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Preparing for a career in the arts

Written by Nick Malyan

It can be overwhelming thinking about getting your start in an industry with as many unwritten rules as the arts seems to have.

What sort of jobs are you meant to apply for? Where do you look for opportunities? How can you find people who can help you? How do you hold your own in a conversation with them?

It can all feel so out of reach – particularly when you speak to people with vague sounding job titles who describe themselves as having “fallen into” their career – as though it was some sort of happy accident. The reality is that good luck only happens for you if you’re in the position to benefit from it. The purpose of schemes like A Writing Chance is to level the playing field and articles like this can offer an insight that helps demystify the industry as you begin your creative career.

You are your greatest asset.

The first bit of good news is that you’re never truly starting from scratch. So much of a career in the arts is about more than the jobs we have. Your life experience as an individual has brought you to this moment, whatever your educational background or working history. Get to know what motivates you and give it voice in what you do – the more authentic and you that voice is, the more that people will want to work with you.

Portfolio careers and part-time work are the norm

If you expect to find a full-time job straight away you might be disappointed. Only half of graduates in creative subjects find full-time work a year out of uni and a majority of artists have a part-time job or side hustle that helps them pay their bills.

A portfolio career often means working a day job 2, 3 or 4 days a week while you build relevant experience the rest of your week. Over time you can gradually switch that ratio but remember it’s a marathon not a sprint, so look after your wellbeing first.

Experience counts, but not always in the way you’d think

If you do have a job outside of the sector don’t assume it’s not relevant when applying for jobs and internships. That experience could well be transferable to other situations – a cafe on the high street is no different to one in a gallery and box office work can be similar to call centres.

Whatever you’re doing to support yourself there’s no shame in hard-work and pragmatism – good organisations will recruit for attitude and train for skills when entry level jobs come along.

Go to stuff!

Often it’s the big galleries, theatres and museums that are most visible when you’re thinking about a career in the arts. In fact, they just happen to be the brightest stars in a galaxy full of small and independent organisations doing amazing work. Getting out to see some exhibitions and events is the quickest way to develop your own tastes and interests.

What’s happening for free in the area that you can get to? What might you be able to try online? Arts organisations pride themselves on doing things differently, hunt out their differences when you’re writing applications and preparing for interviews.

Talk to people!

This might feel intimidating to begin with but remember, everyone’s career started somewhere. Take a friend along to a few things and try to talk to staff. Gallery assistants, people selling merch or working in a theatre bar often have time to chat. Their personal experience could be a goldmine.

And if you can’t speak to people on the ground you could always send an email to an organisation asking about ways to get involved in what they do and whether they have any relevant opportunities coming up.

Apply apply apply.

Working with an organisation can be about more than looking for a job. Are there awards schemes or open submission opportunities that give you a chance to show them your work? Do they have mentoring programmes or internships? Newsletters and social media are a great way to stay in the loop and it might only take one successful application to establish a relationship.

Volunteering

Not everyone has the time or circumstances that enable you to volunteer but it’s worth looking into. There’s an increasing range of opportunities that might work. Festivals and events are a good way of gaining intensive experience in a short period and larger organisations like the National Trust are increasingly looking at ‘micro’ volunteering, where you can help in small but specific ways that work around your availability.

Do It Yourself, together

Sometimes you just can’t find the right door to the career you want and the time is right to develop your own project. Think about low cost, low risk ways of testing your ideas and shining a spotlight on your creativity, fresh perspective and ambition. Find friends and peers who are in the same boat and share your time and skills with each other – as a creative, resourceful person you are uniquely placed to make something amazing from the things you have around you…

Nick Malyan is a project manager and producer. He is a co-founder of cultural regeneration organisation Empty Shop CIC. Nick currently works with Durham Miners Association (DMA) as the Programme Manager for the restoration and renewal of Redhills, the DMA’s historic headquarters in Durham City.

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