art student . This student told me his subject majors and then proceeded to ask me for employment after he graduates this year. I am always happy to hear from other artists sharing their experiences and so forth, but this was a first for me. Clearly I am in no position to hire other artists. Perhaps Damien Hirst needs artists to manufacture his next installation, but my studio has to make do with me flying solo.
Sure I do appreciate that income is critical for so many. I do assume that the purpose of a degree is to prepare one for some sort of independence to earn an income. Naive I know. A day job does give a measure of security. It was not always this way. There was a time when you were your own boss first - especially artists.
Everything changed when the world became geared to churning out employees. That was the model from the industrial revolution and it worked wonders for two hundred years. Factories can churn out widgets by the thousand using machines and basic skilled labour to pack the widgets or sort them on the conveyor belt. Managers would make sure targets were met. Accountants would tally up debits and credits and lawyers would keep the paperwork in order. But all of this order was shaken up by globalisation and the internet. Fanatical new economies rose up and threatened the happy dream. Now pensions and job security are disappearing. We need to be our own expert and general practitioner again. Every tool necessary for self-fulfillment is available to us. Artists should know this, but have we been dreaming too? Have we been fed the idea that all you needed for success is an art degree, some paintings and a gallery will snap up your work and you will be set for life. Maybe add a bit of controversial behaviour to get attention until sales are steady.
Was this student under the impression that a job was necessary to take off with his career? It is possible perhaps to land a plush mentorship with a big name artist or maybe an assistant in a metropolitan gallery, but highly unlikely. What did this suggest about the art degree and our education system? Was this student not taught the fundamentals of marketing and business so that he could stand up for himself in the big world out there? What about the talent within that young artist - genius even - that needed to be unleashed from the confines of academe to take the world by storm? If the youthful artists are not doing this then who will?
The old system of jobs and security is long gone. There is no security in the gallery system either. The established galleries are hanging on, the rest have closed down and self-marketing has taken care of the vast bulk of artists out there. Today a gallery may get twenty people in a day browsing through. But online an artist actively marketing his work may get three thousand visitors. Yes there are challenges using this approach, but the numbers do not lie. The system has changed forever. On the bright side we now have opportunity.
It is time that all artists forget about security in a system long dead and embrace the freedom that being an artist suggests. Stand up for yourself and make your way by doing good work and setting your own course.